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Opinion

Where We Work, ThriveNYC is Helping Families and Getting Homeless Children to School


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Chirlane McCray (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Questions have been raised recently about the cost and achievements of the ThriveNYC mental health initiative. This is no surprise: big, high-profile, efforts like ThriveNYC have always been susceptible to such criticisms.

But ThriveNYC is just the unifying umbrella of more than 40 different pilot programs attempting to deliver innovative mental health interventions across multiple city agencies. Organizing these disparate efforts into one initiative helped get resources for many long-needed mental health services unlikely to be funded on their own.

However, bundling these relatively small, experimental programs together into one big initiative makes them all a target in the event that just two or three of the interventions turn out to be ineffective, or take too long to get off the ground.

This is unfortunate, because in our experience, ThriveNYC provides critical new funding for skilled staff positions essential to our efforts to improve the quality of services to homeless families.

For example, we have long known that homeless children struggle to attend school regularly. Just 34% of homeless children have “good” attendance (90% of school days or better), while over 73% of their housed counterparts meet this threshold. Low school attendance is one of the most damaging outcomes of family homelessness, with often-lifelong negative consequences for children who fall behind in their educational progress. 

Gateway Housing and its partners are reducing chronic absenteeism among homeless children through our Improving School Attendance for Homeless Children (ISAHC) initiative. Piloted at three city shelters operated by nonprofit providers BronxWorks, Win, and HELP USA, the ISAHC initiative uses data, training, and coordination to identify and assist families struggling to get their kids to school.

In just its first four months, the ISAHC program has already achieved measurable improvements: one-third of homeless students who were chronically absent or worse have now improved to good attendance under ISAHC, and we believe further progress is likely.

The ISAHC initiative could not have achieved these positive outcomes without staff funded by ThriveNYC.

Better coordination and a laser focus on attendance identifies kids who aren’t getting to school. But every day, we come across children with poor attendance whose families are experiencing severe mental health issues.  We refer these families to new specialists employed by DHS’ nonprofit shelter providers, called Client Care Coordinators. Over 300 Client Care Coordinator positions in nonprofit-run family shelters have been created with ThriveNYC funding.

Before ThriveNYC, we would have had very little to offer the children of homeless families facing the most complex challenges. With ThriveNYC, we now have a chance to help them and their families with professional interventions not available before the initiative existed.

Service providers are seeing similar benefits of ThriveNYC-funded initiatives that expand access to Naloxone, provide mental health services in youth shelters, and offer Assertive Community Treatment mental health teams, to name three more ThriveNYC programs that are demonstrating real results for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. 

Measuring the performance of new interventions is important – no one wants to spend taxpayer dollars on ineffective programs. That’s why Gateway Housing has independent researchers tracking ISAHC to see if it works, and whether it can be replicated at other shelters.

But implementing effective social services takes time and experimentation. While the jury may be out on some of ThriveNYC’s more ambitious initiatives, we have clear evidence that at least some of its resources are making a measurable difference for homeless children, today and for the rest of their lives.

Mental health needs are all too often overlooked and underfunded.  We should preserve ThriveNYC funding to continue the good work already achieved by its most effective programs, and to give its more daring, experimental efforts a chance to demonstrate success.  

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Ted Houghton and Brendan Cheney are President and Associate Director of Gateway Housing, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the homeless shelter system. On Twitter @Gateway_Housing.

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A Solution in New York City School Turnaround is Simpler Than We Think


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Recently, amid a debate about a jarring lack of diversity in New York City’s specialized schools, jaw-dropping news broke. A RAND Corporation Report, commissioned by the Department of Education, showed that despite roughly $750 million spent on fewer than 100 “Renewal Schools,” the needle fundamentally failed to move on student outcomes.

Extraordinary resources were expended. Real results never materialized.

Now, questions abound as to how the city should move forward to improve struggling schools. Was the problem rooted in faulty bureaucratic execution and implementation that hampered the Renewal program from the beginning? Do we begin closing more schools and reopening them anew?

We need answers as tens of thousands of children of color live in poverty, more than 100,000 students were homeless last year, and countless others don’t know where their next meal is coming from. History has shown that complex social issues often yield equally complex – and exceptionally expensive – solutions, and policymakers seem to be focused on finding the sweeping, systemic “special sauce” for delivering meaningful student gains.

But the reality is that sometimes the most vexing issues can have simple answers. And what’s so often overlooked is an elegant, bread-and-butter approach to setting our kids up for success: an adult mentor.

An adult outside of the home and classroom who cares for the student and asks for nothing in return. An adult who regularly checks in with the student, offers guidance, and believes in and encourages him or her. This makes a huge difference to young students. Offering mentoring programs for students in need is comparatively very cheap and replicable, and serves as a poverty-fighting tool.

And it’s something that doesn’t exist at scale right now.

We know all of this because our organization, Student Sponsor Partners, pairs students entering high school and in extreme need with professional adults who work with them. A full 100% of kids in our program have average to below-average test scores coming into high school, 100% live below the poverty line, and 76% live in one- or no-parent households. Yet, we couple robust mentoring with scholarships to private high schools, and our kids have an 85% on-time graduation rate and 92% college attendance rate.

And beyond the numbers are the stories that prove mentorship works. I am an example of just that. By the age of 12, I had been in and out of foster homes. That’s when I met Peter Flanigan, founder of Student Sponsor Partners, who became my mentor and changed my life forever. He saw potential in me, and him believing in me and pushing me to be my best self helped me get to where I am today.

From NYPD officers to executives at Fortune 500 companies, mentors make a huge difference by committing to our program and guiding students in their spare time. Often, these relationships last through high school, college, and for the rest of their lives.

A citywide mentoring program can be an anti-poverty tactic – and a tool to help diversify top public schools. Every year, our program serves nearly 1,200 students across New York City.  

But the sheer shortage of adults caring for students outside the classroom in our public schools is concerning. For every 1,000 students, there are only 4.9 support workers, far fewer than comparable cities. Nationwide, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is a shocking 482-to-1. Our city’s “single shepherd” program, aimed to address the lack of guidance counselors, came with a $50 million price tag yet officials are unable to say if it’s made an impact.

Guidance counselors and school staff are doing what they can, but it’s virtually impossible to give children and their parents personalized attention when a support worker is responsible for hundreds of cases.

It’s no wonder that educational gaps persist.

So, as we have a citywide conversation about how to achieve equity and success, and give every student a fair shot at a great education, we may not want to search for a panacea. Instead, policymakers would do well to start by focusing on the basics.

The conversation about how to move forward after the Renewal Schools failure cannot just focus on how to achieve the right outcomes through a handful of schools or through an expensive policy. It also must focus on how we prevent a generation of children, who are deeply in need, from falling permanently behind, and how we give students most in need the academic tools to succeed long-term.

The city can start by launching a comprehensive mentoring program, linking adult New Yorkers who want to give back with kids who need support most.

It can make a world of difference to an individual child – and be game-changing across our school system.

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Debra De Jesus-Vizzi is the executive director of Student Sponsor Partners in New York City. On Twitter @DebraVizzi & @sspnewyork.

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Policymakers Can’t Have It Both Ways If They Want to Save Jobs


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(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The number of jobs in New York City reached an all-time high this year, bringing the unemployment rate to record lows. We are the envy of the nation. But there is one key sector where jobs are declining. For the first time in more than a decade, we are seeing job losses among restaurants and food service establishments.

In an attempt to halt some of these losses, City Council Members Brad Lander and Adrienne Adams introduced legislation to prohibit employers from firing fast food workers without just cause, meaning for any reason other than misconduct or failure to perform job duties. They cite surveys showing that many fast food workers who have been terminated or had their hours cut were given no explanation as to why.

While well-intentioned, this proposal misses the mark because it ignores the underlying causes.

It’s as if lawmakers are trying to have it both ways by, first, imposing costly new requirements on businesses and, then, preventing them from making the difficult but legitimate staffing changes necessary to comply.

Small business owners certainly do not want to eliminate jobs. There is no joy derived from laying off employees. But the reality is that local regulations have so fundamentally altered the way that businesses operate here that employers often have no choice but to eliminate some positions in order to stay afloat.

Consider just a few of the mandates recently imposed on local businesses.

New York’s minimum wage has increased every year since 2013, reaching $15 an hour for most businesses in the city this year. This has been difficult for some to absorb because government has implemented other costly mandates at the same time.

In May 2013, the New York City Council passed legislation requiring employers with 20 or more workers to provide at least five days of paid sick leave. The following year the law was expanded to capture small businesses with as few as five employees.

In 2016, New York State’s Paid Family Leave Act was adopted, requiring businesses of all sizes to accommodate up to 10 weeks of paid leave for employees to care for a new child, care for family members that are ill, or assist loved ones when a family member is deployed abroad on active military duty.

These are all incredibly important initiatives, but the truth is that someone has to pay for them.

When the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce surveyed our members last year, small businesses cited the high cost of doing business in New York as the thing most negatively affecting them. Yet instead of helping small businesses compete more effectively, policymakers have signaled that more costly mandates are on the way.

Mayor de Blasio wants to force businesses with five or more employees to provide each with two weeks of paid vacation. Most medium and large companies already offer generous paid time off benefits, so it is primarily small businesses that will bear the brunt.

Similarly, lawmakers in Albany are considering eliminating the tip credit, which would dramatically increase payroll costs at restaurants and certainly trigger more job losses.

Is it any wonder that small businesses don’t feel that local government has their back?

If compliance with the law imposes perpetually-increasing costs of operation, businesses simply cannot raise prices at a rate that consumers will accept. Consequently, business owners are forced to cut costs wherever possible, including jobs. Preventing businesses from making those decisions will not save jobs; it will simply spell the end for many businesses.

The bottom-line: If lawmakers truly want to protect jobs, they must give regulatory relief to the businesses that provide those jobs and stop pretending that they can have it both ways.

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Jessica Walker is President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. On Twitter @jessinharlem & @ManhattanCofC.

 

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Governor Cuomo Has Just Weeks to Embrace a Real Green New Deal for New York


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Gov. Cuomo (photo: governor's office)


As debate over the Green New Deal has seized the nation, the young people of Sunrise Movement have been challenging politicians to answer a simple question: What is your plan?

In April, the New York City Council rose to that challenge with a series of bills that sets a high-water mark for urban climate action across the globe. Mayor de Blasio is expected to sign the Climate Mobilization Act soon.

Governor Cuomo, meanwhile, has allowed the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), the most ambitious climate legislation in the country, to languish in Albany. “I don’t see anything specific for the rest of the session” in terms of environmental legislation, the governor said recently -- a shocking statement considering the lack of climate action coming from Albany -- about the state government agenda before the legislative session ends mid-June.

Climate change is an existential threat for my generation. Young people deserve more than lip service from leaders who have consistently failed to confront the crisis over the past decade.

New Yorkers know this. We’ve seen the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel pollution in record-breaking heat waves, devastating hurricanes like Superstorm Sandy, and overwhelmingly high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. We know we need to act urgently to meet the scale of the challenge.

To his credit, Governor Cuomo put forth a vision for climate action in his executive budget. He calls it a Green New Deal. Unfortunately, his plan is not worthy of the name.

The young people of Sunrise ask politicians to share their plans so that we can see who is serious about tackling climate change and who is not. We have three criteria for judging what constitutes a serious plan to address the crisis.

First, the Green New Deal needs to transition the entire economy to clean energy. Governor Cuomo only sets enforceable decarbonization targets for the electricity sector.

Second, the Green New Deal needs to make sure resources flow directly to the communities hit hardest by climate change – particularly communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. The governor talks about environmental justice – but his plan fails to put his money where his mouth is.

Finally, the Green New Deal needs to center the good, family-supporting jobs that will be created through investments in renewable energy. The governor’s proposal doesn’t yet outline a comprehensive way to make that happen.

Here’s the thing: the Climate and Community Protect Act, which predates Governor Cuomo’s ‘Green New Deal,’ would accomplish these three needs. The CCPA is a vision for climate justice that has been improved and expanded and revised for almost four years with the support of over 150 community, labor, and environmental organizations.

Spearheaded by a coalition called NY Renews, the CCPA is the holistic approach to the climate crisis that New Yorkers deserve. The coalition’s plan sets a legally enforceable timeline to get New York’s entire economy off of fossil fuels by 2050 while also ensuring that 40 percent of state funding goes to frontline and vulnerable communities (low-income and communities of color, among others, facing the brunt of environmental harms), and that the green jobs created are also good jobs that follow prevailing wages and provide training and apprenticeships when possible.

The federal Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has broken new ground for its success in bringing climate change to the fore in Congress. But in New York, the CCPA has for years been a model for climate legislation that centers both good jobs and healthy communities.

Climate change, pollution, and environmental harms have exacerbated systematic inequality by disproportionately affecting indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and yes, youth like young climate strikers and the Sunrise members that have been showing up nationwide to push their representatives toward climate action.

Governor Cuomo says he wants to be at the forefront of the climate movement — framing his proposals as a ‘Green New Deal’ demonstrates as much. But the way New York should lead the climate movement is by modeling the power of community-focused action. The governor’s plan wouldn’t get us to 100 percent renewable energy economy-wide, and it doesn’t include the kinds of provisions we need for jobs or justice. Superstorm Sandy has already showed us how necessary it is to invest in the frontline communities hit hardest by the climate crisis. No justice, no deal.

The CCPA, however, enshrines in law an enforceable timeline to eliminate fossil fuels throughout New York by 2050, meaning that New Yorkers will not only have a plan, they will have recourse to ensure the state follows through.

The CCPA has passed the State Assembly three times already, only to be stopped by what used to be the climate change-denying, Republican Senate leadership. That’s changed now, and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has embraced the CCPA and its coalition of community, labor, and environmental groups.

If Governor Cuomo can’t commit to supporting the CCPA, then the state legislature needs to force his hand by putting the bill on his desk.

In 2019, all climate action is long past due. With the federal Green New Deal stalled in Congress thanks to fossil fuel executives and their allies in Republican leadership, what we need now is for our state leaders to step up. The CCPA is ready, and New Yorkers are ready too.

The question is, is the governor?

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Matthew Miles Goodrich is New York State Director of Sunrise Movement. On Twitter @mmilesgoodrich & @sunrisemvmt.

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Manhattan GOP Goes Full Trump, Ruining Chances for Years to Come


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(photo: @RealDonaldTrump)


Well, it’s happened. The barbarians have finally sacked the city.

On February 1, Trump enthusiast Ian Walsh Reilly assumed the leadership of the Metropolitan Republican Club, one of the oldest Republican clubs in New York City. Like Trump, Ian’s the kind of guy who bumps elbows with high-profile racists and unrepentant misogynists like Gavin McInnes, founder of the alt-right nationalist group The Proud Boys.

Ian just couldn’t wait to get Gavin in front of his club’s membership last year, and this epic lapse in judgment resulted in a nearly 24-hour cycle of violence and vandalism – on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side no less.

Then, on April 20, Ian’s lickspittle lackey Gavin Wax and sidekick Vish Burra claimed top spots at the New York Young Republican Club. (Wax is currently facing criminal charges of Forcible Touching and Sexual Abuse, while Burra was charged with felony drug possession in 2015.)

These organizations form the backbone of the Manhattan GOP’s voter and volunteer base, and are now firmly under the control of Trumpist alt-right acolytes, which puts Manhattan Republican Party Chair Andrea Catsimatidis in a bit of a bind.

Trump lost Manhattan in the 2016 GOP Primary to John Kasich, and scored less than 10% of the vote borough-wide on Election Day. For a party organization tasked with recruiting candidates, raising money, and winning elections, I’m stumped as to what their endgame strategy is.

No serious New York City candidate will ever run on a Republican ticket with Trump, and no candidate who embraces Trump will ever win in the city (outside of Staten Island – and sometimes not even there).

Could the ascent of people like Wax, Burra, and Reilly be a sign that local County Committees and their ancillary groups have simply thrown in the towel on ever building a real party apparatus, and have instead opted to simply cash in on the rubes and dupes and Pizzagate pushers that comprise the monochromatic Trump coalition?

Sure seems like it.

If Trump wins re-election in 2020, his personality and policies will undoubtedly reshape the current Republican Party for many years to come. But if Trump is defeated, then the GOP, especially in urban areas, will have a unique opportunity to redefine what it means to be a Republican in the 21st Century.

However, those who embraced Trump, either half-heartedly or with bear hugs, won’t be able to make that case. Sorry, but Trump taint just don’t bleach.

New York City constitutes nearly half the statewide vote, and from day one, it’s been abundantly clear that Trump does not share the city’s values.

But until Manhattan and other borough Republicans disavow, disassociate, and condemn the president, a majority of city voters simply won’t give two cowpats about what ideas we have on public housing, higher education, infrastructure, jobs, student debt, and criminal justice reform.

If our leaders refuse to assert themselves at the grassroots level – or worse yet, co-opt the alt-right message, then the GOP in the Empire State is doomed.

We need our County Chairs and State Party officers to lead, to communicate to young people and veteran activists alike what a winning strategy and message look and sound like. Hint: it’s not Donald J. Trump.

But if they’re either unwilling or unable to do so, then perhaps the time has come for experienced operatives and establishment groups, who have so far largely stood on the sidelines and quietly seethed, to strike back with a vengeance in order to preserve the party of Teddy Roosevelt so that it won’t be spoken of in the same breath as ‘pussy’-grabbers, conspiracy theorists, and xenophobes.

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John William Schiffbauer is a political consultant, and was the Deputy Communications Director for the New York Republican State Committee from 2014 to 2016. On Twitter @JWSGOP.

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Mass Gang Takedowns are Not ‘Doing Justice’


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Preet Bharara (photo: @PennLaw)


Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has a new book entitled Doing Justice, which is designed to further establish his position within the “Trump Resistance” by playing up his commitment to the rule of law in the face of the politicized actions of the Trump Justice Department. In it he argues that there is no place for politics in the decisions about which cases to take on and how to prosecute them.

"Certain norms do matter,” Bharara writes. “Our adversaries are not our enemies; the law is not a political weapon; objective truths do exist; fair process is essential in civilized society.”

But this rhetoric of justice and legal formalism stands in sharp contrast to his role in prosecuting young people from the Bronx accused of being “the worst of the worst” as part of the Bronx 120 “gang takedown.”

In 2016 the NYPD and a variety of federal agencies conducted the largest mass arrest of alleged gang members in New York City history, rounding up 120 individuals. Then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Bharara undertook the prosecution of those cases using the broad powers of the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. He alleged that these were hardened criminals who had created a vast criminal enterprise that was terrorizing their Bronx community.

Those arrested faced severe felony charges that caused almost all of them to accept plea deals after being held without the possibility of bail for up to two years.

A recent study of the outcomes of these 120 cases by CUNY Law Professor K. Babe Howell calls into question whether the interests of justice were served in these cases.

Howell’s report documents that after three years of court proceedings, 80 of the 120 were not convicted of a violent crime, a third of the defendants spent between zero and two years in prison, and 35 of those arrested were only convicted based on conspiracy to sell marijuana. She also found that almost all the defendants were eligible for a public defender, suggesting that these defendants had no financial resources despite supposedly belonging to a major “criminal enterprise.”

In fact, only around half of the defendants were ever even accused of being gang members. Nearly half of those arrested, including those facing the most serious charges, had already been convicted in state court for the same conduct; some were in prison or jail at the time of arrest.

On the other hand, in one case, Kraig Lewis was arrested in another state while completing a master’s program. He was beating all the odds. He had studied hard through college, as a scholar-athlete, playing basketball, running track, and making the dean’s list. In 2013, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He decided to enroll in an MBA program, and was excelling at it, all while paying it back to his community. He coached a kids’ basketball team and created and organized a “Stop the Violence” basketball tournament aimed at raising awareness of gun violence in inner city communities. And through it all, he was raising a young son.

In his final semester of grad school in 2016, on track to receive his MBA, Kraig was arrested in the Bronx 120 raid. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, headed by Bharara, argued that he should be detained without bail, even though he had no criminal record, and had never been in trouble. His classmates graduated, and walked the stage to receive their diplomas. Kraig sat in jail. His six-year-old son went to school without his dad to walk him there. He celebrated birthdays and milestones. He didn’t understand why his dad was gone.

Kraig is out now. He was given a sentence of time served for conspiracy to distribute narcotics (marijuana). But his life is not the same. He remembers seeing a friend stabbed in the neck while he was in jail. He remembers missing his son’s birthdays. He remembers how full of potential his life was, before the arrest. Even though he completed his MBA program through another school while in jail, his future is not the same. Not with a felony conviction.

These prosecutions were clearly political in nature. Bharara and then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton went to extensive lengths to demonize the people arrested in the Bronx 120 raid and presented the public a false narrative that this and other such raids are the way to make communities safer.

Arresting large numbers of people because of their alleged involvement with marijuana dealing, re-arresting people already in prison to produce a show trial, and branding young people struggling to make a future for themselves with a felony record is not justice and it doesn’t create long-term safety for their communities.

Bharara was confronted with the accusations Wednesday night at a Brennan Center event at NYU Law School by the moderator, Margaret Hoover of Firing Line on PBS. He responded that he acted on the advice of the NYPD, whose officials argued that this was the way to respond to an acute crisis of violent crime. He also pointed out that there was community support for some of the other raids he prosecuted in Westchester County.

This defense doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue, and doesn’t match Bharara’s other rhetoric. Prosecutors are supposed to make independent assessments of what is going to produce real justice, not just take the word of the police or respond to the loudest voices in a community. And they certainly shouldn’t agree to broad-based sweeps as conspiracy indictments.

Bharara himself admitted that criminal justice-led solutions, whether directed at violence or Wall Street corruption are unlikely to be successful on their own. We need a more holistic approach that understands the limits of deterrence-based strategies.

This is exactly correct. Instead of relying on police to give us ever-larger groups of socially-networked defendants and putting them in prison for ever-longer sentences, we need to legalize marijuana, provide community-based violence reduction efforts such as Cure Violence, and invest in the lives of young people so that they have real pathways to economic self-sufficiency.

Preet Bharara claims to be “doing justice,” so it is time for him to admit that these mass raids and RICO conspiracy cases are unjust and that those arrested should be given clemency.

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Alex S. Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. On Twitter @avitale.

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18 Steps to Increase Transparency at the MTA and Help Restore Public Trust


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MTA Chair Pat Foye (photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA)


In recent weeks, Pat Foye, the new CEO/Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has twice publicly committed to improving the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and open data processes at the MTA. This is welcome news and an essential step forward for a government authority that has lost a great deal of public trust and is widely perceived as being politicized by the governor’s office. Our organization, Reinvent Albany, will strongly support this push by Foye and we hope it is a small down payment on a new culture of openness.

The MTA is widely seen as having a serious credibility problem with the public and state Legislature. This loss of trust has been aggravated by the tendency of the authority’s top management to treat routine matters as emergencies that must be addressed suddenly, in secret, and outside of existing rules and normal processes. Some days, the MTA seems to operate more like the CIA than a public transit agency. This hurts public confidence in the agency and reduces the political support it needs to make tough decisions about spending and service disruptions.

For its own good, the MTA needs to act like a public transit agency, not the CIA. The core of New York’s Freedom of Information Law is that “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public.”

In the fight for congestion pricing, which Reinvent Albany strongly supports, members of the New York State Legislature expressed frustration at the MTA’s secrecy, and constantly questioned the credibility of information provided by the authority. Some of this was political theatrics by opponents of congestion pricing. But even allies of the MTA were critical, highlighting the gap between the public’s expectations that the MTA be open and honest, and the agency’s habit of shading statistics, telling partial truths, and making it difficult for the public to see underlying data -- including on high-profile issues like Con Edison-caused service disruptions and fare evasion.

We believe the MTA’s lack of candor and transparency is hugely self-defeating and has led directly to the Legislature imposing more and more reporting requirements, including a host of new ones in this year’s state budget.

Fortunately for the MTA, there is a clear path forward on transparency. In early April, Reinvent Albany released Steps Forward for MTA FOIL and Open Data, a comprehensive report on transparency at the MTA, with 18 specific recommendations about how it can improve transparency. We urge the MTA to examine these recommendations, summarized below, and move toward “open by default.” Here are18 Steps Forward for MTA FOIL, Open Data and Transparency:

Open FOIL
1. The MTA should adopt an Open FOIL platform using best practices from other jurisdictions such as LA Metro, the Port Authority of NY/NJ, and within New York State such as NYC Open Records. FOIL requests should be used to prioritize proactive release of information via a “Reading Room.”

2.The MTA should create an in-house MTA Police incident reports portal, allowing the public to privately request incident reports online (incident reports currently make up two-thirds of all MTA FOIL requests). The MTA should work with the NYS DMV to develop their own portal, like the state’s crash reports portal. Other user-friendly models include the State of Pennsylvania crash reports site.

Open Data
The MTA should publish all tables, charts and other tabular data from their performance reports, capital plans, budget documents, Board materials, and other reports as open data. This should include:

3. Full compliance with Executive Order 95, requiring the publishing of all public MTA data on the New York State Open Data portal. Legislation should be considered in this area if compliance cannot be achieved administratively.

4. Release of all underlying datasets that are used to create MTA performance metrics, with full release of methodologies and API access (allowing apps to interface the data automatically).

5. Creating a contracts database that provides full and complete information about projects and vendors.

6. Providing all data from current MTA Board and Budget materials well in advance of meetings in machine-readable, CSV spreadsheet form.

7. Creating an MTA “Open Budget” website for the MTA’s budget information, similar to the state Open Budget NY site.

Budget and Capital Plan Transparency
8. Capital Planning Oversight Committee Materials should be improved through releasing all data in machine-readable, CSV spreadsheet form. Data should always include original project schedules and budgets. All current projects should be listed in the “Traffic Light” report, including those in the CPOC’s Risk-Based Monitoring Program.

9. Budget Documents should be made open and more complete, and released in machine-readable, CSV spreadsheet form. Budget Documents should also provide detailed breakdowns of past yearly expenditures and revenues, going back at least 10 years for both the capital and expense budget, comparing them with past projections.

10. MTA Capital Dashboard should be updated and improved, with improved timeliness of data updates, ensuring that all click-through data can be downloaded in bulk, more data such as contract numbers. The MTA should hold a user-group feedback session to identify additional improvement areas, and expand the “FAQs” Section.

Better Understanding Itself and Its Riders
11. The MTA should conduct and publicly release in an open data format an updated demographic analysis of its riders that looks at age, median individual and family income, race, ethnicity, gender, profession, disability, geographic locations, travel times, and other metrics.

12. The MTA should release more detailed methodology and tabular data about its fare evasion statistics, such as data broken out by borough, subway line, etc.

13. The MTA should release publicly, in an open data format, all data from its customer service portal and all staff analyses of the portal, polls and surveys.

14. The MTA should publicly release, in an open data format, its submission to the FTA of its Transit Asset Management (TAM) plan and the update to its 20-Year Needs Assessment.

15. MTA staff should conduct and release an in-depth “lessons learned” report about installation of Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) on the 7 Line.

Open Meetings Law
16. The Capital Program Review Board (CPRB) should comply with the Open Meetings Law to ensure that all of its deliberations are conducted in public meetings, in particular its votes to approve capital plans and their amendments.

17. A website should be created for the CPRB where it publishes its mission, activities, members, calendar of meetings, meeting minutes and materials, and contact information.

18. All future commissions, advisory workgroups, and other public bodies formed by law to provide recommendations regarding the MTA should fully abide by the Open Meetings Law.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Research Analyst and John Kaehny is Executive Director at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

Read more from Rachael Fauss

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Zoning for a More Resilient Future


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(photo: City Planning Department)


As the threat of climate change grows more prevalent by the day, cities must take the lead in reducing our carbon footprint and becoming more resilient. This year, New York City has taken a big, green step forward, with actions by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council that will decrease our emissions.

When it comes to withstanding the storms and flooding that climate change will bring more frequently, though, it’s vital that existing zoning rules don’t stand in the way of protective measures for the buildings that make up our coastal communities. As sea levels rise, so too will flood waters and we must make certain that zoning accounts for future risk.

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy devastated our coastal communities, the City adopted emergency zoning to enable homeowners to rebuild to more resilient standards, based on the then-newly provided flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

These zoning changes allowed property owners to raise living space and mechanical equipment to a higher elevation that could otherwise wind up under water. They also expire one year after FEMA creates new flood maps. But there’s no telling when the next storm may hit.

When it comes to building or renovating, the hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses in the floodplain can’t be kept in limbo. We need to provide guidelines for how buildings can be constructed or retrofitted to better withstand or recover from storms and flooding. This affects roughly 400,000 residents in today’s flood zone, an area that could increase in size to cover nearly 800,000  New York City residents by the 2050s due to sea level rise.

zoning for flood resiliency coverWith years of lessons from Sandy recovery and community outreach, we’ve created Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, rules tailored to New York’s diverse neighborhoods, building types, uses and needs, as well as increased storm and flood risk from climate change.

We have listened to communities throughout the City’s flood zones to understand the challenges they face both from storms and increased chances of flooding due to climate change. Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency is responsive to what we heard and will allow New Yorkers to make smart choices when retrofitting or rebuilding.

The proposal’s main goals include:

Expanded geography: We saw during Hurricane Sandy that floodwaters ignore lines drawn on maps. Much flooding occurred well beyond the boundaries of the old Flood Maps. With climate change and rising sea levels, storms will become more frequent and floodwaters will travel further inland. We’re expanding the proposed zoning protections from the 100-year floodplain to the 500-year floodplain, ensuring that an additional 44,600 buildings in the city that house nearly 350,000 additional residents can become more resilient.

Flexibility for resiliency: Residents told us that current zoning often forces their resilient measures to eat into living space in their homes. In response, we propose to allow sea level rise to be factored into designing new buildings or retrofitting existing ones, offering more room for resiliency. This flexibility will give resilient buildings a decreased chance of property damage from a future storm and likely reduced flood insurance costs.

Alternatives for the relocation of important equipment: For buildings to quickly get back up and running after flooding, it’s critical that their mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment or back-up systems are above floodwaters. The zoning would allow them to be elevated.

On a personal and a macro level, New Yorkers are still feeling the impact of Hurricane Sandy. It’s imperative to apply lessons learned from that disaster and emerge stronger. These zoning measures will help individual property owners prepare for a resilient future.

This is just one piece of the puzzle. When combined with the City’s investments in coastal protection and the hardening of our infrastructure, we can provide real and tangible risk reduction from coastal storms.

***
Michael Marrella is Director of Waterfront and Open Space at the Department of City Planning. On Twitter @NYCPlanning.

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A Lion of City Government Issues a Warning


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Stan Brezenoff, middle (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The dramatic growth in the size and cost of city government since Mayor de Blasio took office has been of concern to budget watchdogs: the number of city employees has grown by 35,000 and total annual spending by more than $20 billion since 2014.

The mayor’s latest budget presentation, delivered last week, came with talk of fiscal prudence, but assuaged few fears, including those of an unexpected new source adding his voice to those warning about the city’s long-term health.

The $92.5 billion proposed operating budget for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1 includes over $1 billion more in city-funded expenditures than was anticipated by the mayor’s Preliminary Budget released only a few months ago, offset by increases in revenue and “savings” through a variety of expenditure adjustments, netting out to an increase of about $350 million in planned spending since the mayor’s prior plan.

The budget for the coming fiscal year is balanced but the projected deficit for the 2020-2021 fiscal year is estimated to be $3.5 billion. The revised 10-year Capital Strategy is increasing a whopping $13 billion -- to nearly $117 billion.

The mayor stressed that his plan is fiscally prudent and that new initiatives have been kept to a minimum out of an abundance of caution about possible threats to the city’s economic picture. But Citizens Budget Commission President Andrew Rein succinctly summarized the general reaction from watchdogs and other commenters:

“Mayor de Blasio’s stay-the-course budget does not take the steps needed to preserve services or forestall tax increases in the eventual hard times.”

Will our city’s elected leaders heed the warnings and restrain their impulse to find more “savings” and add more spending to the budget that is finally adopted by the end of June? Not if past behavior is any guide.

But perhaps they will listen to someone who should command respect from the mayor and City Council alike: Stanley Brezenoff.

Last Friday, the day after the mayor presented his updated budget plans, Stan received the Civic Fame Award from the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School. his remarks were reflections about his years in government and the nature of the three mayoral administrations he has served. They were thoughtful, nuanced, and unexpected.

Stan started out as a young activist in the civil rights movement working for the Reverend Milton Galamison, who led the fight for community control of city schools in the 1960s. Indeed, it was noted at the award ceremony that Stan had some trouble getting a full-time job in New York because he had so many arrests from protests on his record.  

Stan entered city government in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, went on to various positions including as the first commissioner of the newly formed Human Resources Administration, was Executive Director of the Port Authority, and eventually became First Deputy Mayor under Ed Koch, which is when I first met and worked for/with him.

I was fortunate to work with Stan again when he was the Vice Chair and I was President of the September 11th Fund, and since then we have been friends and colleagues on various projects.

Given Stan’s extensive background and his long relationship with then-First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris (who was his deputy and successor at the Port Authority), it is not surprising that Mayor de Blasio has relied on Stan to help deal with some of the weightiest challenges of his administration – first as an advisor on labor relations, then as Acting CEO of the city’s financially-strapped Health + Hospital system (which he ran 1981-1984), and most recently as Acting Chair of the beleaguered public housing authority, NYCHA.

So, suffice it to say, this is not someone who can be dismissed as a conservative, anti-government pundit who doesn’t care about the city’s social safety net or believe in unionized public employment. That is why his comments, while diplomatic, were especially noteworthy and startling.

His main points were:

-Mayor Lindsay came into office in 1966 at an important inflection point. He had an expansionist, activist agenda driven by social goals, i.e. equality and attention to the needs of the poor.

-Lindsay attracted a young, energetic staff that shared his agenda and they accomplished a great deal.

-But they were not prepared or oriented towards the tasks needed to manage the large business enterprise that is city government; hence the seeds of the fiscal crisis were sown.

-Mayor Abe Beame (1974-1977) and his administration lacked the understanding and tools to address the magnitude of the financial challenges that became apparent. Capital funding had been borrowed and used to support operating expenses and now the banks were refusing to loan the city government any more money.

-Mayor Ed Koch (1978-1989) brought a management perspective to the job. Because of the fiscal crisis the public psyche had changed and it became “easier to say no” to advocates and new social policies because there simply wasn’t enough money to do everything. Koch and his administration, subject to the constraints imposed by the Emergency Financial Control Act, engineered a financial turnaround that put the city on a stable footing.

-Moving forward to the present, the current administration is experiencing an extraordinary period of affluence that has enabled Mayor de Blasio, as did Lindsay, to focus on an expansionist social agenda. While his achievements –- e.g. universal pre-kindergarten, an aggressive affordable housing program – are laudable and important, there has been less attention to enterprise management functions and there are warning signs that good times will not last much longer.

-There has been little emphasis on efficient service delivery and achieving savings. The annual PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap) that has been required by all mayors since Koch to exert savings discipline upon agency spending has been absent 2014-2018.

-This is the first budget of the de Blasio administration in which a PEG has been imposed, but it was “not very vigorous.”

-Good stewardship requires remembering and learning from history. Expansionist policies cannot be implemented without good fiscal management to sustain them.

Thus, in a very nuanced, diplomatic way, 40-year veteran of government Stan Brezenoff offered the same message as Andrew Rein from CBC: we are taking the good times for granted and are not prepared for a recession or some terrible crisis that rapidly decreases revenue and catches the city unprepared to fund all its current expenses and significant long-term liabilities.

City Council and mayor: listen up! Stan Brezenoff has committed his life to social justice. He is not anti-union or a believer in small government. If he is worried, you should be too!

Don’t make the situation worse by adding pet projects to what the Executive Budget already includes. Any more revenue that turns up should be put into reserves for that rainy day. We are far short of the $12-15 billion that would be needed to weather a recession.

The public and Stan B will be watching.

[Watch Stan Brezenoff’s comments in full here.]

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

 

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The Opportunity Ahead for the New CUNY Chancellor


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Former CUNY Chancellor James Milliken, left, & incoming Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez (photo: CUNY)


Today -- Wednesday, May 1 -- Felix Matos-Rodriguez assumes the post of CUNY chancellor following a year-long search. After successfully leading two CUNY colleges, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez takes over an institution that has made important strides in recent years, including opening an innovative new community college and launching nationally renowned programs like CUNY ASAP.

To help grow New York City’s middle class and greatly expand economic opportunity, CUNY’s next leader will need to make boosting college and career success his highest priority.

The nation’s largest urban public university provides many thousands of New Yorkers from low-income backgrounds with an education that can make the difference between persistent economic struggle and transformative economic and social mobility.

But CUNY still has work to do. Too many students drop out without a credential; graduates do not always end up on the path to career success; curriculum development can lag behind the city’s fast-changing economy; and CUNY sometimes struggles to tune in to the needs of employers.

There’s no time to lose. Today nearly 3.4 million New Yorkers age 25 and older lack any sort of post-secondary credential, exacerbating the city’s opportunity divide. While nearly 61% of Manhattan residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, the same is true for just 19% of those in the Bronx.

For residents without a college credential, far too many of the city’s growing, well-paying occupations -- from software developer to registered nurse -- remain out of reach.

Narrowing that divide depends on CUNY.

There’s no institution better positioned to help lower-income and first-generation students earn a post-secondary credential -- and with it, the opportunity to participate in and shape the economy of the future. But despite recent progress, only 22% of students who enter CUNY's community colleges graduate in three years. At CUNY’s senior colleges, just 55% earn a degree in six years. Getting more New Yorkers on the path to economic opportunity will require a major effort to increase the number of students who graduate with a degree.

The new chancellor’s first goal should be to dramatically improve those figures. Fortunately, CUNY has at least two programs proven to significantly boost completion rates: CUNY ASAP and CUNY Start.

ASAP provides a set of integrated supports to community college students, including free MetroCards and intensive academic counseling. Start is a bootcamp program that significantly boosts academic readiness for underprepared students without burning through their financial aid. Both programs should be made available to all community college students, and a version of ASAP should expand to senior colleges, too.

While it’s true that most community college students enter the classroom struggling with at least one core subject, traditional remedial programs just don’t work. Students in these programs are far more likely to drop out, even though research shows that most can succeed with a little help.

Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez should champion a system-wide effort to move away from traditional remedial education in favor of highly effective alternatives like the corequisite model, which allows students to pursue credit-bearing courses from day one with extra support.

But the challenge for the next chancellor doesn’t end at graduation day. CUNY lacks a strategy to ensure that a CUNY credential leads to career success.

The next chancellor should lead a major effort to engage employers around every campus and develop industry-informed curricula tailored to growing occupations in tech, hospitality, creative industries, healthcare, construction, and beyond.

This will require CUNY to quicken the pace of development for new programs and courses and speed up technology procurement -- and New York City and State should support these efforts with more funding for employer engagement and a faster approvals process for new programs. Additional goals should include launching new apprenticeship programs with industry partners, expanding the number of internships and work-study opportunities available to CUNY students, and pushing to increase and improve career counseling services.

CUNY should also take steps to develop new certificate programs -- designed in partnership with employers, unions, or trade associations -- that can provide community college students with a marketable credential that counts toward a two- or four-year degree.

Doing all this will require sustained and expanded support from New York City and State. But it will also depend on strong and creative leadership at a decisive moment for public higher education. The new chancellor should ensure that CUNY’s faculty, administrators, and curricula have the flexibility to move at the speed of technology and a clear mandate to prepare students for the jobs -- and opportunities -- of the future.

By focusing his administration on elevating college and career success, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez can help the nation’s largest urban university become its most effective launchpad to the middle class.

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. Winston C. Fisher is partner at Fisher Brothers and co-chair of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council. On Twitter @jbowlesNYC & @Wnston_Fisher1@nycfuture.

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Why is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries MIA on the Green New Deal?


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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (photo: Kevin Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


The Green New Deal resolution has garnered a lot of attention since it was introduced in February. The nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), aims to reshape our energy system and economy by committing to a swift and just transition to 100% clean renewable energy.

Such a bold transformation is exactly what is needed according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. After all, the IPCC explained that we only have twelve years to get our emissions under control or else we will be locked in to climate catastrophe.

The Green New Deal promises not only to get us off fossil fuels, but will also create millions of good jobs retrofitting existing buildings so they are more energy-efficient and boosting wind and solar energy investments. The resolution also aims to protect frontline communities and those most affected by climate change and pollution. 

The Green New Deal has attracted considerable support in a rapid time, receiving endorsements from nearly all Democratic contenders for the presidency and having over 90 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. According to a Business Insider poll, over 80% of respondents support almost all of the components of the Green New Deal resolution.   Of course, the resolution has garnered its critics too, with President Trump referring to it as “socialism.”

Nearly all of the congressional representatives from New York City signed on as co-sponsors to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’ resolution. However, there remains a glaring omission in Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). Rep. Jeffries represents a solidly blue district in Brooklyn and Southwest Queens which has already witnessed the devastating effects of climate change firsthand with Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. In fact, his 8th congressional district received more aid for Hurricane Sandy relief than any other district in the city.

While there is wide support for the resolution, the Democratic leadership in Congress remains disinterested in moving forward, exemplified when House Speaker Pelosi laughed off  the resolution by calling it the “green dream.” Likewise, Mitch McConnell’s stunt vote in the Senate failed to garner a single Democratic vote. The Democratic Party leadership in Congress, including Rep. Jeffries, should demonstrate that they are committed to tackling climate change head-on by supporting the Green New Deal.

Rep. Jeffries is certainly a major player and rising star within the Democratic Party, as he was elected chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and is rumored to be on the fast-track to be Speaker of the House. Interestingly, Rep. Jeffries owes his current leadership position in part to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted the previous chair of the caucus, Rep. Joseph Crowley, in a primary.

Rep. Jeffries should prove his progressive bonafides by supporting the Green New Deal. Indeed, it may be bad politics for him to avoid the resolution; he wouldn’t want the same fate of Rep. Crowley by being primaried from the left.

As it currently stands, Rep. Jeffries and freshman Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) are the sole New York City members of Congress to fail to sign on to the Green New Deal. Rose represents another area massively affected by climate change and Hurricane Sandy -- Staten Island and Southern Brooklyn. However, Rep. Rose’s district is hardly safely Democratic, and he does not need to fear a primary challenger from the left.

To be sure, the Green New Deal is only a nonbinding resolution and doesn’t actually enact any measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rather it sets the vision and the goals to massively transition the economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels.

Rep. Jeffries has indicated that rather than signing on to the Green New Deal, he is inclined to wait until the bipartisan “House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” makes recommendations on the issue, a process that can take over a year. However, with climate change, time is not a renewable resource. It is essential that congressional leadership at least entertain solutions commensurate with the challenges we face. Rep. Jeffries should show the courage and leadership on the climate and support the Green New Deal.

Rep. Jeffries has a duty to his constituents to support policies that will reduce carbon emissions, create green jobs, and build up the infrastructure that protects his district from the next superstorm. After all, not only is it good politics to support the Green New Deal, but according to the world’s top scientists, it is absolutely necessary policy. To show true leadership, for his party and the country, Rep. Jeffries should champion the Green New Deal.

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Ari R. Lieberman is an attorney and the legislative coordinator for 350Brooklyn, a grassroots climate change organization affiliated with 350.org. On Twitter @the_greenmarble.

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