Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



New York City Needs a Resiliency Plan that Creates Green Jobs for New Yorkers

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Solar panels rendering (image: Mayor's Office) 

Eight years ago today, October 29, Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern seaboard, causing severe flooding and power loss throughout New York City and the entire region. Sandy was very personal to me and my family as I know it was to many of you and yours. Friends nearby in Brooklyn lost their homes and businesses, and one even lost her life. I was honored when President Obama asked me to lead a federal task force to ensure we recovered and rebuilt stronger. The Sandy effort showed how strong and resilient New Yorkers can be. Much was learned, much was done, but unfortunately, as the storm faded from the memory of city leaders, much was left undone.  

Now, New York City is grappling with yet another tragic disaster. We’ve lost nearly 25,000 of our neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family to the COVID-19 pandemic and every day we see the human and economic impact of this disaster on our great city. Sandy and the pandemic share a common theme -- the most vulnerable are disproportionately at risk when disaster strikes, so recovery must help all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable.

There is no doubt that Superstorm Sandy, like COVID-19, devastated the livelihoods of low-income New Yorkers. For example, in the wake of Sandy more than 80,000 New York City Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents were left for weeks without essential services, such as electricity, elevators, heat and hot water. After Sandy, NYCHA residents in the Rockaways, Red Hook, and other areas suffered from damaged boilers, hot water issues, and mold, as well as damage to playgrounds and other community gathering spaces, lost access to polling places, and physical isolation in their apartments.

In the name of environmental justice, we must center equity and inclusion in our rebuilding efforts – prioritizing the hardest-hit communities that are often left behind in disaster response. To help protect our fellow New Yorkers from future crises and economic downturns, we can create a pipeline of good-paying jobs that promote clean energy and resiliency. Smart policy can ensure that these jobs are accessible to residents in environmental justice communities.

The process of recovery and rebuilding since Sandy has taken too long. Eight years later, NYCHA is still undergoing Sandy-related repairs and is not prepared to deal with future climate disasters and extreme weather events. We must take necessary measures to enhance resilience, like installing flood barriers and generators and elevating utilities to higher ground. Through close collaboration with tenant associations and robust community outreach, we can ensure that tenant voices are not only heard but are a driving force behind this work. 

The ingenuity of residents has the potential to transform our public housing stock, but it must be harnessed. In the process, we should also create more jobs for public housing residents, by hiring from within NYCHA and from Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises. Better support for community-based organizations that help prepare and place residents into green jobs, and close coordination with NYCHA’s resident employment office, REES, will enable us to do this.

Looking beyond the public housing stock, adapting our city’s buildings to be climate-ready and pollution-free will require a workforce that is skilled and ready to take on the green jobs of tomorrow. Local, state, and federal leadership, both separately and in partnership, must do more to train New Yorkers, especially young people, people of color, and working-class communities to participate in the clean energy economy. 

As mayor, I would establish a NYC Climate Corps, a citywide initiative focused on equity, inclusion, and job creation. The program would focus on equipping diverse young New Yorkers with the skills and experience they need to enter the green economy, while providing support to communities hard hit by climate change. This program would be built off the Clean Energy Service Corps, an AmeriCorps program initiated under the Obama Administration to support participants spending a year working on clean energy projects and creating green housing, via grants to nonprofits. But it would also build on local programs, such as the CUNY Service Corps and CUNY’s existing pathways to the green economy. 

With an expansion and strengthening of AmeriCorps from the federal government, an investment in CUNY, and thoughtful support locally -- led by local nonprofits and hand in hand with communities -- the NYC Climate Corps could provide young New Yorkers the skills and entry-level opportunities to access careers in climate change resilience and clean energy, while supporting New York City communities. Such a program must prioritize recruiting and supporting participants from the communities they serve, and work in close coordination with labor apprenticeship programs, city agencies, and non-profit organizations supporting underserved youth college and career pathways.

I have spent my career building coalitions to solve the challenges of substandard housing, disaster response, and climate resiliency. New York City, one of the most economically unequal cities in the country, needs a mayor who is willing to work creatively across city, state, and federal lines to build a greener city and end environmental racism. Together, we can build a city that works for everyone.

Shaun Donovan was budget director and secretary of housing and urban development for President Obama and commissioner of housing preservation and development for Mayor Bloomberg. On Twitter @ShaunDonovanNYC.

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Shifting the Lines of Opportunity in New York City

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Redesign rendering (photo: mayor's office)

My family has a uniquely American story that offers inspiration -- and cause for local changes to ensure opportunity for all.

My immigrant parents of four kids were determined to achieve the American Dream but did not have access to resources or the opportunity to give their children the material needs that are often associated with being in this country. 

What we did have was resolve and an unyielding faith that anyone could make it in America, if they worked hard enough. 

My parents' foremost concern was their children’s need to receive a high-quality education to avoid relegating them to a cycle of generational poverty. They would often tell us, “Education is the number one anti-poverty program America has ever created, and to make it here, you have to learn." 

But where we lived offered little hope. The town we resided in had one of the worst-performing school systems and was often known for violence, gangs, and children getting into drug-dealing. 

My parents were unwilling to limit their children’s future, taking an extraordinary, and illegal, step to provide us with opportunity. 

The neighboring town was wealthier and had high-quality public schools. When my siblings and I reached school age, my parents enrolled us in these schools by lying about their address, in violation of the law. As immigrants, my parents risked severe penalties to ensure their children would receive a good education. To them, their actions were justified because of service to their kids. 

What was the outcome of their actions? We ended up excelling in school and our personal lives. My older sister became a William Fulbright Scholar and attained a Ph.D. in Psychology. My older brother became a long-haul truck driver, while teaching himself three languages and coding. My younger sister earned a master's degree in economics and has continued pursuing her studies to earn a doctorate in the field.  

Our story of hope illustrates the extraordinary decisions some families have made – and will continue to make – to ensure their children are not forsaken. It is also a story that gets at the heart of structural inequities that exist in New York City today.

Our city is segregated by exclusionary zoning policies -- the drawn school and housing lines -- that ensure the wealthiest have access to valuable real estate and high-quality public education while the working class is fastened to cycles of poverty, crime, and inferior schools. These policies can be eliminated by rezoning and building more housing in areas that have historically fought against it.

Near where I live, no neighborhood better provides an opportunity for change than rezoning Soho and Noho. 

By changing zoning rules in these areas we can create a minimum of 700 affordable homes in an excellent neighborhood with access to great schools. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, over 4,200 New York City schoolchildren lost a parent due to the coronavirus. These children are not only missing an idol, but now have to deal with mental stress, loss of income, and dire consequences of what their future might look like without guidance. 

With rezoning, we can prioritize housing single parents with school-age children and help rebuild their lives by providing homes in a high-opportunity area with access to high-quality schools so current and future generations of New Yorkers can unlock their full potential and lead exemplary lives. 

In a recent study by Citigroup, they calculated that structural racism has cost the United States economy $16 trillion over the last 20 years, and removing these barriers that have held back generations of Americans, could increase our nation’s GDP by $5 trillion over the next five years. 

But what are the true motivations behind keeping these policies in place?  

Let’s be blunt: These policies exist due to greed and prejudice. Individuals who benefit from taxpayer investments, whose tax burden disproportionately falls on the lowest socioeconomic citizens of our city, have weaponized their privilege for their own prosperity. 

The cornerstone of their motivation, never publicly admitted, is to ensure that property values increase to maintain their wealth. They believe that increased development would dilute the value of their property and apply the same reasoning if more people of color were to occupy “their” space. 

That is the purpose of supporting exclusionary policies. It is borne out of greed and racism. 

The murder of George Floyd has awoken an entire movement toward ending racist practices in policing and beyond. It is our moral prerogative to fight those – especially ones that call themselves Democrats and progressives – who are opposed to ending the racist policies that have led to generational inequities. 

Our resolve and unyielding faith must be firmer than those forces that stand in opposition to creating a fairer and more just New York City. Let us rise to this call for change and offer families like mine hope. 

Denny Salas is a candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s District 1. On Twitter @realdennysalas.

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Our Opportunity to End Solitary Confinement in New York City Jails

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A jail cell (photo: Brook Ward)

This is a year we would all sooner forget. But 2020 can be remembered as the year New York City ended solitary confinement.

Layleen Polanco’s death in 2019 was a tragic illustration of how restricted housing and solitary confinement place people at an additional risk while being moved out of sight from urgent medical care and attention. One year later, there is an imminent opportunity to make lasting changes to the city’s criminal justice system that prevent another incident like Layleen’s from occurring.

In the days following Layleen’s death, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and I called for an end to solitary confinement in our city jails. Even as several elected officials and advocates testified calling for its end at a Board of Correction (BOC) hearing last winter, the rulemaking process was never completed. This year, there is an opportunity to finish this work and we must seize the moment.

In June, Mayor de Blasio announced a task force to end punitive segregation, which stands as the most predominant form of solitary confinement in our city jails. In the coming weeks, the task force is due to issue its recommendations to the Board of Correction for rulemaking. With their depth of experience and expertise, Board of Correction members are well-placed to review the decisions and pass rulemaking. But they must act with urgency to change the current structure.

A 2014 study on the use of solitary confinement in New York City jails found that the majority of individuals who were subject to the practice committed self-harm: placing a person in solitary makes them over seven times more likely to harm themselves and over six times more likely to commit potentially fatal self-harm. Another report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that restrictive housing leads to serious psychological distress, as well as mistrust between staff and incarcerated individuals.

Recently, I co-authored a letter with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that calls for a new model that focuses on reducing violence and changing behavior. Ultimately, solitary must be replaced with a model that is proven effective to reduce violence and improve outcomes. One model is the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) program, which has been effective in reducing violence and lowering rates of self-harm through programming, therapy, and recreational activities. The Department of Correction’s (DOC) 2019 report shows that both contraband and use-of-force incidents are significantly reduced in CAPS units. CAPS units have also shown a 25% decrease in both self-injuries and injuries from fights.

Another promising model is San Francisco’s Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP), which lowered recidivism for participants by nearly 50% and reduced violent incidents per year in participating units from 24 to 1.

There are several specifics that must be considered in alternative models. As a starting point, the BOC should end the use of restraint desks in Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) units, in which individuals are chained to a desk. These desks are long overdue to be removed and should be eliminated in this process. Second, the DOC should allow legal or advocate representation to be present at disciplinary hearings. Finally, we have to set a higher standard for what qualifies as adequate out of cell time than the state’s standard. I have called for a standard of 14 hours of out of cell time with enhanced services to address violence, but any rulemaking must set a higher standard than the four-hour minimum enshrined in state law.

The next few weeks will be critical for this issue. With action, we can enter a new era of justice and mark 2020 as the year that we ended solitary confinement in New York City.

[Read: Plan for Ending Solitary Confinement in City Jails is Imminent, Board of Correction Chair Says]

City Council Member Keith Powers represents parts of Manhattan and chairs of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee. On Twitter @KeithPowersNYC

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Closing Rikers Must Remain A Priority, and We Can Do It Without Building New Jails

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Rikers Island (photo: formulanone)

New York City’s historic commitment to closing the Rikers Island jail complex is in jeopardy. Thanks to an adverse court ruling, a struggling budget, and unfocused political leadership, Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build four new jails at a cost of $9 billion is endangered -- and so is the very idea of closing Rikers. In recent weeks, the discussion over Rikers closure has devolved into debates about real estate, and lost sight of the people and communities harmed by our medieval jail complex and broken criminal justice system.

It’s time to focus on how to close Rikers quickly and responsibly -- and without building new jails. 

When I helped launch the campaign to close Rikers Island in 2016, most people in politics were deeply skeptical, if not outright opposed. But along the way, we built a 180-organization coalition, won over nearly every elected official in New York City, forced a commitment to closure from Mayor de Blasio, and watched the City Council dramatically pass legislation with a timeline for closure.

Our goal on the #CLOSERikers campaign had been threefold:

Shutter the Rikers Island jail complex, an 85-year moral stain on our city.

Dramatically reduce the number of New Yorkers in jail pre-trial, particularly people there simply because they are too poor to pay bail.

Invest in and build up communities most harmed by mass incarceration, so that fewer people get ensnared in the system in the first place. 

Lost in the myriad controversies over the Rikers closure plan have been the significant successes over the past few years. For all the controversy over last year’s City Council vote, it ultimately put about 80% of the Council on the record supporting closure. This year New York City’s jail population reached its lowest point in decades, fewer than 4,000 people. (There are currently about 4,600 due to a recent uptick.)

In 2019, the New York State Legislature passed major reforms to bail (wrongly partially rolled back in 2020), discovery, and speedy trial laws. Investments in community-based “violence interruption” programs are up. Restorative justice programs are taking root in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each subsequent election for District Attorney -- Brooklyn in 2017, Queens in 2019, Manhattan in 2021 -- has featured more progressive ideas around what criminal justice reform should look like. 

All of which brings us to the real question we should be asking right now: how can we close Rikers without building new jails? There was an aborted version of this debate before the 2019 City Council vote. While I argued then that Rikers should be closed without building new jails, those of us who supported that view didn’t do enough to explain how that would work, and Council members were largely uninterested in listening. Now, with the entire plan in jeopardy, it is imperative that we have that conversation. 

First, we must remind people that we already went through an exhaustive citywide debate about why Rikers Island must close. It is beyond reform, a brutish penal colony that has bucked attempts to “improve conditions” every generation since its founding. Second, we must point out that nearly everyone on Rikers Island is there either pre-trial (legally innocent), for a technical parole violation (things that would not be a crime for regular people), or serving a short jail sentence for a misdemeanor (often petty crimes). Having established that Rikers is a horrible place, and most people currently jailed there are not the dangerous villains stereotyped by some on the right, what are steps we can take to further reduce the jail population, so that we don’t need to build new jails? 

Continue passing legislation to reform the justice system. We’re sending more progressive State Senators and Assembly members to Albany than any time in recent history. Pre-covid, “technical parole violations” were the fastest rising cause of people being jailed at Rikers, and typically represent around 10% of people in our jail system. Let’s fix our long-broken parole system, so that people coming home from prison can actually get back on their feet instead of cycling through our jails over and over again. This will reduce our average jail population by about 700 people. 

Build a real community-based mental health-care program. This is something we all need as New Yorkers, as covid has made abundantly clear. A robust mental health-care system will require significant work to build, but as anyone who has struggled with or seen a loved one struggle with mental health can attest, it will be more than worth it. At Rikers Island, up to 40% of detainees experience mental health issues, and an increasing share have serious mental illness, about 1,100 (or 16%) according to 2019 figures. Finding community-based support for any substantial group of people who would be better served there instead of jail would reduce New York’s jail population by hundreds as well. 

Invest in programs that break the cycle of harm. We already have great programs that work with young people who get in trouble with the criminal legal system, let’s put more resources into them to help more young people get their lives back on track. Right now about 500 people in our jails are 18-21, and many more are in their early twenties. We shouldn’t give up on them. If you’re wondering how to pay for this, consider that we spend approximately $300,000 per person per year to incarcerate someone on Rikers. The money’s there, we’re just spending it on cages.

These are just a handful of ideas to reduce the number of people in jail, while improving public safety. The same City Council members who gave long-winded speeches about their historic vote to close Rikers a year ago should be holding hearings now on how to get this done. Mayor de Blasio should show some humility and re-evaluate his unpopular new jails plan. Community groups fighting so hard to block jail construction should demonstrate their sincerity to closing Rikers by lending their support to reforms in this moment. And as a Manhattan District Attorney candidate, I pledge to cut our jail population by 80% so that we don’t need a new jail in Manhattan.

Closing Rikers Island without building any new jail beds would require cutting our jail population to about 2,300, the existing capacity of the Tombs, Brooklyn House of Detention, and VCBC, the barge in the Bronx. These are all deplorable facilities, and while living conditions there can be improved marginally, in 2021 we must have a robust conversation about what system replaces Rikers Island in the long-term, but it should not be de Blasio’s planned jail towers. 

Closing Rikers is a big deal. We can be the city that shows America the path out of the dark days of mass incarceration, and provide a different model for justice. Let’s make history together.

Janos Marton was a leader of the #CLOSErikers movement and is a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @janosmarton.

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Why the Science Around COVID-19 Keeps Changing So Much and a Vaccine Can’t Be Rushed

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Covid testing in New York (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

We are now more than halfway through October, it’s been seven months since New York State went on PAUSE and President Trump continues to tout unrealistic ideals of the speed scientists will be able to create a vaccine for COVID-19. In the first presidential debate and since, Trump continues to show a true misunderstanding of scientific research. In order to make good choices to avoid more covid spikes and prolonged suffering, allow students to return to school safely, and more fully resume life before coronavirus, we must understand the speed and process of scientific research -- and let it take its course responsibly.

We have learned a lot in seven months. On March 22, we knew relatively little about how the disease was being transmitted, what we could use to treat it, and what the long-term impacts of the disease were. And yet, politicians had to make choices to protect their constituents, cities, and states. We will need to put what we have learned to the test to avoid a second wave in New York and more infection spikes across the country, and we must allow the scientific process to unfold.

The early response to COVID-19 in New York, unaided by the federal government, has widely been considered a mess. This disaster highlights the complications of making what should be science-based policy before the scientific research is performed or vetted. This pandemic draws attention to the need for transparency, communication of changing information, and public understanding of the speed and nature of scientific research.

Scientific research is built for discovery over time, not rapid speed. The key to understanding why the early guidance on COVID-19 changed repeatedly lies in understanding the method of scientific research and peer review. This applies to figuring out how COVID-19 spreads, the importance of mask-wearing, and the development of a vaccine, among other key pieces of the larger puzzle of a new, deadly virus.

In reality, a published scientific study that can accurately provide findings typically starts many years before it is disseminated. Publication is the end goal for scientists to share the results of their carefully-performed and -vetted research, including rigorous peer-review commentary. Proper design helps to plan out experiments that will reach the estimated goal in a timely manner. Studies must be funded. Biological studies can take many months to years to complete the necessary experiments and statistical analyses.

In the case of COVID-19, many important logistical steps, like funding, may be fast-tracked, but even with widespread desperation for a vaccine, scientific research cannot and must not be rushed. As vaccines proceed through development stages, other research works in parallel understand the complex new virus. 

One or more COVID-19 vaccines will eventually go through the federal Food and Drug Administration process. The scientific research involved will also be published in scientific journals at various points including, exploratory research, preclinical models, and clinical trials. Again, this highlights the importance of greater general public understanding of the underpinnings of how so much of the research into COVID-19 and other science typically happens.

Scientific manuscripts -- usually defined as full research articles with novel findings -- must include background, motivation, methods, results, and discussion of how the work fits into the broader scope of the relevant literature. When completed, the manuscript is submitted to a journal where it goes through the process of peer review, described by Elsevier as existing to “validate academic work” and “improve the quality of published research.” Other scientists review the paper in a process that can take from a few weeks to several months, providing feedback on process and conclusions. Based on the peer review, the paper can be rejected or accepted by the journal.

If accepted with revisions, the scientists complete additional experiments, analyses, and writing before resubmission and more review. The article is finally published -- signifying necessary academic quality -- after the final round of revisions is complete. This is usually at least a year after the initial experiments were performed.

During the pandemic, scientists have been working around the clock at speeds not normally observed in biomedical research to attempt faster discoveries of many things including the genetic make-up of the virus, how the virus is transmitted, treatments, and vaccines.

Scientists didn’t initially recommend against masks because they didn’t want to control the virus, or because masks don’t help. Scientists didn’t recommend wearing masks due to some combination of not understanding the mechanism of COVID-19 spread, wanting to avoid N95 mask supply issues, and assumptions of low disease presence. Studies have now found that the virus can be transmitted before symptoms or while asymptomatic, and some studies like one from Alvin Ing show as many as 80% of cases could be asymptomatic. We know more about the virus now, and that helps scientists and policy-makers to make educated choices about masks.

In the last six months, because of scientists, we have learned how vital masks are to decreasing transmission. We have also learned that hydroxychloroquine provides no benefit to COVID-19 patients. Scientists have also developed new testing methods for COVID-19, including a saliva test recently approved by the New York State Department of Health.

When things are moving at pandemic speed, we need to search out the knowledgeable scientific voices that we know guide the public in the right direction, but more importantly we need transparency on changing science. Transparency and communication are key to combating public health crises. COVID-19 will not have a miracle cure. It will have a cure that is developed and tested by hard-working scientists working faster than ever imagined.

Guidelines changing are not a sign of misinformation and false ideas, but rather a symptom of evolving scientific understanding of the virus. It will be a long time, certainly years, before we truly understand the complexities of this novel coronavirus. To avoid another wave while we wait for tireless scientists to develop a safe vaccine, we must listen carefully to those who are on the frontline learning more about the virus every day.

Samantha L. Marshall, PhD, is a postdoctoral research scientist in Orthopedic Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, NY and a volunteer with Sci4NY.

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I Am A Black Lobbyist; My Profession Must Change

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New York City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

The Friday after George Floyd was murdered, I sat in my Harlem apartment seething. For the first time since 2012 I could not join the protests. The lobbying firm I worked for asked me to review a City Council hearing and take notes for a client. No capacity to pay attention, I just took the notes. 

Civil rights organizations spoke, law enforcement agencies followed, one legislator after another yelled louder than the previous about racism, the prison industrial complex, and companies making ungodly amounts of money from this system. One of these groups was a client that we worked with on different issues. But, as the hearing was nearing the end, the company I was taking notes for was called out by name for charging exorbitant fees and fines to families with incarcerated loved ones. It stopped me in my tracks. My confusion turned into a blinding rage. 

As a Black man in America, I long ago learned the ugly history of our prison system. I know vagrancy laws criminalized former slaves unwilling to work on plantations. I know Black people were jailed for perceived disrespect of white folks. We went to jail for voting. And whenever a person goes to jail every part of the process from arrest to probation becomes a money grab by the state and corporations.

I know this because at that exact moment one of my siblings sat in a jail cell. During a mental health crisis in the winter of 2019, they ended up in jail after an altercation. They refused to speak to my family or their lawyer. What should have been an evening in jail turned into a few days, then a few weeks, then a few months. A judge ordered a mandatory psych evaluation and deemed my sibling unfit to stand trial. The system crawled to take care of their housing and mental health needs while my sibling was in jail. At the time I was taking notes for this client, they had been in jail for five months and my family was dealing with the prices that companies charge for simple phone calls. 

I could not cope with the distance between my experiences as a Black person in this country and the amoral position I was expected to take as a lobbyist. I felt the crushing weight of every Black person who has faced a similar dilemma struggling between financially supporting our loved ones and shackling ourselves to our own oppression. My mental health started to decline under the trauma and stress. I began to have nightmares. I took off work to clear my head. 

Growing up my family almost never discussed politics. In fact, they hated it. No one in my family believed the political system benefits people at the bottom of the well like us. Inspired by President Obama's grassroots campaign, I started my career in politics heeding the call to fight cynicism and apathy, and rise up to bend the moral arc of the universe in the direction of justice. My work with that client was the opposite of justice and I knew it. The fog cleared and my path was obvious. 

I returned and told my boss I couldn’t work for this client. I heard the usual excuses that this client does more than just services for prisons. I was told that we represent clients who also advocate for ending the racist criminal justice system. Sometimes we help corporations do things we may object to so we can advocate for nonprofits who couldn’t afford us otherwise. To paraphrase, we do a little bad to do some good.

This is indicative of why lobbyists are America’s most reviled professionals. A Gallup poll found 71% of Americans believe that lobbyists have too much power and only 7% believe lobbyists are highly ethical or honest. 

We deserve our reputation. A lobbyist will represent a nonprofit advocating for affordable housing in the morning and a luxury developer opposing affordable housing in the afternoon. But, lobbying is a first amendment right and must be part of the solution to the democratic crisis our nation is facing. 

Lobbyists actually have an important role to play as guardians of our democracy: the business world needs their expertise, nonprofits work with them to secure funding and policy changes, and they should serve as connectors between legislators and constituency groups. Every lobbyist has a responsibility to hold themself to a strong standard of justice. 

Please understand, I worked with good people who want to do the right thing but they are hemmed in by an industry culture that largely requires detachment, amorality, and indifference to the greater good.

It wasn’t always so, America’s first known lobbyist was a Revolutionary War patriot hired by fellow veterans to demand the federal government pay our soldiers the compensation they were owed. In the Progressive Era, the political class advocated to improve working conditions and labor practices. Lobbyists expanded educational opportunities, sought humane living conditions for the poor, and fought for civil rights.

As our nation confronts a global pandemic, faces a reckoning with deeply embedded racism, and fights catastrophic wildfires and hurricanes brought on by climate change, it’s time for lobbyists to return to those roots.

Black Lives Matter activists protest every day demanding we reimagine public safety. Newly-elected young progressives struggle to pass laws to make government work for ordinary Americans. Nonprofits and schools are squeezed at every turn. Where are the lobbyists? Mostly, they are making sure we don’t tax billionaires while shoring up corporate profits.

Lobbyists are vital cogs in the political ecosystem, they are highly sought after and well-compensated for their expertise. Lobbyists are former elected officials, labor leaders, and government staffers who know more than almost anyone how our political institutions function. They are uniquely situated to research and diagnose problems, create solutions, and pressure elected officials, the business community, and the public to implement change.

Lobbyists can easily be part of progressive change. They must reorient themselves by doing three things:

Advise clients towards justice. Before accepting a contract, a lobbyist must first ask, what is the goal and is this in the public’s interest? Then counsel the client in creative ways to get there. For example, gig employers who can’t afford to take on employees but want workers to have sick days, health care, and retirement might find a solution in pooled benefits.

Ban clients from giving money to politicians. Hiring a lobbyist is always an attempt to influence government. If the clients of lobbyists are giving money to those making the rules, you will not be able to convince the public that such transactions are not corruption. Perception is reality.

Be an organizer. Lobbyists have a responsibility to organize constituencies--corporations, nonprofits and citizens--to solve big problems. Lobbyists need to leverage their collective knowledge and expertise, their trusted relationships with elected officials, and their clout in the business community to help shape our democracy into one that secures life, liberty, justice, and prosperity for all.

If “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” as former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts once said, then lobbyists must instill values of justice into every aspect of their work. By dedicating themselves to work for the public good lobbyists can save democracy and restore the American dream.

Paul Hypolite is the founder of Leading with Our Values, a government relations and public affairs firm committed to economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice.

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Letter to the Editor: How Citi is Part of the New York Recovery

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New York City (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

To the Editor,

A recent opinion piece – “Time for the Big Banks to Reinvest in New York City” – mischaracterized Citi’s approach to its workforce in the city and its commitment to providing relief during the pandemic. We haven’t relocated any employees to the suburbs and we haven’t prioritized federal PPP loans to wealthy corporations at the expense of New York City’s vital small businesses community.

When the pandemic hit, Citi was one of the first to step up to help the city through one of its greatest crises in history. We have distributed PPP funding to nearly 9,000 of the hardest-hit small businesses in the five boroughs – many of them employing three or fewer people. Through the Citi Foundation, we are donating $25 million in profits from our participation in the PPP program to community lenders and our partners at the state level who will help even more small businesses reopen and communities of color get the support they need. We’ve also repurposed the cafeteria at our headquarters to prepare more than 40,000 free meals for struggling families and we helped provide free annual Citi Bike memberships to more than 26,000 critical workers.

The fact is, we believe in New York City – we always have and always will. This is our home. Citi has made vital contributions to the economic and social life of the city since we were founded here more than 200 years ago. You can see that in the bank branches and affordable, high-quality products that support the financial lives of people in every neighborhood. You can see it in the $587 million in affordable housing we’ve financed since 2019 and in the thousands of employees who volunteer to coach and mentor young New Yorkers.

And make no mistake: we will play a central role in New York’s recovery. We are one of the city’s largest private sector employers and, while we’ve kept many branches open and continue to serve our customers seamlessly, we are determined to get everyone back to our headquarters in Lower Manhattan as soon as it is safe to do so. We will continue to invest in affordable housing, in expanding financial access in underserved neighborhoods and in other initiatives to make New York more livable, more inclusive and more prosperous. This is a core goal of our business – because we believe that a stronger city makes for a stronger Citi.


Brandee McHale
Head of Citi’s Community Investing & Development

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New York City Should Take Its Census Commitment to Communities of Color Into the Land Use Process

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Mayor de Blasio doing Census work (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

When our communities are undercounted in the Census—as seems sure to happen in light of the recent Supreme Court decision—it costs us seats in Congress and money for local schools, health services, food assistance, highway construction, and many other services. When our communities are not counted in land use decisions, it costs people their housing, their small businesses, their social networks, and their culture.

With so much on the line, the City of New York developed a $40 million program to ensure a full Census count in New York City. A major component was the $19 million “NYC Complete Count Fund,” which allocated money to more than 150 community organizations to reach people across races, ethnicities, and over 80 languages. For the Census, the city made extraordinary efforts to reach into all minority and immigrant communities, knowing their residents are at highest risk of not being counted.

By contrast, for land use decisions the city ignores race and ethnicity, and assumes all residents, business owners, and employees are equally likely to be displaced or to benefit from a rezoning or other major land use action.

We commend the de Blasio administration’s critically important efforts to reach historically undercounted populations for the Census. Every New Yorker, regardless of citizenship, neighborhood, or culture should participate without fear or worse, apathy. With the Census, City Hall values our diverse communities in federal dollars. With land use, City Hall does not seem to value the authentic small businesses, arts districts, and unique cultures in our diverse communities—the enduring cultural legacies that make New York the city it is.

The opportunity presented by the city’s Census work provides a template for land use planning, and it’s time to follow it.

The city can create a more equitable and inclusive land use process by incorporating data, specifically about race and ethnicity. The current city process routinely ignores race and ethnicity by minimizing assessment of risks disproportionately concentrated with residents of color and minority-owned businesses. Yet many predominantly-minority neighborhoods that have been targeted for city-backed rezoning—the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, East New York and Bushwick in Brooklyn, and East Harlem in Manhattan—are areas in the bottom 20% of Census self-response rate nationally, and where the city makes special efforts to count people for the Census.

Given its intentional outreach for the Census, the mayoral administration should make a similar effort when it comes to land use changes, especially since the Census has been prematurely cut off, imperiling New York’s federal funding stream and making local resource allocations all the more consequential. And major land use decisions have impacts that extend far beyond the next decade.

A bill that has been proposed in the City Council, mandating the use of a Racial Impact Study in major land use actions, offers a step forward. This bill would require the city to consider the likelihood of disproportionate impacts across racial and ethnic groups of proposed land use changes. By requiring the city to break out impacts by race and ethnicity, the city could identify negative impacts on specific groups before they occur and thus take steps to avoid such harm while fostering development that equitably distributes benefits of land use changes, growth, and public and private investment.

Racial impact studies are entirely feasible, as other cities like Seattle and Minneapolis have demonstrated. Any argument that this is too cumbersome to require in the Environmental Review process ignores disparate impacts unmitigated development can cause. These neighborhoods need investments in critical resources like schools, libraries, and transportation options in ways that do not create displacement pressure.

The changes seen in Williamsburg-Greenpoint and Park Slope-Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn have been calculated on the back end. Retrospective analysis has shown the folly of omitting a critical racial lens from decision-making. In these neighborhoods, despite overall population increases in the years after the rezoning, thousands of Black and Latino families have been forced out.

We applaud the city’s substantial Census effort to ensure that every New Yorker counts. But now that the door has been slammed in our face by Trump and the Supreme Court, we have to make sure another door opens. Help us pressure the City Council to pass the requirement of a Racial Impact Study. 

When we are all taken into account, our communities win.  

Alex Fennell is Racial Impact Study Coalition Coordinator. Maxwell Cabello is an urban planner and housing policy analyst. Paul Epstein is Co-chair Inwood Legal Action. Robert Jackson is the New York State Senator for District 31 in Manhattan.

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New York City's Arab Community Deserves Full Democracy

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Council Member Justin Brannan, the author, with constituents and allies

As the City Council Member representing the 43rd District in Brooklyn, I represent the largest Arab community in the City of New York. This community has weaved itself into the complex fabric of my district, especially in Bay Ridge, where our avenues are lined with Arab-owned businesses, and several non-profit organizations that have been serving Arab-Americans and Arab immigrants for decades. I am proud to serve this community, and proud that its members are a part of what makes our district so unique. 

Which is why every time Election Day rolls around, when I start to get calls from constituents complaining that there is once again no Arabic translation available at poll sites, I am totally distressed. Despite major efforts by groups attempting to turn out the Arab vote in recent years, voters continue to show up at the polls hoping for assistance, only to be turned away. Not only are translators not provided, but if campaigns or other organizations try to bring in their own to assist a voter, they are summarily denied access to the polls. It is clear the Arab community wants to vote and wants to participate, but its members are not given the assistance they need to fully do so.

The problem: in order to ensure ongoing translation services in a particular language, a community has to reach a threshold percentage of residents who speak that language, and the state Board of Elections will then consider adding that language to the ballot. Unfortunately for my district, this data comes from the Census, which presents a unique challenge for the Arab community, because “Arab” is not an option on the Census – Arabs are told to check “white.” This has led, as I have written in the past, to countless issues of under-representation and underfunding for our neighborhood – it simply looks like a large community of color does not live here when, empirically, anyone who spends more than five minutes in my district knows that is not the case. And the fact that this year’s Census looks like it will lead to a drastic undercount does not bode any better for the next decade. 

In absence of state-level action on this issue, I introduced legislation in 2018 in the hopes that the City would provide the funding and staffing for supplementary translation services at the polls – as they do with several other languages that haven’t met the state thresholds, like Russian, Polish, and Yiddish. While City Hall has shown little interest in making this happen, the new city Civic Engagement Commission has finally made some progress -- it will pilot a new program this election cycle, which will provide Arabic translation separate from the Board of Elections at four poll sites, including the last two days of early voting (October 31 and November 1).

This is great news for our district, but it is not a permanent solution. We need reliable, regular language translation for Arabic speakers at our poll sites. 

Translation at the polls is not a luxury or a privilege. Every citizen has a right to vote, and it is a right that new Americans deeply treasure. New Americans go through months of study, English classes, paperwork and appointments, and expensive filing fees to be able to become citizens – so when the time comes to vote, can you blame them that they want to participate and do it correctly? Specifically, so many of my constituents come from countries whose implementation of democracy is unreliable at best. They want to vote the way they wish, they want to vote correctly, and they want their vote to be valid and secure.

I often hear criticism that we shouldn’t need translation at the polls, because anyone who is a citizen passed an English test, and at this I cannot help but laugh. Ballots in recent years have been multiple pages long, they’ve included information on city- and state-wide referendums that are described in multiple paragraphs in barely readable fonts, they’ve included ballots that instruct you to choose multiple judges, or multiple presidential delegates – three candidates in one column, one in another. It is enough to confuse many native English speakers and lead to many invalidated ballots! Yet, all of these are choices that any citizen who pays taxes and participates in this community deserves to weigh in on, and they should not be prevented from doing so because of their level of English reading comprehension. 

When we do not assure a community that voting will be easy, safe, secure, and valid, a community will not show up in its full capacity. And that’s the case with ALL communities. When voters hear about long lines at poll sites, invalidated ballots, broken machines – they don’t show up. Language access is no different. By refusing to have Arabic translation at the polls, we are telling the Arab community – a community that has fought so hard for representation – that its votes do not matter. We simply cannot do that in our modern democracy. Not for any community, but certainly not for one with so much on the line. 

The Arab community has a lot at stake in this election. Its members’ home countries are in the midst of political upheavals, viruses, economic upswings and downturns. In the U.S., federally, they face the prospect of restrictions to immigration reform, travel bans, and a rise in Islamophobia. And locally, these are families who want to have a say in who represents them in elected office, their schools, their public transportation systems, their housing. It is unjust that the Arab community is so often the subject of headlines, but its members are being denied an opportunity to control their futures. 

While I’m glad that Arabic translation will be provided at a few poll sites this year thanks to the efforts of the Civic Engagement Commission, it is crucial that we get this pilot right, and that we come up with a permanent solution for all poll sites. It is the right thing to do at any time, but particularly when so much is at stake.

Justin Brannan is a member of the City Council representing parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.

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Time for the Big Banks to Reinvest in New York City

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Eric Adams at a Brooklyn business (photo: @BKBoroHall)

At the height of the pandemic New York City did the unthinkable in the city that never sleeps: it closed up shop. To stop the spread and protect lives, we shut down everything—including the tens of thousands of small businesses that are the backbone of our local economy.

The sacrifice was immense. New Yorkers gave up their livelihoods and put their American dreams on hold. Some lost everything.

It did not have to be this way. One good thing that Washington did during the crisis was to fund a lifeline for small businesses. Hundreds of billions of dollars of federal relief was applied in the form of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). But far too little of that money ended up in the hands of small business owners in New York.

Why? Bias and greed. The big banks that were the main conduit for the funds did not have preexisting relationships with small businesses that needed help, especially those owned by people of color. So those businesses were often either denied the loans or outright ignored. Even worse, while the biggest banks were excluding small businesses, they were funneling PPP money to huge corporations that already had lucrative relationships with the nation’s largest lenders.

It may go down as the largest rip-off in the history of the United States—and it happened in our backyard; most of these banks are headquartered in New York. While they were arranging for big restaurant chains and major retailers to get fat government checks from the top floor of their skyscrapers, locally-owned eateries and gift shops on the bottom floor were closing forever.

Mad yet? No? This should do it: not only were those banks taking money that New York’s small businesses desperately needed and doling it out to their friends at Fortune 500 companies, but they were simultaneously getting city tax breaks.

Citibank, for example, has received more than $100 million from New York City taxpayers over the past 30 years. What did we get in return? The bank cut its city workforce in half.

Then, after covid hit, news reports were everywhere that Citibank was relocating its remaining workers to the suburbs. At the same time, analyses of their PPP loans and that of other big banks shows they favored their very wealthy clients and corporate customers over small businesses.

As the center of global commerce, New York has helped build big banks, providing the talent and tax breaks they relied on to create immense wealth. In return, the financial sector has been an important source of jobs and tax revenue for our city.

In this time of crisis, those banks should provide significantly more new small business loans and capital to boost our recovery than they have committed to so far, and hold firm on the employment promises they made in the past. In this respect, JP Morgan deserves credit for moving forward with its new headquarters in Manhattan, and being vocal about getting its employees back to work in the city.

And Citibank has also now committed to buying $50 million in loans made under PPP by smaller lenders to city employers, and making another $1 billion in loans nationwide designed to close the racial wealth gap. But if past is precedent, we can’t just take them at their word. New York City government should instead take steps to ensure big banks better serve New Yorkers going forward.

First, let’s use our leverage as a major regulator and customer of big banks. The City’s Banking Commission -- which has a three-member board of the mayor, city comptroller, and commissioner of the Department of Finance -- has the power to determine which banks can operate here, hold city government’s billions of dollars in deposits, and handle our bond issues. Our comptroller also plays a key role in choosing which banks manage our pension funds.

That’s a lot of leverage to force big banks to do right by New Yorkers. We should use it. We should also use the city’s deposits to significantly expand the program to capitalize local lenders, referred to as CDFIs, who loan to our smaller employers and already have deep relationships with minority-owned businesses.

Finally, there are 360,000 households in New York that are unbanked and another 780,000 households that are underbanked, meaning they rely on sketchy services such as check cashing and payday loan parlors. The city should work with landlords and larger banks to offer discounted space -- which is unfortunately now much more available -- in lower-income communities to open branches to help those New Yorkers improve credit, access financial tools, and build savings and wealth. And those banks should hire locally for those branches.

What happened to New York’s small businesses during the covid crisis is a crime. If we don’t toughen up and show some teeth, nothing will improve. If we don’t stand up for our small businesses, who will?

Eric L. Adams is the Brooklyn Borough President. On Twitter @ericadamsfornyc.

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Two Essential Reforms to the Manhattan DA’s Office to Better Protect Victims

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The 16th Annual Gladys Ricard and Victims of Domestic Violence Memorial Walk/Brides' March (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is in need of reform, but practicality and feasibility must be considered first and foremost when we look to implement changes that can realistically make a difference in its effectiveness in serving New Yorkers. Make no mistake though, internal and pragmatic changes can make those differences significant for many people who experience what are often traumatic instances of direct contact with our criminal justice system.

The debate over reform of our criminal justice system is a long overdo and important one, but in our ardent and compassionate efforts to see justice for those unfairly or arcanely prosecuted and detained, we seem to have forgotten the most important people in the criminal justice equation: victims.  

Two major reforms that I am proposing in my campaign for Manhattan District Attorney are establishing a Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence Bureau at the office and strengthening its investigatory capacity, both of which will go far in ensuring the rights of victims do not become marginalized in the future.

Establishing a Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence Bureau
For too long, sex crime and domestic violence victims have suffered at the hands of their assailants in ways that persist psychologically well beyond the instances of the crimes committed against them. This is a result of the district attorney office neglecting to offer the full support and resources victims need and deserve. 

Victims require additional resources because these crimes are often especially complicated and cannot be treated like normal street crimes. A Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence Bureau will be staffed with assistant district attorneys and social workers who work exclusively on sex crimes and domestic violence cases.

The first step is to educate victims on what their rights are, how the legal system works, as well as the ins and outs of what occurs during the pendency of a criminal case. This information is sometimes lost in the procedural shuffle and not fully understood.  

The next step is to engage head-on the overwhelming consequences that can haunt victims of these crimes, which can often spur emotional, psychological, and physical ramifications. For victims, there are logistical problems of how to maintain housing, the education of their children, and medical care (to name a few) that need attention as well. With a centralized bureau, we will better handle the criminal matter, while at the same time helping the victim begin to regain a sense of normalcy.    

The bureau will allow staff investigators and social workers to address the special needs of sex crime and domestic abuse victims and provide support, which includes counseling, support groups, physical protection, and more. This will provide them the social and mental resources necessary to overcome their traumatic and often unique situations. 

The bureau will also look at mediation and restorative justice to help assist victims in obtaining closure on their road to recovery. This goes beyond just educating victims on how the system works. It also includes listening to their feelings on what justice means to them in each case.  

Additionally, we will staff the newly formed bureau with the right number of social workers to work with victims who feel intimidated or traumatized as potential witnesses or providers of essential evidence in a criminal trial.

Providing these resources will not only help known victims, but further institute a culture that will encourage other victims to come forward without fear of retribution or lack of protection or services. This will comprehensively restore confidence in the justice system so that victims feel supported enough to come forward and allow prosecutors to investigate crimes and bring about justice. 

Strengthening the Office’s Investigatory Capacity
As a former team member of District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s Investigation Division, I worked for two years on complex white-collar cases locally, nationally, and internationally. 

New Yorkers are often dismayed by the recurring sensationalization of street crimes through outrageous headlines and fear-mongering in newspapers and on television. While these crimes are unquestionably serious, the inordinate amount of attention we pay them works to downplay in our collective consciousness the often far-reaching and detrimental effects of white-collar crime.

Wealth and power can often provide cover for crimes motivated by greed, while enabling ever more inventive criminal opportunities that skirt accountability. In such uncertain times, our city must be on the cutting edge of fighting white-collar crime, especially with the proliferation of cybercrime, hacking, identity theft, and the new crimes of the 21st century.  

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has lost its focus on its investigatory capacity. We must mobilize its existing powers to pursue with teeth white-collar crimes that impact our economy and directly impact hardworking New Yorkers. 

In the financial capital of the world we need to consider with more gravity malfeasance that not only hurts our financial institutions, but can cripple our economy and devastate hardworking taxpayers, leaving a lasting effect on communities and families. It is essential that we strictly prosecute perpetrators of everything from fraud, embezzlement, and bribery to illegal third party transfers and deed theft. 

This requires establishing in the office a culture of fairness that begins with re-instituting its intake bureau, which once allowed everyday Manhattanites to bring their complaints directly to investigators. Unlike street crime, white-collar crime often does not reveal itself to us inherently, and the NYPD is not equipped to tackle the problem in any practical, legal or functional way.

When we prioritize and strengthen the investigatory capacity and powers of the office to uncover economic injustice, we ensure investigators utilize the full range of resources and tools provided to them and prosecutors are able to compile the necessary evidence required for the convictions they seek. 

The District Attorney’s Office has the responsibility to prioritize all of the investigatory resources it has available to ensure our criminal justice system works for everyone, because white-collar crimes make victims of all of us.  

Liz Crotty is a candidate for New York County (Manhattan) District Attorney. On Twitter @LizCrotty2021.

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