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Our Small Business Crisis is Very Real, and Demands City Action


5thave business

(photo: @shootingbrooklyn)


As a small business owner in New York City for 11 years, I believe it is imperative that city officials reframe the current debate over whether or not we face a small business crisis. In an August column for Gotham Gazette, Carol Kellermann used the results of a recently-published New York City Department of City Planning report on storefront vacancies as well as observations of her Upper West Side neighborhood to assert two conclusions: there is no citywide small business crisis and therefore the City Council should not enact citywide legislation to address a problem found in a small number of neighborhoods.

But the City Planning report data does show great struggle for small businesses and both the column and the report fail to capture the link among vacancies, small business closures, and the loss of neighborhood vitality and affordability.

The report pulls data from a nine-month average between 2017 and 2018 in 24 shopping corridors and uses an “industry standard healthy vacancy rate” of 5-10% as its benchmark. Putting aside the question of whether or not that is the best benchmark, the report found that 15 of 24 corridors studied - a majority - had vacancy rates above 10%. Across these 15 corridors, the average vacancy rate was 14.94%.

The question then should not be what number of high vacancy corridors constitutes a crisis but what do small business closures and high vacancies mean for neighborhoods and New Yorkers seeking work?

If for a case study we look at Williamsburg, one of the 24 retail corridors studied and with a reported vacancy rate of 16.6%, we can find two important answers: one, vacancies can mean a decline in access to useful goods and services that serve the neighborhood’s interests and means; and two, vacancies can mean a loss in high quality service and retail jobs.

To the first point, I closed my successful kitchenware shop in Williamsburg this April because my landlords demanded a 44% rent increase in order to renew for only five years (with 3% annual escalations). At the end of my 10-year lease I was already paying $18,452 per month for my 1,450 square feet. And I could afford to pay that because we had many loyal customers. We were not suffering from online retailers.

I would have paid $20,000 per month to stay, arguably a high rent, but the landlord demanded $26,500. The space has now been divided into three retail units, two of which are occupied. The largest is a ‘modern wellness’ business that offers whole body cryo and an oxygen bar. Whereas you could come to my kitchen shop and spend as little as $24 on a frying pan for daily cooking, now you can purchase a 3-minute cryo session for $75.

Across the street, private equity owned, luxury beauty brand NK Space Apothecary moved in. Sephora, Apple, Whole Foods, Citibank, Duane Reade, Equinox, Levi’s, G Star Raw, to name but a few major chains, now occupy prime retail in Williamsburg.

There is nothing wrong with any of these businesses. The problem is when too many businesses in a neighborhood are like these; when access to useful services and goods diminishes because they are replaced by too many luxury brands, too many duplicative services, and too many uninviting chains. A non-stop refrain from upset customers in our final days was that they “didn’t like their neighborhood any longer”.

Neighborhoods are ecosystems in which residents and services interact in an ongoing exchange of trades. But when trades diminish because fewer affordable and necessary goods are available, the ecosystem weakens. That fragility is exemplified by buyers turning more to online shopping (with all its attendant waste and pollution) and by residents being priced out of their neighborhoods.

To the point that vacancies can mean a loss in high-quality service and retail jobs, when I closed Whisk, seven staff lost their jobs and several are still seeking stable employment. Kellermann cites the loss of a beloved diner in her neighborhood which then sat vacant for two years. That two years represents meaningful unemployment for our neighbors, friends, and maybe family. It’s also about the quality of small business jobs. By virtue of being small, we can apply a sales associate’s talent for photography, numbers analysis, or web design to the business in ways that chains simply can’t.

Kellermann concludes that rents will come down so we don’t need citywide legislation now. Rents have softened in select areas but being down does not equal affordable. If a 1,000-square-foot space drops from $350 per square foot to $300 per square foot, it is still $25,000 per month. How many retailers or bars generate revenues to afford that? Not many. Moreover, small businesses are usually designed to provide a particular service in a particular neighborhood. They cannot simply pick up, finance a relocation to a new corridor or even side street, and recreate that market.

Citywide policy is absolutely needed to reframe this debate. Imagine how different Williamsburg would be in 2019 if we had had a zoning purview to limit chain retail; if we had been bold enough to talk about commercial rent stabilization; if we had mandated mitigation measures to protect against commercial and residential displacement?

Cities like San Francisco and London are having these conversations. New York absolutely needs to get ahead of understanding what vacancies mean for our neighborhoods.

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Natasha Amott is the owner of Whisk, in downtown Brooklyn. On Twitter @Natasha_Amott.

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Sentenced to Death by Incarceration in New York State Prison


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Eastern Correctional (photo: wikimedia commons)


The conversation around criminal justice reform is finally moving from general talk about mass incarceration to the specific reality of the multitude of people serving massive sentences. The more accurate description of these sentences – death by incarceration – is replacing antiseptic phrases like “life without parole.” These long-term sentences are, in truth, sentences to death in prison. 

Several years ago, the Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law School began working with people serving death in prison sentences on their only path to freedom: gubernatorial clemency. While we have worked with only a small fraction of the nearly 9,000 people serving life sentences in New York, it is enough to reveal the criminal legal system’s obsession with processing, convicting, and punishing.    

Virtually everyone we have worked with was convicted after a trial, the case for most people serving life sentences in New York. This raises two questions: why weren’t those cases resolved through plea negotiations like virtually all other criminal cases, and what was the justification for meting out massive sentences on people who exercised their constitutional right to trial?

In several cases, we heard from clients that the defense lawyer never mentioned any plea offer. In many others, we heard about plea offers being superficially conveyed but virtually no time spent having the difficult yet crucial discussion of the pros and cons of a plea versus a trial. We repeatedly heard about a complete lack of advice from the attorney about the wisdom of accepting or rejecting a plea offer.

It became clear from conversations with lifers that many of their assigned lawyers had been eager to take cases to trial and forgo the serious consideration of a plea, especially since most were being paid an hourly rate by the court and had a financial incentive to take a case to trial regardless of the risks to their clients.     

Almost all the people we worked with were represented by a lawyer assigned by the court. They had no say in who their lawyer was and had no realistic way of replacing that lawyer (and many tried). Over and over we heard the same thing: ‘my lawyer did not come to the jail to meet with me a single time while my charges were pending.’

We also learned that the failures of many of these attorneys did not end with the lack of client counseling. Considering the enormous sentences handed down after trial, perhaps the lawyers’ greatest deficiency was at the sentencing proceeding itself. In most cases, there was no pre-sentence memorandum supporting an argument for a lesser sentence and no mitigation advocacy of any kind.

In several cases, sentencing advocacy consisted of a few generic sentences from counsel asking the court to be lenient. In one case, there were serious pretrial issues regarding the accused’s mental capacity, but at sentencing the defense counsel said nothing about his client’s documented history of mental illness.    

It would be a grievous mistake to blame defense counsel for all the ills that define the criminal legal system. After trial, prosecutors routinely asked judges to impose the maximum sentence and judges were glad to oblige, often tacking on consecutive sentences to ensure that the person would die in prison -- and to send a loud message to anyone else who had the temerity to insist on the right to a trial.

One man was offered a plea of three to nine years, went to trial, and is currently serving 25 to life. Another was offered 25 to life pre-trial yet sentenced after trial to 125 to life. Some argue that plea offers are a discount and a necessary ingredient of the adjudication of criminal cases in an imperfect system. However, such disparate outcomes – 25 to life if you plead, 125 to life after trial – cannot be justified. 

As we spent more time with those serving life sentences, we saw the impact of a merciless and punitive system in countless ways.  

Many lifers are from rapidly gentrifying parts of New York City. Most were sentenced in the 1980s. They are black and Latinx. A majority are from places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and the Lower East Side. Their families were long ago priced out of the neighborhood as long-neglected zip codes have changed so drastically that the lifers would barely recognize where they grew up.  

In New York, there are 613 lifers who were 17 and under at the time of their charges. There are thousands more convicted when they were 18, 19 or in their early twenties. Many are now in their forties and fifties having served decades in prison for crimes committed in their youth when labels like “super-predator” fed into racist narratives and massive sentences.  

Yet neuroscience now informs us that brain development continues into our mid-twenties. Even the Supreme Court now recognizes that youth have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are less culpable than adults, and have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. A growing number of states have passed laws that give young offenders an opportunity to seek parole or a sentence reduction after having served a proscribed number of years in prison. There is no similar movement afoot in New York to correct those morally indefensible, and arguably illegal, sentences.

There is a rapidly growing aging population in New York prisons. These people have long since aged out of any real possibility of future criminal behavior. Many are dying. New York has a mechanism in place for compassionate release for those with terminal illness but from 2013-2017 only 72 people were granted medical release.  

Many law students came to this work inspired by Innocence Projects across the country. We have worked with several people with undeniable innocence claims that have fallen on deaf prosecutorial and judicial ears. But while the students wanted to join the battle for justice for the wrongly convicted, they soon discovered a much larger area of unjust convictions – the many lifers who, even if not factually innocent, were denied any semblance of due process.  

One man’s lawyer, unbeknownst to him, had a pending lawsuit against New York City based on an incident where a client less than a year earlier slashed him with a razor during a visit in the holding cells. As part of that lawsuit, the lawyer testified that he was seeing a psychiatrist and had trouble relating to clients.  

Another man’s lawyer, unbeknownst to him, was under investigation by the very same District Attorney’s office prosecuting him. The lawyer was indicted soon after the verdict (and ended up in state prison), and a new lawyer appeared at sentencing.

In another case, the defense claimed that a prosecution witness had been coerced into testifying falsely by the prosecutor. That prosecutor thereafter became a defense attorney and is now in federal prison for suborning perjury.

Another man is serving a life sentence based on a case where the lead detective turned out to be a serial murderer for the mob. The police file in the case is nowhere to be found. 

In each of these cases, all appeals were fought by the prosecution and denied by the court.

Since we were working with people serving life sentences, many students assumed that these were people convicted of murder; people who had taken a human life. However, many of the lifers we’ve worked with were convicted of felony murder, a rule that allows a person to be charged with murder even if the death is at the hands of someone else. Several people did not kill anyone, fire any shots, possess a weapon, or have any intention, or even expectation, that anyone would be killed. Still, because they participated in an underlying robbery, they were convicted of felony murder and given a life sentence. Several of these men were teenagers at the time they were arrested. There is a growing movement for states to reconsider the felony murder rule, but New York is missing in action.

We have worked with only a small number of the people serving life sentences in New York, and an even smaller percentage of the 47,000 people in state prison. Nevertheless, we have found ample reason to fear that the impact of long overdue criminal justice reforms, trumpeted daily and endorsed by countless politicians, may be far less than hoped until the extant incarceratory system within which those changes operate is dismantled or radically overhauled.

Meanwhile, it is time to demand clemency for the countless number of people who merit that relief, and to create second-look mechanisms that require immediate review of the massive sentences that fed mass incarceration. 

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Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law and a former Public Defender. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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How to Close Rikers with No New Jails


comm ublic hearings

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


While not surprising from a political perspective given Mayor de Blasio's support for the plan, the City Planning Commission's recent vote to approve the very costly (about $9 billion current estimate) construction of new jails for the worthy purpose of closing the deeply inhumane facilities on Rikers Island was wrong and wrong-headed.

As the City Council now considers the four-jail plan, one in each borough but Staten Island, it should recognize that the city can take the much smarter and cheaper course: sufficiently reduce the overall jail population so it can close the Rikers jails and house the remaining imprisoned New Yorkers in the already-existing borough facilities, which have the capacity to hold about 3,000 people.

Here's how and why:

About 70% of the approximately 5,000 New Yorkers confined on Rikers are pre-trial detainees, presumed innocent under our system of justice, locked up mainly because an NYPD officer has arrested them and they are too poor to afford even the low bails set on them. The major bail reforms passed in Albany earlier this year will, as of January 2020, substantially limit the kinds of cases where judges can apply bail, thereby contributing to a significant reduction in the number of people remanded to Rikers.

None of the many sentenced people confined on Rikers have been convicted of serious offenses. If they had been, they would have been sent to a state prison. Many of them serve terms of 90 days or fewer. The city could readily find alternative ways to respond to most, if not all, of their cases.

Mayor de Blasio has rejected the blue-ribbon Lippman Commission's most important recommendation, which is to decriminalize four offenses: fare evasion, sex work, marijuana possession, and gravity knife possession (Albany did enact legislation in June legalizing the latter).

De Blasio backs NYPD "broken windows" policing, which targets and arrests low-income New Yorkers of color for petty infractions, sometimes via false arrests and bogus summonses, that police virtually ignore in white areas. Ending this starkly biased law enforcement tactic and following the Lippman Commission's proposal to decriminalize offenses above would contribute appreciably to reducing the population on Rikers.

In addition to ending "broken windows" practices, the city should jettison the NYPD quota system that puts pressure on officers to make a prescribed number of arrests and stops and to issue a certain number of summonses in order to earn positive job evaluations and to qualify for promotions and sought-after posts. While NYPD brass deny the existence of quotas—they are illegal, after all— a number of whistle-blowing officers have attested publicly (and privately to PROP representatives) about their use and the consequent harmful effects on cops and the community.

The Department is known, for example, to sanction officers who do not "make their numbers" by assigning them to precincts far from their homes -- dubbed "transportation therapy" -- or by denying them time off even for family emergencies.

The city could and should establish a task force accountable to City Hall that monitors court case processing. New York City's legal culture permits our courts to move much more slowly than other municipal systems in our country. The task force can, for instance, put pressure on judges to limit the number of court appearances per case as a way to prevent the longtime incarceration of detainees -- the tragic case of Kalief Browder comes to mind -- as they await disposition of the charges against them.

As city officials talk up new “modern” jails, the famous George Santayana quote is noteworthy here: "Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I have worked on prison and related issues for nearly 50 years and cannot recall a single instance in history where promises that the new proposed facility will break the cycle of corruption and abuse that plague jails has become reality.

Opened in 1931, Attica was the most expensive prison in the world, advertised as being equipped with all available modern amenities and as being safe and humane. Similar claims were made regarding Rikers Island when the city opened jails there in the 1930s.

People now claiming that the proposed new jails, run by the same Department of Correction and personnel responsible for Rikers, will not feature the same harsh and perilous conditions of confinement as Rikers are drinking an age old Kool Aid -- some are engaged in pouring it.

Closing Rikers without spending billions of dollars on unneeded new jails —under this no new jails plan the city will have to allocate some funds to fix up, and improve conditions inside, its existing borough facilities—will not only remove from our great city's landscape the stain of operating notorious Rikers jails. It will also eliminate some of our police and criminal justice systems' abusive and discriminatory practices that inflict harm and hardship on vulnerable New Yorkers every day. Our city will be a better place for it -- more just, safe, and livable for all our people.

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Bob Gangi is Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project. On Twitter @GangiFromPROP & @PROPNYC.

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I Was Andrew Yang’s First ‘Freedom Dividend’ Recipient - When He Fired Me


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Andrew Yang (photo: @AndrewYang)


After the game show stunt that Andrew Yang pulled at the presidential primary debate last week, a lot of people have speculated that he should and will drop out of the race soon. But there is another reason why Andrew Yang doesn't belong on the national political stage, and it involves the reason that Yang fired me in 2007 and how my termination highlights the danger of his "freedom dividend" program.

Manhattan GMAT is a testing preparation company, founded in 2001, to help people get ready for the Graduate Management Admission Test, often used for business school programs, among others. I was its first employee and its primary revenue generator during the start-up years. I had been one of the first Manhattan GMAT teachers, so I knew the test really well, and in the early days, I spoke to every single student, every single customer.

I forged relationships with marketing partners. I created our advertising collaterals. I taped posters to bus stops on Broadway, and I gave out cookies to hungry young bankers at open houses. I even snuck postcards into our competitor's books at the bookstore to grow the company. As the Marketing and Student Services Director, I met all of my revenue marks. By 2005, we'd expanded to other cities and were a multi-million dollar operation.

Then, Andrew Yang became president of the company. He had taught a couple of classes over the years, so I knew him already, but he was not at all involved in the company's operations before then. He promoted me to Senior Director just after he started, and again, I hit all of my growth targets.

Imagine my surprise, then, that on the third day that I was back to work after my honeymoon in 2007, Andrew Yang fired me. Our private discussion, in his office with the door closed, began with Andrew's remarks that because I was married, I wouldn't want to continue working as hard as I had been. That as a wife, I'd be focused on my new life.

At-will employees are let go all the time. I could be fired at any time without a reason.

But Andrew did give me a reason. I didn't even realize at the time how unethical his reason was. I was singularly focused on the embarrassment I felt. How could he fire me after all that I had accomplished at the company. And the horror I felt knowing that I'd have to tell my new husband that our life was shattered (he made less than 15% what I did).

Andrew must have calculated that I would work less, travel less, put in fewer hours as a married woman, yet still earn my six-figure bonuses. He had seen how seamlessly my staff had performed while I was on my honeymoon. He probably thought that they would do the work cheaper. With my compensation package off the books, several college grads could be brought in to spread the work around. And just like that, my wedding and honeymoon had rendered me obsolete from the company that I had helped to build.

Since the termination was couched for me, as a "freedom to move on" narrative, the deal Andrew Yang offered me was commensurate with what he believed I deserved, a monthly payment for no longer working. For two years. I agreed in the end (part of a much longer story) to go away, to take the monthly payoff, which paved the way for the company to develop more sophisticated money-making initiatives at cheaper costs.

Sounds a lot like Yang’s "freedom dividend" platform doesn't it? Yang is basically telling the American public that the government will pay them off each month. Rather than governing our way into a sustainable economy, Yang's plan absolves the government from overseeing companies that could render countless workers obsolete. With a monthly payment, the under-educated, aging, perhaps newly married - the obsolete employees - recede into the background as trillion-dollar companies continue to grow unfettered and ungoverned as they have for decades.

Candidates for elected office must be scrutinized more. Past behavior is a predictor of future behavior. And behavior is a reflection of values. The values that it takes to shatter a successful woman's livelihood days after she marries is a deal-breaker for a presidential candidate. At least it should be for women. We have been suppressed, discriminated against, harassed, and abused for far too long, and often behind closed doors, where we are left to carry the burden of shame for actions carried out against us.

Even more importantly, Americans shouldn't take the carrot of a monthly payout without understanding what the deal really means. The “freedom dividend” means that workers are no longer believed to be valuable, that they can't learn new skills, develop new industries and adapt to an ever-evolving existence in our great country. What a depressing approach to the future!

The Democratic Party has a wide array of highly-qualified, committed public servants from which to choose. Andrew Yang is not one of them. 

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Kimberly Watkins is a running and fitness coach in Manhattan and serves as the President of the Community Education Council, in New York City Public School District 3 on the Upper West Side and Southern Harlem. On Twitter @kimwatkinsnyc.

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The MTA Needs a Real Capital Plan, Not Unrealistic Promises


gov mta transit

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


On Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) released an 11-page slideshow “overview” partially summarizing the details of its nearly $55 billion 2020-2024 capital plan. The unveiling seemed like Christmas morning - according to MTA CEO/Chair Pat Foye, the plan will sell itself. Everyone will get the pony that they asked for. NYCT President Andy Byford was “ecstatically happy” and elected officials and advocates were told they’d get their top priorities, ranging from costly expansion projects to new subway and commuter rail cars, buses, signals, and elevators. 

Who wouldn’t want a huge infusion of funds into a century old, workworn transit system? We too want to believe! Unfortunately, the numbers just do not add up.

We question both the availability of the funding coming in and the ability of the MTA to spend this massive outlay. Historically, transit advocacy has centered on finding funds, but last year we started looking at actual expenses -- not “commitments” or authorizations to spend, as the MTA does. We found that the real constraint on MTA capital plans has become the ability to spend, not finding funding. (A related problem is keeping costs down so that what can be spent is done so efficiently.)

This plan is really Governor Cuomo’s. He controls the MTA, as described in great detail in our OpenMTA report. There are a few reasons we think his $55 billion “five-year” plan is not tethered to reality. While the Governor’s plan shows that he wants the MTA to spend  70% more on its 2020-2024, the MTA’s capacity to spend that much will not grow nearly as quickly.

In 2018, the MTA spent a record $6.6 billion on capital projects. However, only $4 billion of that was for current projects -- the other $2.6 billion was to complete projects from previous plans.

For about two decades the MTA has gotten further and further behind spending its capital funding. As a result, there is a growing hangover of past-year projects that must be completed every year. We estimate there will be at least $20 billion worth of 2015-2019 projects for the MTA to finish during the 2020-2024 plan.

Let’s assume the MTA can keep capital spending at the record pace of $6.6 billion a year. If it finishes the 2015-2019 plan in five more years, spending an average of $4 billion of the $20 billion per year, it leaves only $2.6 billion a year for 2020-2024 projects. And wait, the MTA still hasn’t finished the 2005-2009 or 2010-2014 plans. Clearly, something is off here. 

We believe that projects that will not be built for at least a decade are more aspirational than real. By promising everything to everyone, the Governor is actually making it impossible to know which projects are real and which are not.

Given what was released this week is still technically a draft (and we’ve still only seen an outline, not a full plan) that must be approved by the MTA Board and Capital Program Review Board (CPRB), there is still time for the MTA to release a real implementation plan showing how it intends to finish this new plan along with all its current projects.

How Much Can the MTA Really Spend On a Five-Year Plan During the Plan?
Bluntly, we think it will be difficult for the MTA to spend even half of the $55 billion proposed for the 2020-2024 plan during that five-year period. MTA capital plans often taking more than 10 years to be completed. While this is not a new challenge, a capital program of nearly $55 billion is unprecedented and presents a good opportunity to figure out how to fix this ongoing structural MTA problem.

The MTA’s ability to spend capital dollars during plan years has decreased, not increased. In 2018, the MTA spent $6.6 billion on capital projects, but only $4 billion was for 2015-2019 projects. The MTA’s best-ever year for spending on projects from the current capital plan was in 2009, when it spent nearly $4.5 billion (see chart below). 

reinvent albany ex

With the 2015-2019 plan’s late start in 2016, there is a lot of work still left to do on that plan. The 2015-2019 plan has $33 billion worth of projects, but the MTA has only received $12 billion in funds as of June 31 of this year, and as of the end of 2018, only $20 billion worth of projects were committed. (A commitment is not the same as actually spending the money, it is the intent to use employees to complete a project or execution of a contract). 

Can the MTA effectively manage more than $6.6 billion a year total in capital spending?

Given the MTA’s limited spending capacity, questions about the credibility of delivering a nearly $55 billion capital plan are warranted. With the recently-approved MTA reorganization, consolidating capital construction staff to headquarters will mean that the MTA will have to do even more with even less. Whether centralization will indeed lead to meaningful efficiencies will take time to determine.

Even if we give the MTA the benefit of the doubt and it does as well as it has in the past, getting $4.5 billion out the door every year, it will take 12 years to finish the 2020-2024 plan. This is all while it has a lot more to do on the current, 2015-2019 plan.

Given the limited ability to manage projects, what will the MTA prioritize?

The slideshow proposes what would be the largest investment in signals for MTA New York City Transit ever, at $7.1 billion. This comes with other large investments for elevators and subway cars, all while large expansion projects are continuing, such as East Side Access and LIRR Third Track.

With limited spending and staff capacity, the MTA will have to choose which projects come first and which come last. Janno Lieber, the MTA’s head of capital construction, has said that signals will come in the five-year window, but as of now, the MTA has not released an implementation plan or detailed project list with schedules of when it will commit to projects, as it has shown in prior plans.

Revenue Dependent on New Federal, State and City Fundings
The nearly $55 billion plan outline makes a number of big assumptions about funding that has not yet been secured. New funding is supposed to come from the federal government ($10.7 billion), the state government ($3 billion), and city government ($3 billion), totalling nearly $17 billion. These numbers are not real until the cash actually arrives from all parties involved.

Is it realistic to expect $10 billion in federal aid?

Under a Democratic president, the federal government contributed $7 billion to the last capital plan. This plan assumes even more federal dollars will come in, including a large contribution for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2: $2.9 billion alone. The feds provided $1.3 billion for Phase 1, so this would double that contribution to this project. While the President indicated support for the project via Twitter, a tweet is not a funding commitment of $2.9 billion.

Is it realistic to expect the state to provide $3 billion in direct aid?

While Governor Cuomo has said the state will provide $3 billion to the new plan, this is subject to legislative approval. The proposal of the Mayor’s match of $3 billion is also under review. Meanwhile, the state still owes $7.3 billion to the MTA for the 2015-2019 plan: it had pledged $8.3 billion in 2016 and only $1 billion has come in so far. 

State Comptroller  Tom DiNapoli, in his recent report on the MTA’s finances, noted that the remaining $7.3 billion will not start to come in until next fiscal year (beginning April 2020). The state also may not provide this as direct aid. It could authorize the MTA to issue its own bonds based on existing or new revenue, meaning that the impact on the MTA and taxpayers is still unknown.

Debt Service and the Operating Budget Crisis
Beyond the MTA’s huge capital needs, it already doesn’t have enough money to pay for the costs of running the system everyday. This is due in large part to debt service payments on previous capital plans. Debt service payments eat up 17% of the MTA’s operating budget now, and the MTA faces even larger out-year deficits. 

Even without new borrowing, the MTA forecasts that its debt will increase 31% by 2023 and will cost more than $3.5 billion a year. A hiring freeze and cuts to staff such as subway car cleaners have meant that MTA workforce morale is low, while customers are increasingly unhappy with the quality of service. And “service guideline” cuts are on the horizon for this fall. 

Will riders endure even more cuts as a result of this plan?

The operating deficit is already significant, and the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan outline assumes the MTA will pay for part of the plan with $10 billion in new debt. How much this debt will increase the MTA’s debt service payments, and therefore its operating deficit has not yet been explained to the public. This information is needed to understand exactly what impact the capital plan will have on the MTA’s ability to actually deliver service for its riders, its primary objective.

Real Transparency is Honesty
Reinvent Albany and our colleagues last week announced the Build Trust campaign, asking the MTA to release an implementation plan to show exactly how it will deliver on its promises, and provided a blueprint for better transparency and cost control.  To us, transparency is not merely about putting more data online, but presenting real, honest information to the public.

To comply with state law, the MTA will have to hold a vote on the complete draft capital plan at its September 25 board meeting. As soon as the MTA Board receives the actual capital plan, it is required to be put it online where the public can see it. Yet with less than a week remaining before a Board vote on the $55 billion spending plan, the MTA has not released two important things: (1) the “20 Years Needs Assessment” with a detailed analysis of how much money is needed to repair the system and (2) the full, detailed list of capital projects in the proposed capital plan, with a detailed implementation plan.  

When will the MTA release its 20-year needs assessment and federal TAM plan?

In theory, the MTA is supposed to follow a logical process to determine how much it needs to spend restoring the transit system.

First, the MTA is supposed to compile an inventory of its equipment and infrastructure, including the condition of its assets, and then it is supposed to compile its needs assessment of how much it will cost to repair the system so it can provide good service.

The inventory of its equipment is part of a new federal requirement called the Transit Asset Management or “TAM” plan. The needs assessment has taken the form of a 20-year needs assessment, last released in October 2013 for the last plan. Neither of these documents is publicly available for the next plan.

Without a 20-year needs assessment, or the underlying data about its assets, the public cannot know how much the MTA should be spending to replace very old, but crucial, subway and rail components, like decades old mechanical switches, electrical systems, pumps and fans. (See Reinvent Albany’s report on the MTA capital plan process.)

Decisions on capital spending don’t have to be political - they should be based on real data that takes the subjectivity out of the process. 

When will the MTA release its full capital plan, with an implementation plan?

The MTA’s 11-page slideshow does not differentiate between “core” repairs versus expansion projects, lumps together costs over multiple plans, omits large capital projects, and provides no implementation schedules. This is troublesome and again raises questions about the MTA’s commitment to public transparency. 

Project lists from prior capital plans have tallied more than 60 pages, itemized and coded by type of project. This allows the public to see exactly how the plan breaks out, such as how many fixes to broken equipment there are versus spending that may be more cosmetic, like the last plan’s Enhanced Station Initiative.

Expansion projects are usually expensive, representing an opportunity cost for fixes that don’t involve ribbon cuttings but are crucial like new power stations needed to run additional trains.

These lists have also included project commitment schedules, showing when the MTA intends to commit to projects (again, not spend) during the five-year window. This is the basis for developing a real implementation plan, and should be expanded upon by the MTA as recommended by the Build Trust campaign.

Before the new MTA capital plan is final, the public and stakeholders like the State Legislature -- which should hold hearings this fall before the plan is approved by the CPRB -- need a lot more detail than 11 pages to fully buy in. It is the public’s money after all, and members of the public deserve to be treated like investors who have been given a real, honest plan before staking their own money on the MTA’s future.

***
Rachael Fauss and John Kaehny are, respectively, senior research analyst and executive director of Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

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An Unsigned Piece of New York’s Decarceration Puzzle


dannemora cuomo

(photo: the governor's office)


Where is Assembly Bill 6980? It updates New York’s Charitable Bail Fund Act to allow approved organizations to bond more people out of jail. The bill passed the Assembly on June 17 and the Senate on June 19, but it hasn’t been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo, or requested by the governor for his signature, and it’s not clear why.

Bail reform activists finally had their day this year when the New York Legislature passed a comprehensive law that more than overhauled -- it essentially overturned -- the state’s money bail system. It didn’t eliminate the way people pay cash for freedom when they’re legally innocent, but it came close. Of the almost 205,000 criminal cases arraigned in New York City in 2018, only 10 percent of defendants would have needed money for bail if the new law had been in effect.

The new law wasn’t enough for some, though. Carl Heastie, the speaker of the Assembly, admitted that the bail reform law “didn’t go as far as we had liked.”

And that’s exactly why Assembly Bill 6980’s stall-out is both puzzling and problematic. A full and fair reform of the state’s money bail system can’t be realized without it being codified, which members of the Legislature recognized by passing it in June.

Even with the new bail reform law in effect, approximately 20,000 people in New York City alone stand to have their lives uprooted if they’re picked up by police, arrested and subjected to monetary release requirements. Thousands more outside the city face the same risk.

If a judge decides to set a monetary bail amount over $2,000 for a defendant charged with a felony, that person lands in the same situation as before: if he can’t afford to bond out, his freedom will be snatched from him when he’s still presumed innocent and while he can best help his attorneys with a defense. Currently, no bail bond fund can touch him; the law caps the allowable amount at $2,000 and limits assistance to those charged only with misdemeanors.

Assembly Bill 6890 will help fix that. It raises the amount that a charitable bail fund can post to $10,000 and imposes no restrictions on the nature of the charges of the beneficiary of the bail fund, the person who gets bonded out.

Charitable bail funds aren’t new. The first in New York, Bronx Freedom Fund, started in 2008. But it was far from welcomed; a judge sought to shut it down, saying it was illegal. But because it addressed a real need in a state that couldn’t solve the problem of a pretrial detention system that disproportionately pens poor people of color, New York State licensed charitable bail funds in 2012 through the Charitable Bail Fund Act, the law that currently constrains their ability to more fully do what they’re designed to do.

New York City started its own bail fund in 2017 -- the Liberty Fund -- precisely because the city doesn’t control state law, and uprooting the monetized scheme that we call pretrial release wasn’t something the city could accomplish on its own. Charitable bail funds are safety valves when the law doesn’t provide sufficient justice.

It would seem like New York bail funds will have limited utility after the bail reform package goes into effect on January 1, 2020. After all, if money isn’t an issue for 90% of the arrested population, then what can these organizations do?

The short answer is: a lot. In New York City alone, only 43 percent of the almost 5,000 pretrial detainees on April 1, 2019 would have been released under the new legislation. That means that 57% of detainees may remain in custody, even under this revolutionary reform. A study from the Center for Court Innovation found that almost half of all defendants were incapable of paying their bonds immediately after arraignment.

And the likelihood that they will plead guilty, even to crimes they didn’t commit, is about four times higher than if they were kept from confinement while they’re prosecuted. Pretrial release increases the chance that a defendant will be found guilty by about 14.8%. The fact that people enter guilty pleas simply to get out of custody accounts for much of that increase.

While a good number of these people will benefit from and be freed by the new reform law, failing to send this revision of the Charitable Bail Fund Act on to the governor for the final step suggests that lawmakers might have a tad too much confidence in their accomplishments.

Several states have proven that things don’t go exactly as planned when they try to jettison money bail. In California, the bail reform statute never reached fruition even though it was signed by the governor; opposition to SB 10 prevented its implementation.

Even when legislative efforts succeed and laws go into effect, the results can fail. In Illinois, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans implemented new rules designed to stop judges from setting unaffordable bond amounts. Initially, it looked like the new rules were working, until judges started setting bonds in untenable numbers to keep people they deemed dangerous incarcerated during the pendency of their cases. The dollar of money baiI set in 30% of cases in Cook County was unaffordable. In Maryland, the system overhaul backfired and ended up causing more people to be remanded to custody than before.

New York legislators had the advantage of knowing about these miscarriages as they drafted their bail reform bill, so they sidestepped many potential pitfalls. They had on their side the fact that New York is the only state to prohibit judges from considering a defendant’s alleged dangerousness in deciding pretrial release conditions. And, luckily, judges in New York City had unofficially decided to lean more towards releasing the people appearing before them prior to the bill’s passage.

But they can’t ignore the opposition to the new bail law that exists and the unfortunate reality that judges will do what they please. If reform does go haywire in New York, poor defendants need a back-up plan. A necessary part of that plan is charitable bail funds being able to fulfill their mission.

The New York Assembly should send 6980 over to Governor Cuomo post-haste. 

***
Chandra Bozelko writes The Outlaw column for GateHouse Media and was a 2018 Pretrial Justice Innovator with the Pretrial Justice Institute.

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Hosting the United Nations Brings Real Value to New Yorkers


mayor bdb un

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


For many New Yorkers, the annual wave of United Nations events, set to start again this week, can be a nightmare: jam-packed subways, bottlenecks on the FDR Drive, and crowded sidewalks that slow our steady gait to a maddening crawl.

What most New Yorkers may not realize, however, is that hosting the UN boosts our economy, draws desirable traffic to local businesses, and elevates city diplomacy on the world stage — and that’s a boon for all of us.

Since 1946, New York City has been the proud, permanent home to the UN and its promise to make the world a better, more peaceful place. We play host to 193 Permanent Missions, over 70 trade missions and 116 consulates – the largest diplomatic community in the world.

With one in three New Yorkers being foreign born and over 200 languages spoken throughout the five boroughs, our city naturally has a special connection to the UN’s member states. Thanks to this enduring bond, New Yorkers actually have a voice on global issues such as human rights, migration, and climate change. We are stalwarts of the UN’s mission to protect and serve a thriving, fair, and just world nation.

The fact is, with record low unemployment, our city has never been more prosperous and the UN community has been part of that success. The UN Headquarters has contributed $3.69 billion to our city’s economy and created thousands of jobs for New Yorkers, according to a 2016 report by the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

The United Nations is much more than the sum of its economic impact, of course. New York City is living out the mission to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Global Goals) by 2030. First launched in 2015, these global targets for fighting poverty, promoting health, and protecting the environment are crucial to all of our futures. The Mayor’s Office for International Affairs has been using the Global Goals framework to showcase our city’s innovations in sustainability with cities and countries around the world.

The global community looks to the U.S. for sound public policy and New York City is leading the way. We’ve learned a lot from other nations as well; innovations in climate, gender equity, and education aren’t limited by borders.

Our children are also benefiting from our international ties. With the support of other city agencies, and in partnership with the United Nations, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs runs the award-winning Junior Ambassadors program. Over the last four years, thousands of young New Yorkers from across our city have gotten a firsthand look at global politics and learned how they can live out the Global Goals in their own communities. 

So congestion and street closures aside, it’s important to stay focused on what truly matters: that when it comes to the local economy and our standing with communities across the globe, the United Nations is good for all of New York City.

***
Penny Abeywardena is New York City Commissioner for International Affairs. On Twitter @PAbeywardena & @GlobalNYC.

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Community WiFi is Already Here, Now It's Time to Expand It


mayor office central

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office )


While politicians and industry focus on 5G wireless, the democratization of more common wireless technology has quietly made community-run wifi networks faster, better and cheaper than cable.

Look for wifi anywhere in New York City and you’ll likely find dozens of locked networks, each of which represents (more or less) someone giving a giant consumer internet company like Verizon, Spectrum, or Optimum around a thousand dollars a year. For years, technologists have dreamed of replacing these individual networks with community-run “mesh networks” that would allow people to share fast, secure connections while paying a fraction of the cost of conventional internet service providers.

This dream has, unfortunately, not turned into a reality for the vast majority of New Yorkers, and there are reasons for that.

The cable companies don’t want us to share our online connections because they’d lose a LOT of money -- billions and billions of dollars -- so their consumer internet contracts make sharing illegal. The manufacturers of consumer wifi routers don’t want us to share either, so they don’t make it easy to link routers together in a convenient way for multi-unit wifi sharing. And so, if you think like an internet consumer, efficient wifi sharing just isn’t practical. But if you think like an internet producer, the view begins to change.

Believe it or not, the internet is not a private club that only Optimum, Verizon, and the other consumer internet service providers (ISPs) allow us to access. It’s more like a water system. Consumer ISPs set up plumbing to get wifi (water) from the internet’s “backbone” (think water main) to your house, usually using the same coaxial cable that they laid down to offer cable TV decades ago, and now newer fiber connections.

But others can also build that plumbing.

NYC Mesh is a community-owned and managed internet network committed to creating a more equitable internet by connecting all New Yorkers to high-speed, affordable broadband. To achieve this, NYC Mesh volunteers have collectively built the plumbing needed to take the internet from the “backbone” to the surface, and are now using newly inexpensive wireless radios to move it from rooftop to rooftop, window sill to window sill, to create fast and free community-run wireless networks.

A few years ago NYC Mesh was relatively slow, but thanks to the massive improvements in inexpensive radio technologies, they can now offer speeds comparable to traditional commercial offerings.

So what does that mean? Instead of paying $80/month ($960/year) or more to your cable company, you could connect to NYC Mesh with a $100 radio antenna and get free internet. They request donations of $20/month ($340/year) to keep the shared network running and to help connect the nearly 30% of New Yorkers currently without an internet connection at home. With that donation, subscribers still be saving over $500/year while helping to grow the physical and social infrastructure of a new way to connect online.

There is, of course, a catch -- at least for now. You can only access NYC Mesh if you can point a radio at one of their radios, and their radios currently cover only a small fraction of the city: mostly the east side of lower Manhattan, Chinatown, Williamsburg, Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Brownsville, Sunset Park, South Slope, Park Slope, Red Hook, Ridewood, and parts of Crown Heights. And even if you live in those neighborhoods, unless you can get a radio on your roof, you might not be able to connect. But the network is constantly growing as new wireless hubs come online every week, so it's likely that it’ll be easy to connect to it in the next few years if you can’t now.

What the network needs most to grow is rooftops where 5-10 foot poles and $240 radios can be placed. If more rooftops were made available, the entire city could be blanketed from the streets to the rooftop in self-organized, self-funded NYC Mesh.

nyc mesh article map 2

NYC Mesh doesn’t need government money to grow, but it could definitely use government roof tops. New York City’s government has a lot of them. If the city would make rooftop space on its nearly 4,000 public schools and libraries accessible to NYC Mesh, and/or NYCHA would allow rooftop access with agreements to connect residents, then the network could quickly grow citywide.

If New York City had a robust, community-funded, voluntarily-organized network, it would give the city and its residents a significantly stronger negotiating position when dealing with the cable companies, resulting in significant cost savings for everyone. 

Grassroots movements like NYC Mesh aren’t waiting for “the city” to act. They’re already working with individual agencies, community organizations, elected officials, and anyone else with an interest in deploying fast and free wifi to where it’s needed most. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in collaboration with BetaNYC and (my nonprofit) Sarapis, has a demonstration of NYC Mesh technology at her office at the David Dinkins Municipal Building. Her office’s system, which I and other volunteers helped set up, is achieving gigabit speeds and beaming wifi down to City Hall Park and toward City Council and agency staff at 120 Broadway who often complain about their sluggish internet connections.

So, New Yorkers! Consider this your invitation to fast, free wifi. RSVP here.

***
Devin Balkind is a nonprofit executive, civic technologist, and startup advisor running for Public Advocate as the Libertarian Party nominee. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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The Mayor's Missing Pen


mayor bdb pieces

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Many New Yorkers are expressing frustration at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lack of attention to his job as he travels around the country campaigning for president. But his laid-back attitude toward the mayoralty manifested itself long before he announced his presidential candidacy.

One particularly illustrative and significant aspect of the job that he has neglected is his role in the legislative process. 

First, a quick refresher on how, pursuant to the City Charter, a bill becomes a law in New York City: 

-If passed by a majority of the City Council, it is sent to the mayor, who signs the bill into law.

-If the mayor takes no action within 30 days of receipt, the bill automatically becomes law without a mayoral signature (“lapses” into law).

-If during the requisite period the mayor vetoes a bill, the veto can be overridden by a vote of two-thirds of the Council and it then becomes law without further action by the mayor. (City Charter Section 37)

The potential of a mayoral veto, even if it can be overridden, creates a healthy tension that serves as a check on overreach by the Council.  By the same token, the potential of a veto override by the Council restrains the mayor from excessive use of the veto pen to block legislation that has widespread support. Thus, the process established in the City Charter creates a checks-and-balances relationship between the executive and legislative branches and requires a level of engagement by both branches in the adoption of new laws. 

But in his more than five-and-a-half years as mayor, de Blasio has not vetoed a single bill of the more than 1,000 adopted by the City Council during his time in office. He has not even publicly threatened to veto a bill as an expression of his dissatisfaction with any single one of the barrage of bills that have been introduced (and enacted) during that time.

In contrast, during his three terms in office, Michael Bloomberg vetoed and was overridden on 70 bills out of the total of 987 passed by the Council. 

When asked about not vetoing any bills the mayor’s response has been that his team negotiates and helps craft virtually all the adopted bills. There are some high-profile examples, especially related to the NYPD, e.g. the Criminal Justice Reform Act. He would probably also argue that the administration has been able to deter certain legislation, such as the bill to criminalize police chokeholds and the Small Business Jobs Act, though it's not clear if it's the administration or the Council speaker’s office that has been most responsible for sidetracking certain bills. But even in the Bloomberg years, when the mayor and Council speaker were clearly working hand in glove, there were still some vetoes.

Moreover, if de Blasio has played a key role in shaping so much legislation, it is difficult to explain why he has allowed the vast majority of bills passed during his terms to become law without his signature by letting the 30-day time period expire with no action on his part. Wouldn’t he want to associate himself with and take credit for all of the bills he helped shape by signing them into law?

The number of unsigned laws that have lapsed into law has grown from 5 out of 62 adopted in 2014 to a whopping 177 out of 223 passed in 2018.

Of the 156 bills passed by the Council so far in 2019 (as of August 23) the mayor signed only four! By comparison, Bloomberg signed all but 40 of the bills passed during his three terms. 

Meanwhile, it is important to ask: haven’t there been cases in which city commissioners hired by the mayor have been opposed to Council bills (whether or not they’ve been allowed to state their dissatisfaction publicly) that they feel are unduly intrusive, costly or burdensome?

For example, surely some of the 845 reports required of city government entities, many through Council legislation, are regarded as inappropriate or unnecessary by agency heads, yet there has been no pushback by the mayor against these requirements when new ones have been added during his tenure.

Not only is this laissez-faire approach bad for morale among agency leaders, but it encourages Council members to introduce legislation on anything and everything because, well, why not? From 2014-2017, during 40 months of legislative session, 1,540 bills were introduced in the City Council; it has taken only 16 months since the 2018 session began to hit the same number of new bills. This volume of legislation is unprecedented.

Is it the case that there is a much more pressing need for City Council legislation now than there has ever been before? Or has the hands-off approach to the legislative process by this mayor led to an aggressive and “anything goes” spirit among Council members?

Let us hope that after the mayor drops out of the presidential race he will give more time and attention to exerting a restraining influence on the proliferation of proposed bills and local laws.

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

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New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill


gov andcuomo doc

(photo: the governor's office)


At the end of August, NBC New York ran a story about a young woman who was raped after going out to a Manhattan bar. Despite the fact that she came forward, wanting justice to be done, the Manhattan District Attorney refused to prosecute the case.

When a reporter questioned his decision not to pursue charges, DA Cyrus Vance’s staff shared a letter he wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo insisting that he cannot bring forth rape charges in cases in which victims were voluntarily intoxicated. In other words, if you go out in Manhattan, get drunk, and end up being raped, there is nothing the Manhattan DA can do for you.

It’s a disingenuous claim.

The idea that “prosecutors cannot bring sex crime charges in cases where the victim becomes voluntarily intoxicated and was unable to consent” is simply untrue. We know it’s untrue because the Manhattan DA himself brought charges in a similar case: People v. Johnson.

In that case the Manhattan DA secured a Rape 1 indictment where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated. The Appellate Court ultimately vacated the conviction, but only because DA Vance’s office botched the plea deal. 

This is not the first time DA Vance has declined to press charges in a sexual assault investigation, and he’s not the only one with a follow-through problem. Time and time again, law enforcement fails survivors of sexual assault. It’s not a problem unique to DA Vance or New York City but a nationwide “epidemic of disbelief” as Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty put it.

Survivors of rape are regularly met with skepticism. Though it’s the police who investigate and DAs who secure convictions, the state Legislature cannot be absolved of responsibility.

Currently, under New York state law, only forced vaginal penetration is considered rape while forced oral and anal contact are labeled criminal sexual acts. Not only is this definition restrictive, it is archaic. There are consequences to this omission: refusing to call rape by its name reduces the perceived severity of the crime.

The Rape is Rape bill (A00794C) would amend the penal code to redefine rape to include forced anal and oral contact, and eliminate the penetration element that is legally necessary to establish that a vaginal rape has occurred.

At first glance, the bill appears an easy sell. Who would disagree that forced anal or oral sex should be considered rape? Equally important is the underlying question. Who would argue that the law shouldn’t recognize that a man has been raped? Well, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, for one. The lobbying arm of the state’s DA association has proved a major hindrance to any sort of progressive reform and in 2013, then-DAASNY President Cy Vance wrote to the Assembly opposing the bill on bogus claims that it would reduce penalties for sex crimes. 

A similar reluctance to evolve has pervaded the NYPD’s approach. Up until this year, the NYPD was undercounting rape in New York City by as much as 38%, excluding reports of forced oral and anal contact in its official reporting system despite a state mandate to include these crimes in its statistics. Following the Newsy report, we called on the NYPD to immediately bring its system up to federal standards, and the department did.

While the NYPD works to implement a “victim-centered” approach – a result of a scathing city Department of Investigation inquiry that found the Special Victims Division was undertrained and understaffed – the Legislature must do its part and pass the Rape is Rape bill in January, when the next legislative session begins.

And our work does not end there.

We must also elect District Attorneys who will be thoughtful in their prosecutions of sex crimes and take all rape cases seriously, not just the ones they think they can win.

It is especially important that we have DAs who understand that the Penal Code should not only be used to prosecute crimes, but to inform the public of what is acceptable behavior. When we call a rape—whether it is vaginal, oral, or anal—anything but rape, we delegitimize the crime and invalidate the survivor’s experience.

Perhaps the Me Too movement is the cultural awakening this country needs to take sexual violence seriously. That being said, these cultural changes will not happen overnight and in the meantime, we implore the NYPD, New York’s District Attorneys, and the state Legislature to do better.

Everywhere we look our institutions, designated to protect, serve, and deliver justice, are failing survivors. We must take responsibility for these failures and adopt survivor-centered policies while we work to change society.

***
Dan Quart & Aravella Simotas are members of the New York State Assembly representing parts of Manhattan and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @amdanquart & @AravellaSimotas. (Quart is also a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney.)

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What New York City Must Do to Halt Fear and Misinformation Around ‘Public Charge’


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(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Trump administration’s changes to the “public charge” policy are so ambiguous and poorly communicated as to leave little doubt about whether the resulting fear rippling through immigrant communities nationwide was baked into this bigoted scheme.

Here in New York City, we refuse to follow the White House down this dark path. We are the home of Ellis Island, a town built with immigrant hands and made great by the diversity we celebrate. We will fight the imminent public charge policy changes with every tool available and combat the Trump administration’s campaign of fear and misinformation.

This effort must start with our city agencies, which currently do not provide clarity for those new Americans looking for real answers. 

New York City’s Department of Education and Human Resources Administration websites detail a multitude of programs and services available for millions of New Yorkers. Ranging from legal aid to emergency food sites, these benefits are lifelines for families in need with nowhere else to turn.

None of these resources, however, inform immigrant families of the federal government’s changes to public charge policy slated to take effect October 15. The policy change will expand the definition of a “public charge” to include immigrants who receive public benefits such as cash assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, and Section 8 vouchers. Those deemed a public charge will be barred from obtaining a Green Card or permanent residence in the United States. 

This has grave consequences for hundreds of thousands of immigrant New Yorkers. For some immigrant parents who use public benefits to provide for their U.S.-born children, they may risk losing any chance at citizenship in the future.

The weaponization of our public benefits programs will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the number of New Yorkers seeking basic necessities such as access to housing, general nutrition and financial security. It will force some to make the unfathomable choice between feeding their children and the dream of becoming an American citizen. 

Leaders like New York State Attorney General Tish James and several immigrant-focused social service organizations are already leading the legal fight to block this policy. But more must be done.

It is important to remember this rule change only applies to individuals seeking admission into the United States or applying for adjustment of status. However, the policy’s intentionally misleading language has stoked fear and confusion among a much larger swath of our immigrant population. Some immigrants who may not be affected by the policy change are nevertheless considering disenrolling from these life-sustaining programs out of confusion, fear, or both.

This is where city officials must rise to the occasion, and it is precisely why we have introduced a package of bills in the City Council requiring agencies to create and distribute comprehensive fact sheets and resource materials.

By disseminating information in multiple languages in schools, trusted spaces, and high-traffic government buildings, we can counteract the panic sweeping our city. Our legislation would ensure detailed fact sheets and information on emergency feeding programs are delivered directly to parents, students, and all those who disenroll from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or whose SNAP benefits are set to lapse.

This full-court press will guarantee that nearly every family in New York City would receive this crucial information. These materials will both reassure individuals of their lawful right to public benefits and include information on how to navigate serious issues including how to obtain an attorney and access emergency food. 

The danger of this rule change lies not only in its xenophobia, which asserts that America is open only to the wealthy, but also in the uncertainty and fear it strikes in so many of us. It is easy to be scared by the hateful rhetoric that we hear from the president and his acolytes. But if we educate ourselves and each other, we can protect our communities and fight back to ensure our most hardworking, resilient and vibrant communities receive equal treatment.

The blatant attack by the Trump administration on new Americans is in full display across the country as families are separated, detained in horrific conditions, and returned to the perils they fled to seek refuge in the United States. It is up to our local government to provide the necessary resources to all our constituents, regardless of their national origin or economic status. Though the White House may continuously shout at you to go away, this city will honor the lamp that lights the New York Harbor and say to you, welcome home.

***
Carlina Rivera and Francisco Moya respectively represent Manhattan’s District 2 and Queens’ District 21 in the New York City Council. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera & @FranciscoMoyaNY.

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