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All Aboard the BRT Express?


bus mta photo m86

(photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


Google Maps estimated an hour-and-a-half for a trip from near City Hall to a location in Southeast Queens, leaving at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. On the E train to its final stop and a bus crawling along jam-packed Merrick Boulevard, the trip took about an hour longer, two-and-a-half hours from door to door.

“Now you know what we go through every day,“ City Council Member I. Daneek Miller told Gotham Gazette following that night’s event, which he co-hosted with Council Member Donovan Richards and focused on, what else, transportation.

The commute to and from downtown Manhattan that the Council members and some of their constituents face was part of the motivation behind the town hall, set in the outer reaches of the city and called to examine the challenging state of public transit in St. Albans, Laurelton, and surrounding neighborhoods - often referred to as a “transportation desert.”

In a recent op-ed for Crain’s New York Business, Miller laid out the extent of the problem: people from Southeast Queens spend roughly 15 hours a week commuting, 238 percent more time than the average New Yorker.

The residents of the area share this plight with several other neighborhoods considered transportation deserts because of their lack of public transit options - places including the Rockaways, the North Bronx, and the South Shore of Staten Island.

With the subway map sure to stay mostly as it is, communities in greatest need of good transportation options that can get residents to the city’s main jobs centers are reliant on a bus system lacking in capacity and dependability. Even though 97 percent of the city‘s population lives within a quarter mile of a bus stop, the collective problems with the service--it is one of the slowest systems in the nation and the slowest among big cities--render residents far removed from subway lines and feeling helpless.

With increased scrutiny of transportation deserts and lengthy New York City commutes come increasing calls for creative bus solutions: with more selective bus service (SBS) and bus rapid transit (BRT) at the forefront.

transpo deserts[NYC "subway deserts" - map by Chris Whong)

According to an audit released by Comptroller Scott Stringer in April, buses are not just slow, they are also often late: Stringer‘s study revealed that more than 30 percent of the city’s express buses do not run on schedule. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are hit the hardest, the comptroller said. The report also found that the MTA had inconsistent inspection standards for wheelchair lifts across their bus fleet, which, in addition to failing disabled riders, also slows bus time.

“This is more than just a statistic,“ Stringer said at the press conference unveiling his audit, “a late bus could mean a missed job opportunity, missed wages, or missed time with children.“

One possible antidote for lagging buses and transit hungry commuters is Bus Rapid Transit, and the idea is gaining momentum, as the Miller-Richards town hall showed. The questions ahead are about political will and community buy-in toward expanding BRT in New York City. BRT was a piece of a recent City Council hearing on transportation deserts, but the city’s Department of Transportation has already been made to study BRT through a law passed in the Council and signed by Mayor de Blasio that will lead to a report on areas where BRT should be implemented.

Started in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, BRT was originally formulated as a cheaper alternative for a city that didn‘t have the money to build a subway. In its fullest form BRT combines a variety of features to make it operate at a speed comparable to light rail (an option also talked about for Queens and Staten Island). Long accordion style buses--in Curitiba they hold up to 250 people--shoot up and down bus-only lanes of large streets, stopping at intervals akin to a subway line (rather than the shorter ones of typical bus service).

Traffic signals have sensors in order to hold green lights for buses approaching intersections. People pay their fare before they board the bus and stations often feature elevated platforms or curbsides that coincide with the floor of the bus, making it quick and easy for elderly or disabled people to board. All this amounts to more on time, reliable, and efficient bus service.

Since the turn of the century cities across the globe including Paris, Istanbul, Bogata, and Los Angeles have all adopted BRT to curb car use and improve public transit overall.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to bring BRT to New York as part of his efforts to help the city’s lower and middle classes. The argument also goes, of course, that if workers have shorter and easier commutes they are more productive when they’re at work.

”Bus riders are the most neglected part of our transportation system,” de Blasio’s policy book from his 2013 mayoral campaign reads. “Bus Rapid Transit has the potential to save outer-borough commuters hours off their commute times every week and stimulate economic activity in neighborhoods the subway system doesn’t reach.”

While it’s been somewhat slow to materialize, de Blasio’s pledge to bring New York City a “world-class bus rapid transit system” has been gaining steam. When signing the BRT study bill in May, de Blasio reminded that, “We all know that mass transit is particularly critical for those New Yorkers for whom resources are very tight, whose incomes are very tight - mass transit is their lifeline. It connects them to jobs, schools, everything.”

In March the state-run MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the official plan for the city‘s first full-scale BRT route on Woodhaven Boulevard, in Queens. The project will stretch 14.4 miles, cost around $200 million, and be fully operational by 2017. (By contrast, the Second Avenue subway is supposed to cover 8.5 miles, cost upwards of $17 billion, and be done at a to-be-determined date.)

Previously the two organizations’ efforts to speed up bus time came in the form of Select Bus Service, a paired down version of BRT that also utilizes off-board fare collection, along with traffic signal priority, semi-exclusive bus lanes, and longer distances between stations. The first SBS route was launched in 2008 on the Bx12 on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and has enjoyed relative success. According to statistics collected by the MTA one year after the launch, running times increased up to 19 percent, ridership by 8 percent.

Over the past seven years the MTA and the DOT have added seven other SBS routes, including ones going up First Avenue and down Second Avenue in Manhattan. All routes have enjoyed faster service and a 2013 DOT report claimed that SBS had saved eight million hours of travel time.

Still, SBS is not BRT. The former appears more suited for the busier sections for the city, the latter for moving people from the city’s outer reaches to its transit and business hubs.

With the Woodhaven route, which will have exclusive lanes and robust, fully-outfitted stations with shelters, seats, and real-time information on bus arrivals (along with off-board fare collection and transit signal priority) the city is setting a new standard for its above-ground transportation. The fully exclusive bus lanes, which will also allow traffic signal priority to be more effective, are particularly exciting given that Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for the MTA, told Gotham Gazette that traffic congestion and red lights are the top two causes for bus delays.

woodhaven2 int[Woodhaven BRT rendering, via NYC DOT]

The line, which will run north-south, perpendicular to the A, E, F, J, M, R, and 7 trains, is indicative of the type of improvements BRT could offer in the so-called “outer boroughs.” Joan Byron, Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a member of the advocacy group BRT for NYC, sees this improvement as imperative to the economic empowerment of New York’s outer-borough residents.

“We have a problem right now of people not being able to get to their jobs and employers not being able to get to their workforce. Work locations are shifting. Job growth is much faster in the boroughs than it is in Manhattan…and the subway system isn‘t set up to serve them. You can do things with BRT that would take decades to do with rail,“ Byron told Gotham Gazette.

As it stands, she explains, “if you live some place like Far Rockaway…the number of jobs that are within a reasonable commute range for you are much smaller than if you live someplace like Park Slope.”

The Woodhaven line plans to change that for its service area. BRT lines along the North Shore of Staten Island (something City Council Member Debbie Rose called “a necessity, not an amenity”) and Southern Brooklyn—two possible routes the MTA and DOT are investigating—would also serve similar purposes.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents part of the area the new BRT route will serve, sees this project as only the beginning. Ultimately, he wants a full-scale BRT network throughout the city, viewing the issue as one that is also key to environmental justice.

“[BRT] needs to become as natural as breathing air,“ he said to Gotham Gazette after the town hall. “We have got to remember that if we don’t get cars off the road, climate change is going to wipe out communities in New York City. Overall the city needs to adopt it,” he said, referring to BRT.

Car Ownership blog[Rates of car ownership, via NYC EDC]

Richards, along with city DOT officials, recently had lunch with and gave a tour of the planned Woodhaven route to a federal transportation secretary. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has promised to push for federal funding.

The excitement continued into May when the mayor signed into law the new BRT-related bill.

According to the City Council website, “Under the bill, DOT would work with the MTA and gather input with the public to develop a citywide BRT plan, due to the Council no later than September 1, 2017. The plan would consider areas of the City in need of additional rapid transit options, strategies for serving growing neighborhoods, potential intra-borough and inter-borough BRT corridors DOT plans to establish by 2027, strategies for integrating BRT with other transit routes, and the anticipated operating costs of additional BRT lines.”

SBS may continue to expand, and many note that it is a version of BRT, but the extent to which a strong BRT system will be implemented is unclear. In several other cities where the system has achieved success, says Joan Byron of Pratt, the build of these cities naturally accommodated the necessary BRT infrastructure.

“The places where that has been done, places like Bogota, Columbia, that model was implemented exactly in the parts of the city that have kind of a post-World War II physical fabric and development pattern. The street there for the main bus line, the Transmillenial, is twelve lanes wide. Pedestrians cross that street on over-passes. It wasn’t a big jump to put dedicated lanes in the center region and to have physical stations that are actually enclosed.”

Woodhaven Boulevard, eight lanes wide and notoriously hazardous for pedestrians (the station islands to be installed in the middle of the avenue also act as a safety measure), is at least somewhat similar.

Council Member Brad Lander, the lead sponsor of the BRT bill, sees Manhattan’s First and Second Avenues as streets also appropriate for the full BRT service, especially given the MTA‘s recent announcement to forgo $1 billion in funding for the Second Avenue Subway project.

Most buses, though, don‘t operate on streets the width of a small highway (even dedicating a full lane of First or Second Avenue could prove quite contentious). For these routes Lander and Byron see smaller BRT-like features being incorporated into bus operation citywide on a case-by-case basis.

“The simple idea of off-board fare payment, that’s something we want to get to on every city bus,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. After that, he said, what is doable will depend on infrastructure features and funding.

Lander cited the SBS M86 route, the MTA‘s latest SBS addition, as a prime example. Even though there is not enough room for a dedicated bus lane (the bus runs crosstown on 86th Street in Manhattan), the MTA has already installed off-board fare collection and plans to add bus bulbs - protruding, bulges of sidewalk in front of bus stops, constructed so that the bus doesn‘t have to pull over when it picks up passengers. Stations are also equipped with real-time bus arrival information. A similar approach could be effective on smaller streets in the outer boroughs as well.

imgres[A bus bulb, via Streetsblog.org]

Council Member Daneek Miller is impatient, saying that his transit-starved constituents can’t wait a decade for BRT lines.

“There are 300,000 people in Southeast Queens who it’s talking an hour-and-a-half, an hour-and-forty-five minutes to get to their job in the city, who can’t wait 20 years for a change,” Miller said after his town hall.

Miller, who ran a transportation workers union before joining the Council, takes a slightly more cynical view of SBS. He says the recent buzz around BRT has led the city to overlook basic adaptations that could yield considerable results, like those he outlined in his op-ed, such as fare reform on the LIRR. For his constituents, Miller said, “BRT might be the second best answer. I can get to City Hall in 50 [minutes] on the LIRR; it takes me an hour-and-40-minutes using public transportation.”

Still, Miller certainly wants to see extended express bus service to Downtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. He acknowledges infrastructure challenges of implementing BRT in some places, saying “We don‘t want to put square pegs in a round hole,” and that it is essential to have all the components, otherwise it won’t be BRT, but a “glorified express bus service.”

With an eye toward communities like those represented by his colleagues Miller and Richards, Lander points to the need for more options for commuters. Citing “low-income New Yorkers and communities of color” that “have disproportionately long commute times,” Lander said at the May bill-signing that “New Yorkers across the city – especially in transit-starved, outer-borough neighborhoods – need more mass-transit options. This law, and subsequent exploration of a Bus Rapid Transit network, will significantly improve public transportation access in the parts of NYC that need it most, at a cost we can afford, and help insure a more sustainable future.”

BRT and SBS advocates, like Lander, stand confident that their plan will deliver, and sooner than projected.

“I think it’s going to accelerate,“ said Byron. “For every elected official that will stand up and say ‘I want BRT in my district now,’ which all the Council members along the Q52, Q53 routes have said, you’ll get others that say, ‘Forget it, my constituents ride the bus,‘” Byron said, referring to hesitant Council members who she thinks will acquiesce.

When asked about the twelve year timeline in his BRT bill, a charged Lander replied, “the city - the DOT with the MTA - is already rolling out BRT at a pretty rapid rate...we are not waiting.“

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by Colin O’Connor
@GothamGazette
@colinqoconnor93

De Blasio Housing Chief Looks to Allay Fears, Build Support for Rezonings


Been NY Law School

New York Law School's Ross Sandler & HPD's Vicki Been (Phoebe Rosen for NYLS)


Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said that the city’s affordable housing plan is on track and responded to critics on Friday, emphasizing that the plan is less about simply building units and more about “making neighborhoods better.”

Speaking at a breakfast hosted by the CityLand publication of New York Law School, Been gave a balanced, thorough review of the concerns people have expressed about the city’s rezoning plans, but said that the city, through HPD, is implementing policies that will prevent displacement and ensure existing residents are included as neighborhoods change.

Nearly two years into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, his ten-year Housing New York plan to preserve or build 200,000 units of affordable housing is on target, Been declared, with the city having closed on more than 30,000 affordable homes. But two key elements of the plan, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, have run into community opposition in recent months as the city begins the public review process that is likely to lead to their passage through the City Council, potentially with a few tweaks.

At a community meeting last month in East New York, Assembly Member Charles Barron and City Council Member Inez Barron urged residents to vote against a proposal to rezone the neighborhood, according to DNAinfo. The two said that while the new units built may be designated “affordable,” they may not actually be affordable to existing residents. This concern, among several specific problems that critics point to with the plans, has been voiced in other neighborhoods as well. An extensive borough- and community-based review of the proposals is underway, with varying results thus far as local community boards vote in non-determinative polls.

Community boards have thus far had mixed responses to the proposed Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans. While Brooklyn’s CB6 approved the proposals this week, Brooklyn’s CB3 and Queens’ CB2 rejected the same proposals earlier this month. Residents in Brooklyn’s CB3, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, said they were concerned about the plan allowing taller buildings to be built, changing the neighborhood’s character, and eventually forcing them to move out of the area.

More borough- and community-based hearings are upcoming, including one being held by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer on Monday evening, and City Council hearings are not far off.

The Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan would require 25 to 30 percent of new units built in a rezoned area to be “permanently affordable,” while the Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan would change existing zoning laws to promote the construction of more affordable and higher quality buildings.

During an appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday, Mayor de Blasio said his zoning plans are informed by what he saw as a lack of city regulation and planning in places like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Been said that all such plans are controversial because current residents fear they could be displaced - that gentrification is scary to many in and near neighborhoods that have been changing over the years. But Been also said the East New York plan, which aims to provide more than 3,000 units of affordable housing and improve transport and business corridors, was something the city should be doing more of. She also said that rezonings don’t actually lead to more flight from neighborhoods by low-income tenants than is a typical amount of transience.

Speaking to Gotham Gazette after the event, Been said that while she would like the rezoning plans to be more widely accepted, “we would like to get it passed, and we’re very optimistic.”

She had a similarly optimistic response to a question from the audience about the future of the 421-a tax abatement, which will expire in December if it is not renewed given a deal between labor and real estate. “Life will go on,” Been said to chuckles from the crowd. “There was life before 421-a, and there will be life if 421-a fails. We will survive and still deliver our 200,000 units.”

Still, Been indicated she would like to see 421-a survive and that it, in a newly strengthened form, will be helpful in achieving the administration’s goals.

Either way, the administration’s rezoning plans are moving along. East New York is among the first neighborhoods the city plans to rezone, along with East Harlem and Flushing, among others. Some East Harlem tenants recently announced their own opposition to the plans. During her speech Friday, Been showed a presentation that included current photos of streets in East New York and future renderings that showed new, six-story apartment buildings with street-level retail space.

Been said that while change is inevitable when investments are made in a neighborhood, the city’s approach will address concerns about displacement and gentrification while she also highlighted the positives that come with community development.

“If we’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a neighborhood, we’re doing it to make the neighborhood a bit better. We want it to be a more vibrant place…So as it gets better, it will become more desirable,” Been said. While low-income people face a lot of housing insecurity across the board, she said that recent research shows that renters are not moving out of gentrifying neighborhoods at higher rates. Still, she acknowledged that “whatever the research shows, people fear displacement and they fear displacement for perfectly legitimate reasons.”

Been pointed to a variety of policies included in the Housing New York plan that are aimed at preventing displacement. Most importantly, she said that the city will “double down” on efforts and take a data-driven approach to preserve existing affordable units. “We can’t let any unit of housing that is already affordable become market rate,” she said, noting that de Blasio’s plan promises to preserve at least 120,000 homes that would otherwise become market rate.

Been also mentioned efforts in reaching out to owners of small buildings to preserve or establish affordability, providing legal assistance to protect tenants from harassment, changing vacancy decontrol laws, and establishing community preferences for distributing the new housing stock.

“We’re really working hard to make sure that people in the neighborhoods and the lowest income people do get into the housing we’re building,” she said.

Been also noted that Housing New York plans include families earning as little as 30 percent of area median income (AMI)—or $15,000 for single households. “We are stretching our housing boat down and a little up, so that we provide economically diverse neighborhoods and do not concentrate poverty,” she said. While some new buildings will be 100 percent affordable, many others will be mixed levels of affordability, with some units renting at market rate.

Providing housing for those earning below 30 percent of AMI would be too expensive using the same approach, Been said, noting that the city has historically relied on the federal Department of Housing Urban Development’s Section 8 voucher program, funding for which has been cut in recent years. “That’s why we’re struggling so hard to provide housing below the 30 percent level,” she said in response to a question from an audience member.

The affordable housing plan is “formed with the basic belief that we have to shape development instead of react to it,” she said. “Too much of the discourse is about stopping development. You don’t stop development in a city like New York…Let’s shape it to serve the interests of the neighborhoods across the city.”

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by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, November 9-13


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday November 13

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: NYPD Commissioner Bratton addresses the media after a shooting Monday morning near Penn Station, via @NYPD1Pct; City Council Members-elect Barry Grodenchik (left) and Joe Borelli (right) with CM Jumaane Williams, via @JumaaneWilliams; Veteran and veterans advocate Joe Bello at City Hall for a celebration of the newly approved Department of Veterans Services, via William Alatriste; Gov. Cuomo announces plan for eventual $15/hour minimum wage for state employees, via @NYGovCuomo

bratton press shooting penn st

Grodenchik Williams Borelli

Joe Bello via William Alatriste

Cuomo 15 min wage rally foley sq

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Veterans: Wednesday was Veterans Day, and in New York City, the week was full of parades, resource fairs, and events to honor and aid veterans. Mayor Bill de Blasio held a breakfast reception to honor military veterans Wednesday morning, and on Thursday, the City Council held a hearing on veteran homelessness - all after the mayor and the City Council agreed last week to create a new Department of Veterans Services, which was celebrated Tuesday at City Hall. [Read: First Report Under New Law Will Give Key Data to Coming Veterans Department]

2. Bratton, De Blasio Defend NYPD Approach: On Monday, three people were shot near Penn Station. At a news conference shortly after the shooting, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton reiterated, “The city is very safe and getting safer all the time,” pointing to data that shows such crimes have gone down this year. This decrease in total arrests, as well as in other "negative interactions" between police and civilians, is symbolic of what Bratton calls a "peace dividend," an approach the commissioner said will continue, as it allows the NYPD to "move resources where the need is greatest," Mayor de Blasio said. [Read: 'Peace Dividend’ Approach Continues, Bratton and De Blasio Say]

3. Spotlight on Corruption: Amid corruption trials of two legislative leaders and the release of two reports highlighting the inefficiency of New York’s public ethics laws, good government groups gathered on Wednesday to call on the New York State legislature and the governor to take immediate action to reform public ethics laws. [Read: Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform]

4. Fight for $15: On Tuesday, amid nationwide ‘Fight for $15’ rallies to raise the minimum wage, Governor Cuomo announced that he would use his executive authority to raise the minimum wage for all state employees to $15 an hour over the next several years (with a faster timeline in NYC than elsewhere). After initially referring to a $13 minimum wage as a "nonstarter" this past spring, Governor Cuomo has been pushing for a $15 minimum wage across the board in the state. [Read: Progressive Critics Largely Convinced by Cuomo’s Wage Push]

5. Mayor’s Media Approach: After a lengthy question-and-answer session with members of the press last week, Mayor de Blasio has continued his efforts to make himself more available, but in slightly different fashion, including holding an education town hall in Queens on Thursday. At the town hall, the mayor fielded questions often asked through a critical frame on school overcrowding, a major issue in Queens, as well as charter schools, parent engagement, and school safety policies. Mayor de Blasio also made an appearance on WNYC on Friday, during which time he answered questions from listeners on a variety of topics. [Read: The Mayor’s Media Blitz and De Blasio Attempts to Undo Negative First Impressions]

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 35% of New York public high school students were considered college-ready when they graduated in 2015, up from 33% in 2014, according to the Department of Education.
  • About 10,000 state workers will be affected by Governor Cuomo’s promise to impose an eventual $15 minimum wage, Crain’s New York Business reports.
  • $808 million from penalties will be donated to criminal justice projects in New York City and across the country by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, the New York Times reports.
  • $16,250 is the average annual cost of daycare in New York City, with the cost of childcare overall increasing by $1,612 each year, according to a new report by Public Advocate Letitia James.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for medical marijuana advocates, as Governor Cuomo signed two bills on Wednesday that will provide expedited access to medical marijuana for qualified patients.

It was a bad week for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which "lost" on its gamble, led by President Pat Lynch, to get a larger-than-pattern raise for rank-and-file NYPD officers through abiration, which the PBA chose rather than negotiation with City Hall.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time 97 years ago, on November 11, 1918, New Yorkers celebrated the end of World War I, parading from City Hall to Columbus Circle. Three  years later, November 11th was declared Armistice Day, a national holiday, now called Veterans Day. 
  • Around this time 61 years ago, on November 12, 1954, no longer needed as the nation’s primary immigration station, Ellis Island closed after processing more than 20 million new Americans since opening in New York Harbor in 1892.
  • Around this time 20 years ago, on November 12, 1995, New York City commuters deal with the first day of a mass transit fare hike, which raised the single-ride fare from 25 cents to $1.50. In return, the MTA promised no more increases for the rest of the century.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Warnings Cuomo Must Not Declare Premature Victory on Women's Equality, by David Howard King

Council Hearing Will Amplify Calls for More Supportive Housing, by Meg O’Connor

'Peace Dividend' Approach Continues, Bratton and De Blasio Say, by Ben Max

First Report Under New Law Will Give Key Data to Coming Veterans Department, by Samar Khurshid

Labor Leaders Declare State of Unions Strong, At Least in New York, by Ben Max

Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform, by Meg O’Connor

City Set to Hit Functional Zero Veteran Homelessness, Though Challenges Remain, by Ryan Brady

Game Changers for JFK International, by Nicholas D. Bloom and Philip M. Plotch (opinion)

Reality TV Has No Place in Emergency Rooms, by Council Member Dan Garodnick (opinion)

Sheldon Silver Trial Recalls Earlier Legislative Leaders Accused of Corruption, by Bruce W Deartsyne (opinion)

Creating the Department of Veterans Services, by Joe Bello (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Mayor de Blasio appeard on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday morning

In New York Magazine, Chris Smith looks at how Governor Cuomo's push to clean up Albany 'backfired.'

Politico New York's Azi Paybarah recaps his interview with Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries discussing Jeffries' take on city, state, and federal issues as well as his political future.

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

City Set to Hit Functional Zero Veteran Homelessness, Though Challenges Remain


bdb veteran parade

Mayor de Blasio at the Veterans Day parade (photo via the mayor's office)


City officials said Thursday that New York is on course to house all of its homeless veterans by the end of this year. At a City Council hearing held by the general welfare and veterans committees, de Blasio administration representatives said they would meet a previous promise to find housing for all military veterans without.

"When Mayor de Blasio first took office in January 2014, there were over 1,600 homeless men and women who served our country in our shelters or in our city streets," said Loree Sutton, the commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs and a former Brigadier General. Adding that the administration has drastically reduced that number, Sutton said that "our street homeless count today is only eight veterans."

Ninety-three percent of New York City's homeless or recently homeless veterans, Sutton added, currently have a rental subsidy or are in the process of getting one, and more than 300 are currently in the process of moving from shelter into a new apartment.

The hearing and its positive news followed Tuesday's victory for New York City veterans: the announcement that the city would create a new Department of Veterans Services to replace the the understaffed, underfunded, and under-performing Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs. City leaders, veterans, and veteran advocates celebrated Tuesday and Wednesday, which was Veterans Day.

"This is good news, indeed," Sutton said Thursday.

The story is not quite simple, of course.

"Obviously, the number that jumps out to me is eight street-homeless veterans in New York City by your count," said Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the general welfare committee, in Q&A with Sutton after her initial testimony. "How do you determine that count? Are those people that you have an open case for? Are those people that you've identified as a veteran? Do you think that there are other homeless veterans living out in the street that you might not know of?"

According to Sutton, "multiple vectors" are used to count veterans, such as counts from peer-to-peer coordinators and MOVA's housing outreach team.

The question of the real number of street-homeless veterans was raised later at the hearing by Coco Culhane, director and founder of the Urban Justice Center's Veterans Advocacy Group.

"I just want to say that I know that our client database has the names of men and women who are homeless and DHS [Department of Homeless Services] doesn't have those names," Culhane said. "And I think it's ludicrous to say that 'we know every single homeless veteran out there.'"

In her testimony before the Council members, Culhane said that there are "at least twenty" homeless veterans not accounted for by the Department of Homeless Services, which collaborates with MOVA on veterans and housing.

And, she added, only 20 percent of homeless rent vouchers issued by the DHS Living in Communities Program (LINC) - a component of the city's plan to house all veterans - are being used. Landlords often don't accept them - an issue for veterans and non-veterans that the city must combat.

"I think that we need to absolutely celebrate the success of how much progress has been made," Culhane said of reducing homelessness among military veterans. "But keep in mind that 'functional zero' is a dangerous term, I think, and it signals to the public that we accomplished something and we're set and tax dollars solved it and we can move on, which is not true at all."

Maintaining functional zero and being in compliance with the Mayor's Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, the plan for mayors nationwide created by the Obama administration, will require that the city house all homeless veterans within 90 days of their loss of housing. In his February State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to house all veterans by the end of the year - de Blasio signed onto the challenge when it was created in June 2014.

Though the mayor has been unpopular with veteran advocacy groups, his support for the creation of the new department for veterans services may signal a turning point. Announcing an "end" to veteran homelessness in the city could help too.

"I think [the mayor's effort to end veteran homelessness] is a great idea," Dwight Curry, a Gulf War veteran and member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday at a rally to celebrate the new department. "I think it's a beautiful idea because there's too many of us that are homeless. There's a lot of guys who've got a lot of psychological problems who can't really deal with society as we know it."

Veteran advocates, who spoke at Thursday's hearing, were cautiously pleased about the city getting to functional zero. In her remarks, NYC Veterans Alliance Director Kristen Rouse echoed Culhane's concerns about the grasp the city has on the actual number of homeless veterans.

"When the city talks about functional zero, we must take into account the many veterans who still remain invisible to the system," Rouse said. "And that younger veterans in particular, who are contending with New York City's stark economic realities, may be at risk for homelessness in the near or long-term."

Part of what veterans and advocates want to see from MOVA and then the department that replaces it is a focus on helping veterans access physical and mental health care, jobs, housing, and, for those who own businesses, city contracting opportunities. The city will also be expected to better help veterans returning home to find quickly find affordable housing.

Even when veterans successfully find housing, the expensive market creates difficulties for sustaining their apartments, Rouse pointed out.

"Veterans must be included in any city effort to provide affordable housing, not just for the recently homeless, but to prevent veteran homelessness in the future."

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Council Hearing Will Amplify Calls for More Supportive Housing


bdb groundbreaking

A ground-breaking (photo via the mayor's office) 


With nearly 60,000 homeless people sleeping in New York City shelters each night, roughly 24,000 of them children, a City Council hearing Monday will examine one of the essential elements in reducing homelessness.

At Monday’s oversight hearing, advocates and Council members intend to once again call on the mayor and the governor to come together to approve a fourth NY/NY agreement to create more permanent supportive housing for New York’s most vulnerable.

Supportive housing, a combination of affordable housing and support services, such as case management and job training, is viewed by many to be both the most cost-effective and successful way to help the homeless, particularly those who are chronically homeless due to mental illness, substance abuse problems, or other health issues.

“There’s a lot of good data to support that this stabilizes individuals,” Nicole Bramstedt, policy analyst at Urban Pathways, a non-profit social service and supportive housing organization serving homeless adults, told Gotham Gazette. “Over 80 percent of individuals who have been in supportive housing for one year remain in supportive housing.”

“This is the solution to chronic homelessness,” Laura Mascuch, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, a nonprofit membership organization that represents over 220 nonprofits that develop and operate permanent supportive housing apartments across New York State, told Gotham Gazette. “It really is the answer for moving people out of this shelter system.”

Each tenant in supportive housing saves taxpayers $10,100 annually by helping to stop chronically homeless individuals from cycling in and out of emergency rooms, jail cells, and shelters, thus reducing public spending on expensive emergency interventions, according to a 2013 report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

At the hearing on Monday, held by the Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Housing and Buildings, advocates and Council members will again call attention to the urgent need for the mayor and the governor to reach an agreement to create more permanent supportive housing. Currently, over 20,000 homeless individuals and families qualify for supportive housing each year, yet only one unit is available for every six qualified applicants.

The General Welfare committee is expected to pass a resolution Monday, “calling upon the Governor and Mayor to approve a fourth "New York/New York Agreement" to create permanent supportive housing.”

Mayor de Blasio has agreed to support the creation of 12,000 units in New York City over the next ten years, while Governor Cuomo proposed a plan to create 5,000 units statewide over the next seven years. The latter would be 4,000 fewer units than created by the previous NY/NY agreement - which began in 2005 and is set to end next year - despite the fact that the number of homeless people in New York City shelters each night has nearly doubled since ‘05.

Additionally, in the three previous NY/NY agreements, the state agreed to pay for 80 percent of the new units. This time around, Governor Cuomo has proposed that the city and the state evenly split the cost of all supportive housing units built under a fourth NY/NY agreement.

Neither the mayor’s nor the governor’s proposal is anywhere close to the 32,000 supportive housing units that need to be created in order to meet the needs of New York’s homeless adults and families, according to a recent report released by the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Advocates and state Assembly members alike are calling for a similar number of units to be built.

In July, 133 members of the New York State Assembly signed a letter sent to Governor Cuomo calling for the development of 35,000 new units of supportive housing by 2025 to address the state's growing homelessness crisis.

"Supportive housing is vital for combating chronic homelessness and the factors that keep thousands of New Yorkers without a home," wrote Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, chair of the Social Services Committee. "It is the logical solution to homelessness. It will save taxpayer dollars as it is more cost-effective than relying on homeless shelters and, most importantly, it works."

At the hearing on Monday, Bramstedt told Gotham Gazette she will testify about "the need for these 35,000 units, our experiences providing supportive housing, and the barriers we encounter in terms of operating supportive housing - we still encounter resistance from communities."

"There is a lot of misinformation about supportive housing," Bramstedt continued, saying that advocates plan to "tell the Council about the need to have more education for members of the community about what supportive housing is - it is difficult to get the funding for these facilities, but once we get that funding, we encounter a lot of pushback from the community about where we will build the housing."

A 2008 study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy actually shows that supportive housing has helped increase property values and encourage growth in neighborhoods after opening.

With the third NY/NY housing agreement set to expire in 2016, it seems the mayor and the governor are content to wait till the eleventh hour before working together to approve a fourth NY/NY Agreement.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo were said to be negotiating a new program to provide more housing and support services for homeless individuals in the city, though such a deal has yet to be announced.

“We are not privy to where the negotiations are at,” said Mascuch, who will also be testifying at Monday’s hearing, “but we have not heard that [the city and state] are talking on a regular basis at this point. It is very concerning that we don’t have an agreement - every day that goes by more and more individuals are staying in homeless shelters.”

Whenever a deal is reached, and it is very likely it is a matter of when, not if, there will be a process before new supportive housing units are available to tenants. The sooner a deal is reached, logic says, the sooner those units will be available.

“We need the mayor and the governor to come together on this. It needs to be done now,” Bramstedt said. “The third NY/NY agreement has basically expired, and these units take time to develop.”

“The longer we delay reaching an agreement,” Bramstedt continued, “the longer we are denying homeless individuals long term placement options that succeed, and the more money you and I are spending and the government is spending.”

It is unclear who from the de Blasio administration may be testifying on Monday - inquiries to the Department of Homeless Services were not returned. Council Members Stephen Levin and Jumaane Williams, who chair the two committees holding the hearing, were not made available for interviews by their respective press people, despite numerous attempts by Gotham Gazette.

Monday’s hearing may put pressure on Mayor de Blasio to commit to funding supportive housing units on his own, either forcing the governor’s hand or truly moving forward without him. The city has unleashed a variety of homelessness fighting measures over the past year or so under de Blasio, and has moved over 50,000 individuals out of shelter, the administration says. But, many of those people cycle back into shelter, and just as fast as some move out, others move in, as the city’s challenges with affordability, mental health, and substance abuse continue.

“We are confident Mayor de Blasio will soon come forward with the city’s share,” Assembly Member Hevesi and Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy with the Coalition for the Homeless, wrote in a recent op-ed for the Daily News. “Now the burden is on Cuomo to do his part. Experienced organizations stand ready to build thousands more permanent homes for our homeless veterans and their families, women and children overcoming domestic violence and abuse, people recovering from addictions, and men and women struggling with debilitating mental illnesses.”

If the governor really wants to “save New York City,” as he reportedly said during a private event for his fund-raising committee several weeks ago while speaking about city issues, including the homelessness crisis, many say he should heed calls to finalize a new agreement to fund and develop the number of supportive housing units that New York actually needs.

That’s one message very likely to be made clear yet again on Monday at the City Council.

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform


cuomo silver skelos 2011

L-R: Silver, Cuomo & Skelos in 2011 (photo via the governor's office) 


New York's leading good government groups gathered at Manhattan's Foley Square Wednesday to call on the New York State legislature and the governor to take immediate action to reform public ethics laws. The press conference, held in the shadows of a federal courthouse where one of New York’s most powerful politicians is being tried on corruption charges, came as other recent developments also shine a bright light on the state's insufficient handling of ethics and corruption.

Not only has the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver begun, but the trial of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos is set to begin next week; and, there was the recent release of a report by a state ethics review commission calling for changes as well as a national study assessing state government accountability and transparency giving New York a "D-" grade.

So on Wednesday, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause NY, the League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and the two new legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, urging them to come together to enact comprehensive and significant reforms in five ethics categories. To bring further attention to their calls for reform, the groups held a press conference.

“This news conference is the first of many actions our groups are going to be taking in the months to come to really push this front and center, because we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “We want to urge immediate action and if possible even a special session.”

“New Yorkers are so disgusted, they’ve just come to accept that this is part and parcel of how state government operates, and it should not be,” Dadey said. “With the convergence of all these events, there is no better time than now to enact these reforms.”

The reforms the groups are calling to be enacted either in a special end-of-year session or in early 2016 include:

  • Change legislative compensation through upcoming recommendations by a recently appointed pay commission, considering increased salaries and greater limits on outside income.
  • "Limit the influence of dark money campaign contributions and end government spending that takes place in the shadows' through measures such as closing the infamous LLC loophole.
  • "Reform ethics oversight and enforcement" by making changes to JCOPE’s structure, scope, and voting procedures to increase transparency and independence.
  • "Strengthen financial reporting disclosure requirements for public officers to allow the public to more easily spot conflicts of interest."
  • "Streamline and standardize disclosure of lobbying activity for better analysis and easier evaluation by the public."

While the Silver and Skelos trials come just two months after the Senate's second-highest-ranking Republican, Tom Libous, was convicted of lying under oath to FBI agents during an investigation into his son's hiring at a politically connected law firm. New York City just elected two new state legislators to fill vacant seats vacated due to corruption charges.

Silver, charged with five federal counts of theft of honest services, mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion for improperly using his public position to obtain nearly $4 million in illicit payments, and Skelos, charged with six federal counts of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and soliciting bribes in connection with exploiting his public position in order to secure a lucrative no-show job for his son, have both declared their innocence, with Silver’s legal team attempting to paint its client’s dealing as par for the course in Albany.

It is the pervasive culture of corruption - both legal and illegal - in state government that has undermined public trust and yet failed to spur truly meaningful reform, good government advocates and many legislators and other stakeholders say.

“For far too long, state legislators in particular have used their public posts for private gain, and have lined their pockets,” Dadey said Wednesday. “Much of what is happening here in the Silver trial and in the Skelos trial shows how one hand washes another, and we want to see that practice end.”

Decrying a system that is akin to “a perfect storm that would encourage corruption by state lawmakers,” Dadey said “Citizens Union believes we should raise the pay significantly, limit outside income, eliminate stipends, and overhaul the way in which [legislators’] daily expense reimbursements are handled.”

In the past decade, 27 legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical issues. “So far, there is no sign that the arrests of the legislative leaders has changed how Albany does business,” John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said in a statement. At the press conference, Kaehny added, “One big step toward changing that is to see where the money is going. No more secret spending. No more spending in the shadows. Let’s see transparency for state spending, and let’s end the pay-to-play and legal bribery that are on trial here.”

On the same day that Silver's trial began, the New York Ethics Review Commission released an evaluation the current ethics oversight system and recommended reforms to improve the functioning of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC).

The recommendations include eliminating the veto power JCOPE commissioners have over investigations, among several others.

Citizens Union has advocated for all of the aforementioned reforms, and while the changes recommended by the Ethics Review Commission are certainly seen as a welcome first step by good government groups, the recommendations failed to include other reforms advocates have called for, such as making commissioners more independent.

“We want to ramp up the capability and the independence of ethics oversight,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Reform JCOPE, give it more independence, give it more teeth, give it the ability to investigate, and reform the actual number of commissioners so that they don’t deadlock and are not beholden to the people who appoint them.”

Saying that he believes JCOPE can be essential in improving public ethics and integrity, Dadey added, “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were two of the three architects that created JCOPE. And they created some of the protections that JCOPE is hindered by right now in terms of the voting procedures. With the two of them on trial, and both of them having been authors of this Public Integrity Reform Act that created JCOPE, we have an opportunity to strengthen JCOPE in the coming months.”

dick dadey good govt groups nov 11 presser(Dick Dadey, center; photo by Zack Fink of NY1)

On Monday, the Center for Public Integrity and open-governance group Global Integrity released the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the systems in place to deter corruption in state government, and gave New York a D- grade, a drop from the previous 2012 State Integrity Investigation, when New York received a D.

Ranking 30th among 49 states, New York failed miserably in several categories, receiving an F on public access to information, electoral oversight, judicial accountability, state budget processes, procurement, and ethics enforcement agencies.

The reforms proposed by good government groups would go a long way in preventing a repeat of New York’s dismal performance on those measures.

“We need absolutely clarity in terms of who [legislators] are getting paid by and what they are getting paid for,” Lerner said Wednesday. “So that someone can’t say ‘I’m a lawyer, I represent ordinary people,’ and then it turns out that his law partners say he doesn’t do any legal work and is solely gaining money from referrals” (as was the case with Silver and is the case with other lawyer-legislators who are “of counsel” at law firms).

“There is something wrong with our disclosure system if that kind of misstatement can exist for years and years and years and it takes a criminal trial to really show what the true situation is,” Lerner added.

New York’s failing grade on state budget processes - for which New York ranked dead last in the nation - comes as no surprise, given New York’s reputation for“three men in a room” (the governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding on the details of the state’s $142 billion budget behind closed doors.

“The governor can’t reform the legislature by himself,” Kaehny said, “but the governor can lead by example. And right now, we have billions of dollars in spending that are secret, that the public cannot see.”

“Is it corrupt?” Kaehny asked. “We don’t know. But we should know. So can the governor do something about that by taking a lead? Absolutely, yes. The governor could have complete transparency on budget matters - he proposes the budget, he can reveal the budget, that’s up to him.”

The recent release of these two reports and the ongoing corruption trials of two legislative leaders have put the spotlight on New York's dire need for state action on ethics reform, yet as Bob Hardt wrote in a recent NY1 column on the issue, “Never aggressively pushing campaign finance reform or transparency, Governor Cuomo seems content to play the master of Albany's current political game rather than rewriting its rules. A government of one is naturally threatened by an open door.”

When pressed as to whether Cuomo has done enough to fix Albany’s corruption problems, Dadey said, “The governor has been a leader on many of these ethics reforms,” but added, “I wish that he was a more vocal leader on some of these issues that are still left on the table, like legislative compensation, like restructuring JCOPE so that it has a greater authority and stronger voting structures to pursue corruption.”

In 2013, Governor Cuomo established the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to combat the systemic corruption in Albany. Yet less than a year later, in a deal involving Silver and Skelos, Cuomo disbanded the commission - reportedly just as the commission was preparing to issue subpoenas to several state Senate campaign committees.

Governor Cuomo could, as good government groups have suggested, compel the legislature to return for a special session to overhaul ethics laws, though the governor has made it clear in the past that he has no intention of doing so. “A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an interview on The Capitol Pressroom in July.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, has previously advocated for a convening a special session on ethics reform, in addition to pushing his “End New York Corruption Now Act,” a sweeping ethics reform package which seeks to drastically reform how business is done in Albany.

“One of the requests that Citizens Union has made for a long time is to give the Attorney General the power to pursue corruption,” Dadey said of one of the elements in Schneiderman’s plan. “He can only pursue corruption right now if the governor consents to granting him that authority.”

“It’s a strange thing that when the current governor was Attorney General, he asked for that same authority when Governor Spitzer was in office, and when he became governor, he was not willing to give that authority to Attorney General Schneiderman,” Dadey pointed out.

A July 15 poll by the Siena Research Institute found 90 percent of New York voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. An October 26 Siena poll found 74 percent of those surveyed believed Governor Cuomo was doing a poor to fair job reducing corruption in state government.

“New Yorkers have lost faith in state government to make decisions without using the interest and influence of those who do business with the state,” the good government groups said in a statement. “In light of this storm of two trials and two reports, the groups call for immediate action on these widely-supported reforms, and in a special session if possible.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Labor Leaders Declare State of Unions Strong, At Least in New York


de blasio uft

Mayor de Blasio at a UFT conference (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Four of New York's top labor leaders assembled recently to give a state of their unions, and to assess the broader union climate in New York and elsewhere.

Each sounding like a determined boxer in the middle rounds of a grueling fight, they decried attacks on unions across the country, but indicated that they are pleased with the strength of the labor movement in New York. They credited intra- and inter-union solidarity for much of the movement's staying power, at times referencing the importance of relationships with community groups and City Hall - making sure to acknowledge the new, more union-friendly occupant of the mayor's office.

While unions have taken legal and membership hits across the country in recent years, labor has indeed remained relatively strong in New York. City union leaders speaking to this phenomenon alternate between sounding hesitantly triumphant and passionately defiant. Never far from their minds, it seems, is that what the labor movement has fought for could slip away any time.

At a panel discussion titled "What is the future of organized labor in New York?" hosted by the government relations practice group of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the assembled union heads were Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers; Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association; Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 Teamsters; and Vincent Alvarez, President of New York City Central Labor Council. They were questioned by two moderators, both Stroock attorneys: Alan M. Klinger and Robert Abrams, who is also former New York State Attorney General.

"The state of unions in New York City is strong," said Mulgrew, of the teachers union, citing "the relationships of the union leaders" as essential to the survival and success of labor.

Time and again, Mulgrew and others referenced the fight that is often characteristic of union work, with the UFT president at one point describing a 20-year "war" with City Hall, referencing his union's relationship with Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. He also noted that public opinion of unions is on the upswing after some decline, saying that the broader population has come to appreciate unions more as they realize corporations and many government officials do not have workers' best interest at heart.

At the Stroock event, the labor leaders referred to lobbyists and corporate interests as out for union demise, with Mulgrew saying, "there's a group who are advocating for what they want for their industries or for their own bottom lines. They want more profit and they don't care what they have to do to get it. And if that is to leverage a state or a local municipality to get breaks the way they want, they'll do it."

Mulgrew's city chapter has been part of a larger, ongoing teachers union feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has aligned himself with an education reform movement that is highly critical of the teachers unions and is supported by wealthy donors. Cuomo has said he intends to break the teachers union "monopoly" on public education.

"I said it, and I'll say it again," said Nespoli of the sanitation workers union, in one of his several segments of animated commentary, "New York, we're the last of the Mohicans. If you look throughout the country, what they did to unions is a disgrace; what they did to the middle class."

The data on union membership and wages support Nespoli's point. Nationwide, about 11 percent of workers belong to a union, indicative of a steady, decades-long decline according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1973, the national rate was 24 percent - which is about New York's current rate. Still, New York's union rate was 35.5 percent in 1964. New York has historically been a place of labor union strength and continues to be so, though union leaders note without prompting that unions continue to feel under threat and in a perpetual fight to survive.

For evidence, union bosses, especially Mulgrew, need look no further than the ongoing legal challenge to teacher tenure laws. A case in New York is modeled after a successful California case (set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court) alleging that tenure rules violate students' civil rights because they lead to weaker teachers with strong job protection in disadvantaged schools.

There are currently about 2 million union workers in New York State, with about 877,000 union members in New York City, according to the Joseph Murphy Institute at CUNY Graduate Center. New York City has about 25 percent union membership, about the same as the state overall. Albany has the highest metro area union membership rate in the state, about 36 percent of the capital's workforce is union. In the city, about 70 percent of government employees are union; whereas private sector workers are about 18 percent unionized.

More than 100,000 of the city's union workers are UFT members (the union also has many thousands of members who are retired, of course). Mulgrew said that 40 years of attacks on unions did some damage, but that things are trending up. "We're part of the solution," Mulgrew said, "I know that the teacher unions, the city and state teacher unions, are trusted more than the elected officials. When's the last time that happened?"

Key to this trend, he said, is partnership with community-based groups. Unions, Mulgrew asserted, were in the past too myopic, only focusing on their members and their issues. It is essential, he said - and others agreed - that individual unions support each other, while also partnering with community and advocacy groups. "That's what makes New York different, the fact that we communicate with each other," Nespoli said of leaders of different unions.

Floyd said, "Well, it's important for us to understand that we not only represent our members, but we represent the community. Because, without the labor movement, there would be no middle class."

A different approach has produced results.

"It starts in New York City," Mulgrew told Gotham Gazette after the panel, "I mean, for my union, you could just see in all the polls - when it was us against Bloomberg, by the end [the public] trusted us much more than they trusted the mayor. Now, the same thing's happening with the governor." Adding that it is on education issues, but also throughout the city and state, "the whole idea of unions is trending upwards."

Indeed, a September Quinnipiac poll found that "voters statewide trust the teachers' unions more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo to improve education in New York State 54 - 31 percent." Quinnipiac did note, though, that that margin was slimmer in New York City (47 - 43 percent).

There has been a stark contrast between public sector unions' relationship with Mayor de Blasio and with Gov. Cuomo. But the disparity in positivity has been shrinking as Cuomo has championed a higher minimum wage.

"And let's not make any mistakes about it, the $15 an hour wage increase that the governor has put forth is because the union movement had it on its agenda," Floyd said of union impact on public policy.

As much as de Blasio and Mulgrew have praised each other, coming to a much-needed new contract for city teachers that also set the bargaining pattern for others, it is not all rosy between labor and city government, of course.

The Policemen's Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file NYPD officers, did not agree to the pattern the de Blasio administration established with the UFT and then uniformed unions, and is now in arbitration with the city. The proceedings are not going well for the PBA and it may come around to accept what other unions have gone with. (The UFT contract announced May 1, 2014 covers nine years, some retroactive, expiring October 31, 2018. The PBA may be able to pursue a deal akin to what firefighters have inked with City Hall, more in line with the uniformed worker pattern that is slightly different from the non-uniform one.)

Some have called the union deals inked by de Blasio too generous. Meanwhile, Nespoli is among those who think that those contracts were not as good for labor as they could or should have been. At the Stroock panel, he said the public should know that labor made concessions.

"We sat down, we made adjustments and we got the contract done and we saved a ton of money," Nespoli said. "This city right now is in great shape financially. Don't ever let anybody tell you they're not because they're all full of it. They have the money. They have it. And thank God that the tourists are still coming in here. And that's thanks to the city workers that actually take care of this city to make it safe, clean, and teachers, and custodians and sanitation workers, police, fire - that's the backbone here."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

First Report Under New Law Will Give Key Data to Coming Veterans Department


sutton presser new dept

Tuesday's celebratory press conference (photo: @nylag)


On the eve of Veterans Day, the City Council passed a much-celebrated bill to create a new Department of Veterans Services, which will replace the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs in serving New York City’s large military veteran population. While the new department will still be under the mayor’s administration, it will now have access to more resources and be the subject of sharper Council oversight.

And, thanks to a previously passed bill sponsored by Council Member Paul Vallone, who sits on the Council’s veterans affairs committee, the new department will have important data to help it direct resources for veterans.

“It really is historic, creating a full-blown agency,” Vallone said Monday in a phone interview as the bill heads to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his signature. Vallone hopes that the mayor, who expressed his support for the bill after having been against it for some time, will be quick to sign the bill into law so the agency can be set up in time for preliminary budget discussions early next year. 

paul vallone william alatriste june 2014(Council Member Paul Vallone (William Alatriste))

Veteran advocacy groups and the City Council have been pushing for a separate agency for years, arguing that the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs has been underfunded, understaffed, and unable to effectively serve more than 200,000 veterans who call the city home. The new agency will provide for increased accountability. “Now we can really play a direct role,” Vallone said of City Council oversight and influence on the department’s budget.

Veterans and veteran advocates are overjoyed at this victory. “(MOVA) was primarily symbolic all these years,” said Kristen Rouse, a veteran and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance. Insisting that MOVA has historically relied on the whims of the mayoral administration, Rouse said the new department will have the staffing and resources necessary to truly coordinate services for veterans.

The new department will also be bolstered by fresh data generated by the city on use of services by veterans in seven key categories. Mandated by the Vallone-sponsored bill passed by the City Council in February, the data is supposed to help determine the degree to which veterans avail themselves of existing services designed to help them secure income and housing, and to identify areas where city government should strengthen or modify services to meet the needs of city veterans.

The report, the first edition of which was presented to Council Member Vallone and his colleagues in time for Veterans Day and was viewed by Gotham Gazette, contains data related to certain housing applications by veterans and their spouses, as well as vending license applications and permits, and civil service exams.

“Earlier there was a void of information and now we have the data,” said Vallone of the report, which will help the city determine to what extent veterans are taking advantage of city services and may indicate where gaps in communication lie.

“It’s the beginning of being able to use facts to solve problems,” said Rouse. “The more the city knows, the more they’re able to do.”

The seven data points the administration must report under the law and the number indicated in the first report, which covers calendar year 2014:

  • The total number of Mitchell-Lama housing applications received from veterans or their surviving spouses and total number approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development: 71 and 66, respectively.
  • The total number of fee-exempt mobile food vending licenses and food vending permits issued to veterans by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to veterans: 95 and 65, respectively.
  • The total number of veterans who submitted an application to the Department of Consumer Affairs for a general vending license and the number issued to veterans: 570 and 447, respectively.
  • The total number of veterans residing in the city who utilized a HUD-VASH housing voucher (which help house homeless veterans): 2,268.
  • The total number of civil service examination applications received by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for which the applicant claimed a veterans credit: 3,475.

It will take some time before the City Council or the new Department of Veterans Affairs can do much with this new data, but MOVA and the Council can at least consider it. After celebrating Veterans Day Wednesday, the Council’s veterans affairs committee meets Thursday to look at progress being made in ending homelessness among military veterans.

vallone and presser iava(photo: William Alatriste)

In the meantime, spirits remain high about the coming new department.

“This is a tremendous victory for the veterans movement,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in a statement. Rieckhoff said the passage of the bill is a “truly historic Veterans Day gift for veteran activists” across the city.  

In a Tuesday Gotham Gazette op-ed celebrating the news, veteran and veterans advocate Joe Bello, of NYMetroVets, thanked the many elected officials and advocates who contributed to the victory.

The bill to create the new department, sponsored by veterans committee Chair Council Member Eric Ulrich and supported by Vallone, traversed a rocky road to reach passage. Until last week, the mayor refused to support the proposal as did his commissioner of veterans affairs, Loree Sutton. But, after Mayor de Blasio reached an agreement with the Council last week, the bill sailed through with unanimous support Tuesday and is sure to be signed by de Blasio, who in all likelihood will name Sutton the commissioner of the new department.

“I liken it to how fifteen years ago, people would’ve thought that an agency dedicated to emergency management was duplicative,” Rouse said of OEM, reflecting. “Now we take for granted a separate agency which is absolutely essential.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurhsid

'Peace Dividend' Approach Continues, Bratton and De Blasio Say


de blasio bratton nov 9

De Blasio & Bratton Monday (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is not blinking when it comes to public safety in New York City. Despite a shooting Monday morning near Penn Station and a rise in murders this year, Bratton said at an afternoon news conference that "The city is very safe and getting safer all the time."

"There will be incidents, as we saw this morning," Bratton added, taking his usual approach to focusing on crime over time, not allowing isolated incidents to be evidence of any trend as he and Mayor Bill de Blasio continue to criticize media outlets and others who are less constrained by responsible use of data.

Bratton and de Blasio insisted Monday that New Yorkers are not more comfortable committing crimes or carrying guns because of their policies. They point to numbers showing major crimes down three percent this year to last, which was a historically safe year, and to a rise in gun arrests despite the fact that overall arrests are down significantly.

This decrease in total arrests, as well as in other "negative interactions" between police and civilians, is symbolic of what Bratton calls a "peace dividend," an approach the commissioner said will continue.

The peace dividend, which Bratton said Monday is of "great benefit" to his officers and to the public, and de Blasio said allows the NYPD to "move resources where the need is greatest," is itself the product of a safer city. As Bratton has explained it, the peace dividend that his NYPD is yielding to the public is the use of more discretion - a less punitive approach to broken windows policing - even while staying vigilant about crime.

It includes encouraging people committing low-level offenses to 'move along,' issuing summonses instead of arrests in some instances, fewer stop-and-frisks, coordinating mental health services, and NYPD officers taking a more friendly approach to interacting with the public.

"We project that by the end of this year there will have been one million fewer what I would describe as negative interactions – enforcement actions by members of my department," Bratton said Monday at a press conference outside City Hall. "We are making a concerted effort to have our officers act appropriately when dealing with what they understand is a crime being committed, or has been committed, so that peace dividend, which I talked about, I think is of great benefit to my officers. They're not needlessly getting engaged in negative interactions with the public – of great benefit to the public, certainly, that was complaining very loudly about them."

Meanwhile, the city has become safe enough that virtually every murder is accounted for with alarm in the media. Heightening scrutiny and alarm is the fact that four NYPD officers have been killed while on duty in the past twelve months. And, "Homicides are up about 19 against last year's record-low number," Bratton said Monday (there were 333 murders in the city in 2014, so the city is on pace for about 350 this year). Rape is also up this year, and in combination with a homelessness problem that City Hall has not been able to mitigate, these incidents and increases have led some - including Governor Andrew Cuomo - to say that the city is slipping backwards.

Yet, shootings and several other major crimes are down year-to-date, leaving the seven major index crimes down slightly overall. "I think the statistics speak for themselves," Bratton said Monday, adding that New York "will end this year with the safest year in the history of this city." Bratton can also point to the fact that over many years the homicide rate has been dropping, but that during occasional years there have been slight increases from the year before.

Asked by Gotham Gazette if incidents like Monday's shooting near Penn Station or media coverage of crime in the city had led him to rethink the peace dividend, Bratton said no. After mentioning reductions in arrests, stops, and other "negative interactions," Bratton also cited a decrease in complaints by New Yorkers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB. "And that's what it's all about," Bratton said, "improved citizen satisfaction."

"I think we're very much on the right track to not only bridge the gap between the public and the police, particularly that portion of the public that really feel that the police have not been responsive to their concerns, I think we have the real ability to close that gap, not just bridge it," the commissioner said.

The NYPD is in the process of hiring the additional 1,297 police officers that the mayor announced the city would fund beginning in Fiscal Year 2016, which began July 1 of this year. De Blasio explained that his decision to support an increase in the NYPD headcount, despite his previous objections to City Council calls to do so, was the result, in part, of Bratton's plan for deploying additional cops. Along with counterrorism, the main pillar of Bratton's plan is a neighborhood policing model that is meant to continue to pay the peace dividend by increasing positive interactions and pre-empting negative ones by building stronger community relationships.

After Bratton expressed enthusiastic support for the peace dividend approach Monday, the mayor took the chance to comment on the subject. De Blasio said that the "time and energy freed up through that peace dividend is going to fighting more serious crime. Look at the seven percent increase in gun arrests. Look at the decrease in shootings. There's a direct correlation and I think this commissioner and his team have done a fantastic job of continuing to, in the spirit of CompStat, move resources where the need is greatest."

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

The Week That Was in New York Politics, November 2-6


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday November 6

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and others participate in solidarity march in Puerto Rico, via the governor's office on flickr; "Belongings of homeless individuals removed from Soho. Homeless outreach team offered social services," tweeted de Blasio press secretary Karen Hinton (with photo below) in response to CBS2 reporter Marcia Kramer's inquiries.

cuomo de blasio puerto rico march

hinton photo homeless encampment soho

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Election Results: After Tuesday's elections, New York City has two new City Council members, two new District Attorneys, two new Assembly members, and one new state Senator. See the results.

2. Silver Trial: The trial of former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver began in New York City this week, with Silver, who had been Assembly speaker for 21 years, facing federal corruption charges. Dr. Robert Taub took the stand on Wednesday under a non-prosecution agreement, and testified that Silver had requested that the doctor refer Mesothelioma patients to his law firm because the cases were lucrative. Taub said he had asked Silver if his law firm could donate to aid the doctor’s research, and, after writing the state a request for grant money, received a $250,000 grant. Taub also testified that Silver had asked him to keep the arrangement quiet. Prosecutors allege Silver acted out of greed and abused his power for personal gain. [Read: As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run]

3. Politicians in Puerto Rico: Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio marched together at a rally calling for improved healthcare funding for Puerto Rico in San Juan on Thursday. The mayor, the governor, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and many others were/are in San Juan this week to show solidarity with the island territory as it faces a debt crisis, to attend the annual Somos El Futuro conference, and to put pressure on Congress to aid Puerto Rico with its financial crisis.

4. Calls for Voter Reform: Voter turnout was low as usual for this week’s elections, and on Tuesday, the “Vote Better NY” coalition, led by NYC Votes, the voter outreach arm of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, along with other advocacy and good government organizations launched a petition drive to highlight the importance of election reform and call on lawmakers to pass legislation to modernize elections in New York. The reforms call for early voting, better ballot design, and comprehensive online and easier voter registration in order to increase voter turnout.

5. MTA Criticism: City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Mayor de Blasio, members of the state Assembly and Senate, City Council members, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and others criticized the MTA this week over its decision to delay construction on the northern end of Second Avenue subway and cut $1 billion in funding to the project. Elected officials called for the MTA to put the money back into their 5-year capital plan, with Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez saying the move to cut funds “screams of transit inequality and economic injustice.” MTA CEO Thomas Prendergast responded in a statement, saying if they could speed up the schedule, they would pursue a capital program amendment to do so.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 17% drop in the number of suspensions at New York City public schools last year.
  • $41,000 is the median income of African American households in New York City, roughly half of the median income of $80,200 made by white households, according to a report from members of Congress detailing the growing wealth gap between white and black Americans.
  • $900 million is how much New York plans to spend on capital improvements by 2020 on the state park system, in an investment that includes 215 parks and historic sites.
  • 20,000 new industrial and manufacturing jobs in New York City will supposedly be spurred by new investments and actions by the de Blasio administration and the City Council announced this week.
  • 1.3 million freelance workers could be afforded similar protections to those enjoyed by full-time employees under the package of laws the New York City Council is developing.
  • $2.3 million paid to political consultants advising Mayor de Blasio during the first year and a half of his term, according to the New York Times.
  • 37% of New York City’s population is made up of immigrants, and those immigrants account for nearly 1/3 of the city’s economic activity.
  • 11.6% decrease in the number of financial grievances against the NYPD in the 2015 fiscal year, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer's office. The drop comes after over a decade of steady increase in the number of legal claims against the NYPD.
  • $170,000 per year former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos made at “his own no-show job” at the Ruskin Moscou Faltischek law firm starting in 1994, new court filings suggest.
  • $1 billion surplus for New York entering its next fiscal year, state officials projected this week.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for the election winners, including soon-to-be new City Council Members Barry Grodenchik and Joseph Borelli; District Attorneys Darcel Clark and Michael McMahon; and others.
  • It was a bad week, of course, for those who did not win the elections held Tuesday.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time 22 years ago, on November 2, 1993, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins to become New York’s first Republican mayor in nearly three decades.
  • Around this time 5 years ago, on November 2, 2010, Andrew Cuomo became governor of New York after winning the race by a wide margin.
  • Around this time 6 years ago, on November 3, 2009, Michael Bloomberg was elected to a third term as mayor of New York City after winning a battle to overturn term limits.
  • Around this time 2 years ago, on November 5, 2013, Bill de Blasio was elected Mayor of New York City in a landslide victory.
  • Around this time 15 years ago, on November 7, 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York, becoming the first First Lady to win public office.
  • Around this time 98 years ago, on November 6, 1917, New York State adopted a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in state elections, three years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the vote in national elections.
  • Around this time 121 years ago, on November 6, 1894, voters narrowly approved the consolidation of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island into the Greater City of New York.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy, by Samar Khurshid

Citing 'A Violence Problem,' Cuomo Calls on New Yorkers to 'Respect the Police', by David Howard King

East Harlem Tenants Group Rejects De Blasio Housing Plan, Offers Its Own, by David Howard King

As New Yorkers Go to the Polls, Activists Launch 'Vote Better' Campaign, by Ben Max

2015 General Election Results, by Samar Khurshid

In New De Blasio Heath Care Plan, Limited Coverage for Undocumented Immigrants, by Sarah Betancourt

With Risks, P3s and Design-Build Seen as Beneficial to Infrastructure Planning, by Ryan Brady

Prison Alternatives Enhance Public Safety & Must Be Left in Place, Lisa Schreibersdorf (opinion)

Wall Street Doesn’t Work for New York, Let’s Create a Bank that Will, Matthew Rigney & Evan Casper-Futterman (opinion) 

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

[Video] Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max participated in a discussion about this week's election results and New York efforts to reform voting access, on BRIC-TV.

[Video] Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch joined Errol Louis on NY1's Inside City Hall to discuss her position at the center of a polarizing debate over standardized testing, as well as her decision to leave the office next year.

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max



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