Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




To Avert Massive Housing Crisis, We Need a Government Solution for Property Owners and Renters; Here’s a Roadmap

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There's a looming housing crisis we must avoid (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The anxiety and concern driving the “cancel rent” movement is real and justified, but giving rent relief to those who don’t need it makes no sense. Something must be done for struggling renters, but those requesting relief should be asked to provide financial information backing up their request and those that need it should receive it.

However, canceling rent without subsidizing the lost rental income to property owners will only make matters worse. Without rental income, eventually property owners will be unable to pay the millions of Americans they employ, including essential workers who clean and maintain the places millions more live, work, and shop. They also may be unable to pay utilities, maintenance costs, and most importantly, property taxes, which fund many of the municipal and social programs upon which we all depend.

Property owners are not the enemy, they are an essential part of the solution. Bankrupting tens of thousands of property owners and sending many properties onto the foreclosure rolls will cripple the ability of property owners to support a solution, exacerbate housing insecurity for tenants, and saddle government, at least for a time, with properties they have no capacity to manage.

The only viable solutions are those that keep tenants in their homes and businesses, and landlords managing properties. Government must make sure both happen. Ignoring the problem or worse, offering a partial solution and pretending the problem is solved will only result in less revenue for the government and massive displacement for millions of Americans at a time when we can all least afford it.

Governmental proclamations that provide for a temporary hold on evictions solve only half the problem. These solutions are at best short-lived and certainly short-sighted, not to mention confusing for the public. Ninety-day temporary eviction relief has led to a widespread misunderstanding that rent relief, or rent forgiveness, was also offered for 90 days. In part because of this, rent collections have dropped, even among people who can afford to pay. In turn, owners’ ability to meet their own financial obligations has already reached a crisis point for many, but especially small-scale property owners.

Instead of this one-sided approach, government should sponsor comprehensive programs for tenants and property owners, authorizing both to enter into payment plans.

Under this scenario, tenants would be permitted to pay off their missed rent over the next year and property owners would in turn receive real estate tax deferral in the amount of the deferred rent payments. Property owners would then repay taxes to the government on a monthly basis once rental income begins to be repaid. Working together, such a plan could keep tenants sheltered, while keeping property owners and the city ultimately whole.

For those who can pay full rent, they should. Tenants who can still pay, even those who are unemployed due to COVID-19, should be obligated to pay at least 30 percent of all income they are receiving, including unemployment benefits, interest and dividends, or of savings in excess of two years of rent, to fulfill their rent obligations.

In either case, property owners in buildings with 10 or more units should also offer tenants the ability to pay rent by credit card and cover the tenant’s cost of the associated credit card fees for those unemployed due to COVID-19.

Finally, to help ensure that these admittedly complicated and novel approaches are effectively implemented, the city should immediately create a stakeholders task force allowing property owners, labor, lenders, utilities, tenant advocates, and city government to come together to prevent a housing crisis on a scale we have never encountered.

Measures that put the full burden of providing housing on either property owners or those without means will work for no one. Government must be part of a comprehensive solution instead of addressing only half of the problem.

Francis Greenburger is Chair and CEO of Time Equities, Inc.

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New York’s Next Step Toward More Justice and Better Democracy

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Questioning which New Yorkers can go to the polls (photo: Gotham Gazette)

Practicing social distancing is by no means easy, but the guidelines are simple: maintain six feet of distance from others, avoid crowded environments, public bathrooms, and shared dining facilities, and to blow off steam, go outside. Stick to the guidelines, health officials assure us, and we can all help protect each other, especially the vulnerable. 

But many of the most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis are those whom most of us will never see and for whom social distancing is simply impossible: people behind bars. Prisons were not designed to prioritize personal space; moreover, many have faced overcrowding for years. At least 462 incarcerated people in New York state have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and 1,204 prison staff have as well. According to the Marshall Project, the number of undiagnosed infections in prisons is likely much higher. Tragically, at least 373 incarcerated people have died across the country from COVID-19 related illness. 

Yet even after facing those conditions while paying their debt to society, many of those who complete their sentences and reenter the public will have no voice in our collective future. That’s because New York, unlike 19 other states and Washington, D.C., denies people on parole for felony convictions the right to vote. It’s time to fix this with new legislation.

To be clear, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s issuance of voting rights pardons since 2018, most people on parole can currently vote. The governor’s staff began conducting a monthly review of everyone recently released on parole and the governor uses his pardon power to individually restore voting rights to each person living in the community and successfully completing the terms of their parole.

But the process is more cumbersome than it needs to be, both for the people rightfully having their voting rights restored and for the government. Moreover, voting rights shouldn’t depend on the discretion of one person. The governor has used his pardon power justly, to welcome people living in our communities into our democracy. But a future governor could depart from that practice—we’ve seen it happen in other states.

That’s why we are among the state senators co-sponsoring Senate Bill 1931. This legislation would make rights restoration automatic upon release from prison and provide those released an opportunity to register to vote right away.

We prioritized democracy reform at the beginning of this legislative session because we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents that it is what they want. We need to make it the law that people on parole can vote, not just the policy of the governor. These are our neighbors. They work and pay taxes, and they should have a say in choosing those who levy them. They send their children to public schools, and they should be able to decide who oversees those schools.

State after state has acknowledged this obvious truth in recent years. In 2019 alone, Colorado, Nevada, and New Jersey passed laws restoring the right to vote to everyone living in the community, with New Jersey’s governor signing that state’s law this past December.

There is no good reason we shouldn’t do the same, and formally codify the governor’s policy here in New York. The criminal justice system has determined that each person on parole has served their time and is ready to return to their community. We all have an interest in welcoming them back with open arms and encouraging healthy reintegration. Until we change the law and make clear that their voting rights are not something bestowed upon them by the generosity of the governor, we send exactly the wrong message: that their voices don’t matter and they don’t have a real stake in what happens in their communities.

In fact, the history of New York’s criminal disenfranchisement laws makes clear that they were never aimed at accomplishing some good policy goal. They date back to a 19th century attempt to evade the mandate of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—to deny black men the right to vote.

These days the law is still discriminatory, but it also serves to sow confusion and waste government resources. Because the governor has to use his pardon power to restore voting rights, the process is needlessly complicated. Each month, the state corrections department sends the governor a list of everyone released and on parole the previous month. The governor’s staff then individually confirms each person’s eligibility before issuing a voting rights pardon. His staff then continuously monitors the parole status of each of the 30,000 people with a pardon to ensure they remain eligible.

This isn’t just a lot of work, it means that it is still impossible to give a simple, straightforward answer about whether people on parole can vote. Since the restoration process is not automatic, there is a four- to six-week gap between when someone is released from prison and when they have their rights restored. That means people cannot be told they have the right to vote on their way out. And we’ve heard that even people who do have a pardon have faced skepticism or misinformation when they try to register.

The bill we are co-sponsoring would clear up the confusion. It would set thousands of New Yorkers immediately on the path to reengaging in a positive way in their communities, something that has only become more important in the age of COVID-19. We urge our colleagues in the Legislature to join us in passing this bill, continuing New York’s journey to becoming a national leader in democracy.

State Senators Zellnor Myrie and Leroy Comrie represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @SenatorMyrie & @LeroyComrie.

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As Coronavirus Overwhelms Funeral Homes, New York Must Act to Allow Alternatives to Traditional Burials

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(photo: betterplaceforests via Instragram)

Across New York City, communities of color have been disproportionately hurt by COVID-19. Along with my colleagues in the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus (NYSBPRHA), I have heard from countless New Yorkers the numerous real and painful struggles they are dealing with as a result of the pandemic. Many are frontline and essential workers who continue to do their jobs day after day, risking their lives in order to help others. Per one recent report by the New York City Comptroller, 53% of health-care workers are immigrants and 70% of health-care workers are people of color. 

For communities who have given and lost so much already, what has been most painful is the inability to say goodbye to their loved ones. Hospitals are closed to visitors to control the outbreak, phone calls are almost impossible for critically ill patients, and funerals and memorial services have frequently been cancelled or delayed indefinitely.

As cremations have more than doubled in some parts of the country, many places are putting a cap on how many funerals and burials they can do. Meanwhile, those who have lost their jobs are forced to make tough decisions on whether or not to purchase a casket and a burial plot or feed their families. As families continue to grapple with these decisions, more and more people are dying every day, leaving hospitals with hundreds of bodies and funeral directors working overtime. 

To address these issues, we need to open our state up to new ways of memorializing our loved ones. 

To that end, I recently began working with Better Place Forests, which preserves forests and provides a more affordable, more sustainable alternative for people who choose cremation, enabling families to choose a final resting place beneath a tree while abiding by best regional practices that benefit local economies and the environment. 

To help the grieving families of first responders, Better Place recently launched the Memorial Trees for Heroes initiative to honor those who have bravely taken on risk in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to help others. As the national average cost of a traditional burial is $8,755, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, this program will be an incredible help for the families of frontline workers who have passed away from COVID-19.

All health-care workers, caregivers in nursing homes and hospices, first responders, public transit workers, delivery workers, and others who have not had the luxury of working from home, but rather had to work to keep our communities running deserve access to programs like this one.

But right now, programs like the Memorial Trees for Heroes initiative that could provide comfort to grieving families have trouble operating in the state due to a one-size-fits-all approach that prevents cost-effective options for New Yorkers. I, along with my colleagues in the NYSBPRHA, believe the state must act now to provide more options and assistance to the thousands of COVID-19 victims’ families. Doctors, nurses and other essential frontline workers who sacrificed their life to help others deserve to have a beautiful final resting place where their loved ones can honor their memory. We must ensure the values these fallen heroes stood for in life and in death live on to serve as a testament to the greatness of this city and our communities.

Assemblymember Tremaine S. Wright represents parts of Brooklyn and is Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus. On Twitter @tremaine4ny.

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Lessons from Two Plagues

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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

My career in public health and health care is bookended by plagues. I graduated from college in the 1980s and moved to the West Coast. It was a time of freedom and fun and I was living what felt then like an “adult” life; I had a job, my own apartment, a car, a dog, a boyfriend. Life was good.

But something dark and sad was hovering around me at the same time. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was in full effect. By 1990, more than 120,000 Americans had died of the mysterious disease. I knew people who were sick or dead. I had to get involved. 

I started volunteering with the Northwest AIDS Foundation doing outreach and education. It was the first time I’d heard of the field of public health. I didn’t really know what it was, but the smart people and leaders around me had studied it. I’d always been interested in politics and it seemed like the place where politics intersected with medicine, so I was hooked. Off to grad school I went and I’ve been working to improve health care ever since.

Thirty years later, we find ourselves in the midst of another pandemic with echoes of the HIV/AIDS crisis:

Fear. The early days of HIV/AIDS were terrifying. Did you already have it? Would you get it? Would you die? What caused it? Today, every sneeze or cough, many from seasonal allergies, causes worry. It’s scary to touch anything — even hug our own families — or go to the supermarket. 

No vaccine. In 1984, the Health and Human Services Secretary announced the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS and predicted a vaccine would be available by 1986. Experts are similarly forecasting it will be a year or two until we have an effective COVID-19 vaccine. It’s 2020, and there is still no vaccine for HIV.

Stigma. Would things have been different in the U.S. had HIV/AIDS not mainly affected gay men, people of color, and IV-drug users in the early days? Without question, discrimination and hate played a big role in the slow response to that pandemic. COVID-19 has prompted a resurgence of racism and xenophobia, especially against Asian-Americans. Early on, AIDS was called the “gay cancer.” President Trump often calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” 

Government failures. The government has blood on its hands for both AIDS and COVID-19 deaths. The first federal government report on AIDS came out in 1981. It infamously took four years and 12,000 American deaths before President Reagan even uttered the word “AIDS.” The federal government’s response to COVID-19 has been slow and inept. The list of failures includes a lack of testing capacity; inadequate protective equipment and ventilator supplies; failures to contact trace and isolate exposed people; and mixed and confusing public messaging. 

Other similarities, however, give me hope. Then and now, we’ve witnessed acts of bravery and courage. People are putting their own lives on the line to save others. Scientists, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers have demanded answers and fought for resources. They’ve provided care when they could and comfort when that was all that was possible. 

Medicine and science have advanced. HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence. We don’t have a cure or a vaccine, but we have treatments that can make AIDS a manageable chronic disease and even prevent transmission. Obstacles to accessing and affording those medications remain, but at least the treatments exist. And today, some of the smartest minds are working on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

AIDS forced marginalized people to unify and fight for their lives. As a result, we saw greater visibility, acceptance, and enhanced rights for LGBT people. The race and class differences so glaringly on display with COVID-19 should force us to again confront structural inequities and repair them. 

I see hope and humanity in the many Americans showing genuine empathy and caring for others in the community: sewing and donating masks to protect essential workers, delivering groceries to elderly neighbors, supporting local businesses, and more.

Our inadequate response to the HIV/AIDS crisis is a shameful stain on our nation’s history. But we got through the peak of the AIDS crisis — not unscathed or unchanged, but we got through it. We’ll get through this, too.

Already, COVID-19 has killed more than 22,000 people in New York and more than 328,000 around the globe. As with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, things will get worse before they get better. It’s hard to know when and how our current crisis will end and what the future will look like. But we do know what safely getting to a new normal will require: widespread testing, capacity for effective contact tracing, and action that’s guided by facts and science.

 As COVID-19 continues to plague us, we can and we must do better. As the old AIDS rallying cry went, “silence equals death, action equals life.”

David Sandman is President and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation. On Twitter @DavidSandman1 & @nys_health.

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No to Austerity, Yes to Efficiency and Fairness: Getting Our Budget Priorities Straight for a Strong Post-COVID New York

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Major budget questions loom as coronavirus takes its toll (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)

As we work to show COVID the door, tough budget decisions are ahead. Governments at every level are grappling with the unprecedented toll this pandemic has had on the economy. 

COVID has laid bare structural inequities too stark to ignore. While some work comfortably from home, others put themselves in danger on the front lines. While some flee to the Hamptons, others pass the virus between family members in cramped New York City apartments.

These choices become even more stark when we take a cold, hard look at post-coronavirus state and municipal budgets. New York State is facing a $10-$15 billion budget deficit. New York City projects a $7.4 billion loss in tax revenue. 

Where should we go to fill the budget gaps? 

Our executives have given us hints of what they want to do. We are told that painful cuts are necessary, that sacrifices must be made.

Mayor de Blasio already took a scythe to just about every program with the prefix summer including the Summer Youth Employment Program, a program that provides summer jobs for at-risk teenagers. He has also cut services that affect our daily lives, like trash pickup days and electronics recycling.

Governor Cuomo pushed to cut health-care funding in this year’s budget, even as our public hospitals struggle to treat an influx of coronavirus patients, and we’re told to wait with baited breath for more cuts to come.

The mayor continually refuses to lessen property tax burdens on low- and middle-class homeowners and renters, many of whom are bearing the brunt of COVID’s pain, while the governor has refused to consider revenue raisers on ultra-millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations, many of whom are left unaffected by the virus’ scourge.

We believe these are misguided decisions. We reject the choice between austerity budgeting and a tax burden shouldered by low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

Instead, we need an honest assessment of how we can raise revenues by looking to those who can afford to pay their fair share.

The very wealthiest New Yorkers will not face eviction or foreclosure, like so many other New Yorkers. They will not struggle to access unemployment benefits. They will wait out the storm in second homes.

As a matter of basic fairness, these individuals less impacted by COVID can and should contribute more.

We should also look at corporations that have profited specifically because of this pandemic. These large corporations can and should pay more to rebuild our economy when this is all over.

Passing austerity budgets that cut essential services will only doubly punish our frontline workers and those struggling to make ends meet during and after this pandemic. After all, our essential workers — EMS, police, firefighters, Parks Department employees, grocery store workers, transit workers, nurses, doctors, and so many others — are about 40% people of color; 75% of whom live in the so-called outer boroughs. One-third of our frontline workers are from low-income households.

An austerity approach will inevitably push our city deeper into recession and make it even harder to dig out of this financial hole.

In addition to revenue raisers on those who can afford it, we need substantial federal funds and can borrow up to 20% of the budget from the Federal Reserve’s COVID-19 emergency lending program.

Finally, we also must take a hard look at the waste in our budgets. The New York City budget has ballooned by $20 billion in the last six years alone. The state budget is certainly not immune to wasteful spending either. 

Instead of making cuts to hospitals, CUNY, and summer employment, we need to look at the programs with unproven impact, the spending that doesn’t go directly into communities.

For example, procurement contracts make up nearly 40% of the city budget’s recent growth. These contracts should be reviewed and scrapped or renegotiated as necessary. In 2018, the Independent Budget Office suggested that simply switching to open source software could save the city $30 million per year.

For every wasteful or unproven program we know about, there may be many more that we haven’t yet identified, in part for lack of looking close enough. These budgets need to be scrutinized and every revenue-raising option must be explored before we cut a single dollar to any program that working-class New Yorkers rely on. 

This pandemic has put us through the wringer in the most brutal way. All of us are reflecting on what kind of society we want to be when we emerge from this dark time. 

Our post-COVID government budgets will demonstrate our values. We stand for a New York City and State that cares for its people and lifts up those who need it most.

State Senator Andrew Gounardes and City Council Member Justin Brannan represent parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @agounardes & @JustinBrannan.

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To Prepare for Future Crises and Recover from This One, Bring the Supply Chain Back to the United States

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Ventilators arriving in New York from China (photo: governor's office)

It’s been incredibly horrifying to watch scenes unfolding at New York City’s public hospitals as medical staff struggle to keep pace with the coronavirus pandemic. Although doctors and nurses—from Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn to Jacobi in the Bronx—have shown remarkable courage under fire, they are under siege from an invisible enemy that shows no mercy to those in its path.

The situation has been tough for my mother to bear. She’s a home health aide working on the frontlines to protect some of New York’s most vulnerable residents—the developmentally disabled. But she’s also a refugee who fled a civil war in Uganda more than three decades ago and gave birth to my younger sister and me at one of the city’s hardest hit public hospitals, Elmhurst.

As we grapple with our country’s coronavirus reckoning there are elements that are reminiscent of the war-torn Uganda she escaped. The uncertainty of when life will return to some sense of normalcy. The shadow of death that seems to lurk all around us. The mental anguish that has gripped America’s consciousness.

Yet, there is one element of this crisis that is deeply vexing: why were we so unprepared, why didn’t we have enough ventilators or personal protective equipment? When New York and other states turned to the federal government, President Trump’s response was effectively: you’re on your own. Besides the ineptitude of the president, the answers don’t only lie in Washington, but also in corporate boardrooms across America.

Over the past four decades, our country’s manufacturers have been blazing a trail across the world seeking places—mostly emerging economies—to produce their goods for much cheaper than they would in the United States. This intense focus on cheaper cost of goods and maximizing profits is a result of a shift in America’s corporate culture that sought to place the maximization of shareholder value above all other stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, communities, etc. As the labor arbitrage took place, corporate profits began to soar and much of the country’s manufacturing capacity began to disappear. It’s a correlation that’s difficult to ignore.

The end results weren’t only cheaper goods and lower costs, but a long list of supply chains that no longer existed in the United States—including personal protective equipment and ventilators, just to name a few. This dynamic has led to an erosion of well-paying middle-class jobs and threatens our national security. In 1940, 60% of New York City’s workforce was employed in manufacturing. Today, that number is 16%. We are now relying mostly on China to supply us with critical equipment to save American lives. 

This pandemic should not only serve as a call to action for policymakers in Washington to enhance the nation's public health infrastructure, but to also demand American corporations shift away from this myopic view of shareholder supremacy. This should begin with repatriating supply chains deemed critical to America’s national security. 

Americans should make the equipment that will save their lives. This includes manufacturing PPE, pharmaceuticals, tests, and medical devices on our shores so that we are prepared for future disease outbreaks and crises that disrupt the world. The government must take the lead to invest in medical manufacturing to bolster our national supply to prevent future shortages on equipment. And as we move out past this crisis, we must look for ways to modernize our manufacturing industry to meet our country’s needs while moving us forward. Specifically, we need to focus on greening manufacturing—retrofitting former manufacturing plants to become more environmentally friendly, producing renewable energy infrastructure, and better training American workers would create jobs and address environmental hazards.  

Our government must do more to hold accountable American corporations that ship jobs overseas. American multinationals that will not repatriate should be taxed at significantly higher rates for shipping jobs outside our country. This revenue is sorely needed as we face this economic crisis. Also, corporations that seek bailout funds related to the pandemic must demonstrate that the majority of their workforce is American; otherwise they should be deemed ineligible. And as we move forward, EPA regulations must be strengthened to ensure manufacturing plants are not environmentally harming the surrounding communities.   

We have a long way toward recovery, but recovery has to start with a reflection on why our country was so woefully unprepared for this crisis. We must ensure that all Americans, and most importantly corporate America, contribute to the rebuilding of our nation.

Adem Bunkeddeko is a candidate for Congress in New York’s 9th District, covering parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @adembunkeddeko.

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A CLEAR Path Forward on Emergency Preparedness

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Mayor de Blasio holds an emergency management briefing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

I’m writing this from my living room. My three-month-old daughter is across the room, sleeping in her activity gym. My wife is watching television. This should be another normal day, but all of us, including you reading this, knows it's not. Our daughter has barely seen her grandparents since February. My wife hasn't seen the outside world in almost two months. Aside from a few stressful trips along empty streets to the grocery store, neither have I.

Nothing about this pandemic has been normal — not even our response. The COVID-19 outbreak rekindles the darkness of Hurricane Sandy. No one knew what to do or where to go. By the time the government acted, it was too late. No master plan existed to deal with prolonged school closures, hold an election after a disaster, and mobilize large-scale relief efforts. Tragically that is still true.

There was no plan in place before the first coronavirus case was confirmed in New York City. The Greatest City on Earth is letting its people down time and time again because we fail to prepare for the next inevitable disaster. 

The City of New York needs to do better, and I have a plan to make that happen. My first bill introduced to the New York City Council will be the New York Create and Learn Emergency Action Response Act. The NY CLEAR Act would create a five-level, color-coded alert system based on the post-9/11 federal system. New Yorkers should be able to know green means everything is smooth sailing; blue could indicate a closure or restriction due to standard winter storms; and red would mean the city is shut down in its current form. 

The NY CLEAR Act would live up to its name by being concise and easily understood. It would be a universal language so our diverse communities all understand the severity of a situation. No matter which of New York City’s more than 200 languages you speak, you’d know that green means everything is fine — the city is safe. New Yorkers would know it’s safe to enjoy a park, go to work, or get on a subway that’s as unreliable as normal.

Blue would indicate the city is monitoring an evolving situation. This code should be in place when we send more police officers to Penn Station and other crowded areas after a terror attack, as we did the night of the 2015 Paris shooting. It would give New Yorkers a sense that the city is aware of a threat and is working to address it. Internally, blue signals to the Office of Emergency Management it must collect data on the event to adapt the city’s standard response plan. 

Yellow means that threat is now inevitable. Hospital administrators would start implementing plans to increase supplies and staff. Alternate side parking rules would be suspended, while garbage pickups and mass transit service would be modified. Small businesses should take yellow as a warning that their hours might change or close completely. 

Orange would mean the emergency is already happening — such as when the number of positive COVID-19 cases spiked over 1,000. Schools, courts, and all non-essential offices would immediately close. If severe weather has caused us to go orange, evacuation centers are opened. 

Red tells New Yorkers that leaving their home is life-threatening. At this point, each agency’s specific emergency plan would go into place. Pre-identified roads will close to non-emergency vehicle traffic. City government should be ready to deliver food, protective equipment, and other life-saving materials door-to-door. 

Imagine the number of cases we could have prevented, the number of lives saved, if city government had a wholesale plan in place for when a crisis strikes. Instead, our collective anxiety was compounded by the government operating on the fly — obviously without a serious plan for this type of situation and without the people of New York knowing how or being prepared to respond. 

The NY CLEAR Act will make New Yorkers safer. Informational posters will be clearly displayed at every workplace alongside other key documents such as the Department of Labor’s “know your rights” sheet. Every New York City hotel room would provide a mandated pamphlet, so visitors can learn the emergency system quickly.The NY CLEAR Act should also be taught at an age-appropriate level in classrooms so young people will know how to adapt in the event of an emergency. 

It is critical every New Yorker knows how to prepare for an emergency, and how to respond when the time comes. They deserve for New York City to declare an emergency at the right time, and for agencies to be held accountable for their responses. The NY CLEAR Act will mandate a hearing any time the city goes to yellow or higher. When a service is suspended, or when certain plans are put into place, it should require the city to conduct a wholesale look at whether protocols were properly followed and what we can learn to improve our response.

Crises have historically challenged us, well after the actual tragedy. We are judged both by our response in the moment as well as what we did to mitigate future catastrophes. Hurricane Sandy and COVID-19 both cost us too many lives. It’s time we learn our lesson and prepare. The next disaster will come. Whether or not we are ready, that much is clear. 

Nick Roloson is a candidate for the New York City Council in District 22, in Queens. On Twitter @nickroloson.

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It’s Actually the Perfect Time for City Government to Invest in Housing

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Mayor de Blasio makes a housing announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In the wake of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus shutdown, Mayor de Blasio must find budget savings anywhere he can, while still advancing his mission to make New York “the fairest big city” in America.  

It won’t be easy. But the sudden drop in tax revenue should not stop the mayor from continuing to make one smart investment: creating new affordable housing.

With the pandemic exposing the full extent of the city’s homeless crisis, now is exactly the time to create more affordable and supportive housing, as well as high-quality shelter. Doing so can sharply reduce exorbitant spending on emergency homeless hotels, create good-paying jobs when we need them most, and end the terrible damage homelessness has inflicted on a generation of children.

New York City cannot afford to miss what is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the city’s economy, the mayor found himself stuck in an unwinnable war against homelessness.

Mayor de Blasio created thousands of new, locally-funded rental vouchers for homeless families, helping many return to permanent housing. But the lowest rental housing vacancy rate in decades meant too many of the vouchers went unused, unable to counter the law of supply and demand.

The mayor also launched a record-breaking affordable housing production initiative that likewise helped thousands of homeless people find homes again. But with so many New Yorkers becoming homeless each night, the housing just couldn’t be built fast enough.

The pandemic has changed all this. And while the economic repercussions will be devastating, they also present a promising opportunity for change.

No matter what we do, New York City is likely losing residents now and into the immediate future. With the drop in demand, thousands of overleveraged properties will become available for purchase and conversion to affordable housing. With far fewer tourists visiting the city for the foreseeable future, newly superfluous hotels will be available for pennies on the dollar. Otherwise healthy apartment buildings will need formerly homeless tenants with rent vouchers those tenants can finally use.

With these new conditions suddenly in place, the mayor finally has the chance to lay the foundation for his successor to end widespread homelessness in New York City.

To do so, the city should first maintain – or even increase – capital investment in affordable housing production this year. The city borrows to fund this housing investment, so it has an outsized economic effect: the money creates housing (and jobs) today, but the bonds are paid back over decades. Fortunately, at this time interest rates are low, and the share of the city’s budget going toward borrowing costs is far below the 15% fiscal experts recommend as a cap. In short, we can afford to do this.

The administration has instead proposed slashing the capital housing budget by 40% — roughly half-a-billion dollars annually — this year and next. These cuts will delay the creation of thousands of new affordable housing units right when we need them most, and just as the cost of acquisition and development is falling.

Cutting half-a-billion dollars from the capital budget sounds like a lot of savings. But because the money for long-term investments like affordable housing is borrowed, the cut will only reduce the city’s cost of paying the money back — less than $50 million a year in savings. But in reality,  we won’t save a thing. If these cuts go through, the next mayor will end up spending even more sheltering New Yorkers who remained homeless because the housing was never built.

Of course it’s not enough just to restore the cuts to affordable housing. Despite its newly straitened circumstances, the city should stick to the mayor’s original vision and keep providing rental vouchers to homeless households. It must redirect capital dollars to acquire newly available distressed properties. And it should build housing for the people who need it most: homeless, senior, and very poor New Yorkers, because housing vulnerable people has been proven, over and over again, to reduce public spending on health care, shelter, and other expensive emergency interventions.

Our city’s terrible homeless crisis demands a renewed commitment to creating more housing. Fortunately, few economic activities generate more benefits: such an effort will bring precisely the kinds of increased jobs and consumer spending we need right now to restore the city’s economy. It is the most effective and cost-efficient option available to the mayor to spur the city’s comeback. At the same time, no investment will do more to cement the mayor’s legacy of correcting long-standing systemic inequities that have plagued the city for decades.

Ted Houghton is the President of Gateway Housing, the former Executive Deputy Commissioner of New York State Homes and Community Renewal and former Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York. On Twitter @Gateway_Housing.

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Coronavirus, Climate Change and Coming Together Amid Catastrophe

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The current crisis reminds us of the past and warns us about the future (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Everyone on Long Island remembers how it felt during Hurricane Sandy. We were paralyzed, waiting for the storm to pass, fearing for our families, homes, and basic needs. When the skies finally cleared, and we saw the scale of the destruction, it was clear that no individual one of us was strong enough, connected enough, or resourced enough to recover alone. We needed each other, we needed our community, we needed to come together. 

Now, we’re facing another disaster, this one a global pandemic that has already sickened millions, killed hundreds of thousands, and left one in five Americans unemployed. We need to remember those lessons learned after Sandy. We must understand that we’re in this together. 

The people who were struggling the most to get by before the pandemic started are the ones suffering the most now. Hourly and gig economy workers, the elderly, incarcerated and homeless people, and low-income communities of color are experiencing the most death and economic devastation.

They will also be the ones left behind after the next climate disaster. Long Island is one of the most segregated regions in the country, so it’s no surprise that COVID-19 cases and climate vulnerability are both staggeringly high in communities of color. 

Part of this is because of climate and environmental injustice. A new study from Harvard University has found that exposure to air pollution heightens a person’s risk of dying from COVID-19. Here on Long Island, years of housing and environmental policy have ensured that black communities are stuck next to the worst polluting infrastructure sites. It’s no surprise that years of breathing in car and truck emissions can weaken a person’s lungs and make them more susceptible to COVID-19. 

We can learn our lesson from Sandy and provide relief now by preparing for the future. Recovery funding and programs should be directed towards the most impacted communities, and should help reduce environmental pollution and thus COVID-19 and other vulnerabilities. As soon as it’s safe to do so, we can put people back to work by building renewable-energy and climate-resilient infrastructure, and target hiring and economic development for communities  experiencing the most job and wage loss right now. 

And, we can work to avoid the worst climate disasters. Many upcoming climate events are already “locked in,” but we can still come together to avoid the worst of the worst. New York now has one of the strongest climate laws in the country, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The CLCPA is one of the few laws that calls for emission reductions in line with scientific recommendations to avoid the worst climate outcomes. We can hold our government accountable to the law -- for example, by ensuring it continues to work on the emissions reduction plan during the PAUSE order -- to lessen the risk of worst-case scenario climate disasters in the future. 

Reflecting on Sandy in light of the current moment, it’s clear that we did not learn enough about how to come together to keep people safe. People today are dying alone in overcrowded hospitals and nursing homes because our state and federal governments did not take the necessary action to protect people from catastrophe. We cannot let this happen again — not in our lifetimes, and not for our children, either. 

As we recover from this pandemic, we must link the recovery with the solutions to the climate crisis. We should be investing in a system that places people before profits and addresses the root causes with bold effective action. We are in this together -- as we have seen, the cost of doing nothing is everything.

Lisa Tyson is Director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, which works for racial justice, building community wealth, and realizing a just transition to a renewable energy future. On Twitter @LisaTysonLIPC.

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As Construction Sites Reopen, Access to Safety Training Must Too

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Construction workers will be among the first back to work (photo: governor's office)

In the blink of an eye, COVID-19 brought most of New York City’s construction industry to a halt, leaving thousands of hardworking individuals jobless and struggling to make ends meet. Fortunately, Governor Cuomo recently announced a phased plan to reopen the construction industry, which will create an increased demand for workers.

But we can’t forget that as a requirement for employment in New York City’s industry, many construction workers and job applicants will need to complete additional safety training requirements.

Local Law 196, which required construction workers to have 30 hours of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety training by December 2019, also requires workers to get an additional 10 hours of training – a total of 40 hours – by this September. That’s just a few months away – and thousands of current or prospective workers still need to meet the deadline.

Prior to the first deadline, Building Skills New York partnered with a wide array of local non-profits and other institutions, such as Hostos Community College and Public Housing Communities, to host OSHA-30 training sessions that helped provide free training to more than 300 workers. And of course, we were far from the only ones stepping up. That kind of work all across the city had a real impact on ensuring that more men and women entering the industry had the training and credentials needed to secure good jobs. 

But now, with social-distancing mandates in place for the foreseeable future, it is not currently possible to receive OSHA training in a traditional classroom setting. That’s why it is critical for public and private sector partners to take two steps on this issue over the coming weeks. 

First, more funding should be made available to connect current and prospective construction workers with virtual OSHA training opportunities. Workforce development groups like Building Skills are already doing this by shifting our digital operations and using remote technology capabilities to hold online OSHA sessions. Amid current virus concerns, this virtual training model is a no-brainer – it protects workers’ health while also giving individuals full access to construction employment opportunities. 

Second, public officials should consider taking careful, data-driven steps to planning out a process for reopening in-person site safety training facilities. While OSHA sessions can be held online, other courses – such as the Department of Buildings’ series of 4-hour, 16-hour, and 32-hour scaffold trainings and the Fire Department’s F-60, G-60, S-92, S-93, and S-94 – must be completed in person. Just as state leaders have developed reopening plans for construction and other industries based on guidance from health experts, the same approach could be applied to spaces that previously housed safety training sessions. 

Regardless of how we get there, it is incredibly important that nonprofits and other organizations are able to fund any necessary training sessions over the coming weeks and months. As we look to rebuild New York City’s economy, we must take into account individuals who live in underserved communities with an existing history of unemployment and underemployment. Current and prospective workers from across the five boroughs deserve the chance to access the city’s construction sector as new jobs become available. 

Despite the city’s current site shutdowns, the construction industry will soon continue to provide real career opportunities for New Yorkers of all backgrounds. And just as public officials have taken a logical, systematic approach to reopening worksites, they must also look to make safety training more accessible to the men and women who will help build the future of our city in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. New funding for virtual courses is a great way to help us do that.

Building Skills looks forward to effectively confronting this new challenge alongside our incredible network of industry and non-profit partners – and we know that these efforts will help ensure that challenge is addressed for workers who need our support.

David Meade is Executive Director of Building Skills New York. On Twitter @BuildSkillsNY.

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Underappreciated and Underserved, Immigrant New Yorkers Need the City to Step Up

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Council Member Carlos Menchaca, the author (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As in past crises, immigrant New Yorkers are suffering acutely under COVID-19: this time with a cruel twist. While thousands of immigrants work on the frontlines, caring for the sick, cleaning the subways, and keeping us all fed in quarantine, so many are unable to pay rent, keep their businesses afloat, or stay home because of their exclusion from federal relief programs.

That hypocrisy alone should warrant intervention by New York state government, yet it hasn’t. Governor Cuomo has either blamed the federal government for not giving enough aid, or incorrectly claimed, as he did this week, that “the federal government has a number of programs to address” the plight of immigrants already.

The state’s lack of urgency reflects values and priorities as much as fiscal reality. But our city cannot afford to wait for the state to help more than 3 million of our own New Yorkers. We must have the courage to pass a budget that addresses their desperation, primarily because the city’s full recovery depends on it.

In New York City, more than half of immigrants are essential workers, immigrants own half the city’s businesses and contributed $232 billion last year to our GDP. That includes 360,000 undocumented immigrant workers and 48,000 undocumented business owners. A city budget -- due by July 1 -- that excludes immigrants from relief would be astonishingly hypocritical on this basis alone. 

It would also be cruel. According to a survey recently conducted by Make the Road New York, nine out of ten immigrant households have at least one earner who has lost a job or income since the pandemic began. Of unemployed respondents, 88% are out of work because of COVID-19. With nine in ten immigrants also renters, more than half were unable to pay rent in April, and nearly every respondent worries they cannot pay in May.

Compounding this economic insecurity is lack of access to government assistance, as undocumented immigrants were largely excluded from federal relief – such as paid sick leave and unemployment benefits – even though they pay billions, annually, in taxes. Of those surveyed, only 15 percent reported receiving any support from the government at all.

Above all, the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant agenda has proved to be a death sentence for our communities: pre-pandemic expansion of the public charge rule and escalation of immigration enforcement have caused many immigrants to shirk medical care, which puts everyone at risk. All the while, ICE continues to arrest and detain immigrants in COVID-19 infested facilities and the U.S. Department of Justice forces immigration courts to remain open for detained dockets, putting both immigration agents and public defenders at risk.

There is much New York City can do through the budget to help immigrant New Yorkers. Our current situation has exposed the critical gaps our budget fills: funding public defenders for the deportation defense of unaccompanied minors and detained adults; English proficiency classes for New Yorkers to navigate city life and government at all levels; and healthcare programs that are immigrant-led through trusted community partners, to name a few. We must fully renew funding for all immigration legal services and adult literacy programs; allocate funding for culturally sensitive health and mental health-care, and interpretation services like a worker cooperative language bank.

We can also pass existing legislation that would reform our commercial rent market; legalize e-bikes for delivery workers now that state authorization exists; and reform and expand our street vendor licensing system. These bills already enjoy overwhelming City Council support and their passage would send a clear message to immigrant New Yorkers that the city has their backs.

None of these things would come easy, and I appreciate, as a member of the Council’s Budget Negotiating Team, the competing priorities with which we are faced. But immigrants are not a special interest. If we do not secure the well-being of over 3 million New Yorkers, there is no recovery.

It is time for all levels of government to step up and recognize what over 120 grassroots-led mutual aid groups already know: that full recovery depends on the well-being of our immigrant communities. That praise for essential workers is hollow if we exclude most of their ranks from relief. And worse of all, we make a mockery of our collective effort if we leave so many behind.

City Council Member Carlos Menchaca represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s immigration committee. On Twitter @CMenchaca.

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