Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



A Wall Street Investor and an Unemployed Immigrant Cook Agree: Tax Billionaires, Support Excluded Workers

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Gov. Cuomo at the New York Stock Exchange (photo: Don Pollard/governor's office)

Income inequality in our state was a crisis before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, but five months into the pandemic, it is now a question of life or death for millions of New Yorkers.

As two individuals sitting on opposite sides of that inequality divide, we are united in our demand to the State of New York: we must tax the rich, and we must do it right now.

One of us, Morris Pearl, is a millionaire. I built my fortune on Wall Street, but I retired from that job after deciding that I wanted to concentrate on making the world a better place.

Now, I make most of my money off passive investments. In the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis those investments are doing better than ever. Investing doesn’t use much of my labor and it barely takes up my time, and yet it’s made me wealthier than millions of other New Yorkers who actually need to work for a living. And thanks to our state lawmakers’ unwillingness to tax folks like me fairly, I pay significantly lower tax rates on what I earn from my investments than most New Yorkers do for what they earn from their hard work.  

On the other side of things I, Ajay Puran, lost my job at a roti shop in Richmond Hill back in March as the economy shut down. I’m 16 years old and go to high school. But I’m also the oldest child in a family of six, so I used to work 8-10 hour shifts on weekends to help pay the rent and support my younger brothers and sister. Because of the pandemic, my mom and I both lost our jobs. We became dependent on my dad’s income alone - even though his work wasn’t regular and his job didn’t bring in anywhere near what we need to survive. I recently found another job occasionally cleaning and sanitizing the apartments of rich people in Manhattan who left the city. But our income is still a tiny fraction of what we used to live on. 

My family and I are undocumented. No one in my family is eligible for a single dollar in unemployment or any emergency income. When we can find work, my dad and I are working what everyone calls “essential” jobs and we’re getting a lot of thank yous. But no amount of thank yous will put food on our table or help us to pay the rent. As undocumented people we are somehow keeping this country running through our essential work, but then when there is no paid work available, we are excluded from all unemployment assistance and other income to help us survive.

Many families like us have to make a choice between working while sick or becoming homeless. And in a pandemic, everyone else in New York is only as safe and healthy as my family, and all the other undocumented people who live here.

We both agree that this sorry state of affairs is not inevitable.

Millions of New Yorkers are suffering, and the state government can offer more assistance to the people who need it most, including undocumented immigrants. There’s plenty of money available to spend, it’s just in the bank accounts of New York’s wealthy. All we need is for the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to step up and understand that protecting the lifestyles of the rich in the long-term means to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers now, not keeping the wealthy’s taxes low in the short-term.

A bill introduced in the New York Legislature would address this problem by changing the way our state’s billionaires are taxed to provide direct relief to families excluded from unemployment benefits. The proposed billionaires tax would raise an estimated $5.5 billion per year and could provide direct aid to the most vulnerable New Yorkers in a flat amount that matches what other low wage workers receive in unemployment insurance.

While the rest of the state struggles to stay afloat in this crisis, New York’s 119 billionaires have increased their net worth by leaps and bounds since the start of the pandemic, with some estimates reaching $600 billion.

We have more billionaires than anywhere else in the world, and yet they pay lower state and local tax rates than New York’s teachers and truck drivers. This should be an easy call. Our state could finally, after all these years of ignoring the growing problem, start to bridge the gap between the two of us if we just tax those billionaires to fund excluded workers.

Morris Pearl is the Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires. Ajay Puranis a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM). On Twitter: @Morris_Pearl & @DesisRisingUp.

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How Development Should Be Decided in New York City

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City Council (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

We are at a critical turning point in New York City’s history. Large-scale development projects, pushed by big real estate interests and the business class after September 11, 2001, did not give New Yorkers the promised security to avoid the Great Recession, or the next crisis, COVID-19. Meanwhile, a lack of investments in social programs shredded the social safety net New Yorkers were told would save them if they lost their jobs or homes.

If there is any time to insist on accountability before approving massive developments, it is now. That is why we oppose Industry City and YourLIC in our respective City Council districts.

We cannot allow for more displacement and suffering to befall our most vulnerable constituents based on empty promises alone. Yet the real estate lobby (REBNY) and the business class are trotting out the same failed talking points and pushing our City Council colleagues to overrule us.

This is unsurprising. The business class loves “member deference” when it aligns with their interests, and rail against it when it does not. But what is remarkable is how some of our colleagues who should know better agree with them. They say the stakes are too high for us to decide alone, despite us having won the confidence of our constituents at the ballot box and knowing our communities intimately.

Our colleagues are right about one thing – the stakes are too high. According to some estimates, 1.4 million New Yorkers are at risk of eviction because of COVID-19. Around 100,000 are already homeless. Half of all immigrant New Yorkers are unemployed, even though they represent half of all essential workers. And while our most vulnerable neighbors lost their lives and livelihoods, billionaires profited off their misery and are doing better than ever.

The dangerous precedent we must undo is not the Council’s tradition of member deference but our deference to developers. Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. If we give developers a blank check in Brooklyn and Queens, despite lacking any accountability to their neighbors to deliver on their promises, we will re-create the very conditions that put New Yorkers in harm’s way to begin with.

Many things must change about how we make land use decisions. The city’s process - ULURP - is flawed and Council members are not always right. But member deference creates accountability at the ballot box, where it belongs. Eliminating member deference would disconnect the votes of our constituents from the decision-making process and give power to whoever can lobby and organize the Council best, regardless of the merits of any proposal.

In other words, member deference prevents the rich and powerful from pushing through projects over the objections of local communities. Ending member deference, during the worst economic crisis in a century when New Yorkers are calling for change, would make our city into a playground for the wealthy again and further displace working class New Yorkers, especially our Black, Latino, and immigrant neighbors.

Every year, developers promise New Yorkers jobs in exchange for our support. But proof matters more than promises, especially now. If we are to prevent the next economic crisis, we must insist on accountability, and resist the siren calls of economic collapse from the ones most responsible for it.

City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Van Bramer represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @CMenchaca & @JimmyVanBramer.

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When the School Segregationist Dog Whistle Becomes a Bullhorn

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Students at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Dog-whistle politics refers to the use of racially-coded language as a strategy to rally perceived allies while providing plausible deniability against charges of racism. Donald Trump and the Republican Party regularly use racist dog whistles in the context of immigration, policing, public benefits, and school integration by rallying around the idea of an external racial threat of people of color to ‘white America.’ However, there is no one political party or region of the United States with a monopoly on dog-whistle politics. Even in “liberal” New York City, the debate around school integration continues to escalate and bubble over as the racist dog whistle becomes a booming bullhorn.

New York City remains one of the most segregated school districts in the country. For the past few years, educational equity advocates have proposed a number of educational reforms to address this problem. The most controversial reforms involve school integration, which have engendered controversy and backlash from conservatives and self-described liberals alike. 

In 2018, Upper West Side parents vehemently opposed integration plans that would set aside a percentage of middle-school seats in their district for students with lower exam scores. As one white parent said at a meeting: “You’re telling them that 'You’re not going to go to a school that’s going to educate them the same way you’ve been educated.' Life sucks! Is that what the DOE [Department of Education] wants to say?” Many white liberals and moderates deploy dog whistles to defend their position that racial integration will destroy the “good” schools, or take opportunities away from allegedly more deserving, gifted, and hardworking white and Asian-American students

These school integration debates have raged on, perhaps most fervently, concerning efforts to reform admissions standards at New York City’s specialized high schools. Currently, admissions to these elite schools is based on a single, high-stakes, standardized test called the SHSAT. Black and Latino students in New York’s eight so-called specialized high schools stand at an abysmal rate of around 11 percent, despite constituting 70 percent of New York City’s public school system.

Reporting by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and director of the 1619 Project, brought national attention to the school integration debate in New York City. Her interview with Maud Maron, who currently serves as president of the Community Education Council for District 2 in Manhattan, drew outrage precisely for Maron’s use of dog whistles to oppose school integration.

As a follow-up to Maron’s remarks opposing the Department of Education’s school integration proposals, Hannah-Jones asked: “What desegregation efforts then would you support?” Maron replied that it depends: “you have to have community buy-in,” and continued, "when people say I'm nervous that this is going to result in my kid getting a less good education, you have to take that concern as a valid concern—even if you think it's racist, and it may be."

We must heed Martin Luther King Jr.’s criticism of the white moderate, "who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom." Maron is a textbook example of the white moderate of whom King warned, telling Hannah-Jones that Black people must wait for a more convenient time for people like her and the many privileged parent leaders to become comfortable with integration.

Like many opponents to school integration, Maron’s comments trivialize and dismiss the benefits of school integration when rivaled with her concern that white children would have to share the same educational space and opportunities with Black and Latino children. In addition to opposing school integration, Maron and her ilk unsurprisingly oppose culturally responsive education and implicit bias training for educators. 

These anti-integration advocates hold an outsized influence over education policy, occupying critical seats on their local community education councils. And they seek to grow their influence and power, including through upcoming city elections. Maron is now taking her education platform and running on it, as a Democrat, for New York City Council in the 2021 election.

Despite Maron’s attempts to portray herself as a “liberal,” time and again she has fought against organizations like Teens Take Charge, a youth-led group that fights for educational equity, and more recently targeted a youth activist of color for raising allegations of racism with her political campaign. In response to her critics, Maron published an op-ed identifying herself as a public defender as a liberal bona fide. She goes on to say that anti-racism is what invites discrimination, and then characterizes education equity advocates as race-obsessed. In response, the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid and The Legal Aid Society, Maron’s employer, both issued statements condemning Maron’s brand of liberal racism.

Maron is no longer only speaking to Tribeca moms who secretly oppose integration in hushed voices. She is publicly dabbling in the rhetoric popularized by Donald Trump and his right wing supporters who attack and deride antiracism as political correctness and cancel culture. She has even galvanized an online army of vile racism denialists who harass and dox anyone who criticizes Maron or her segregation activism. 

One of Maron’s most ardent supporters include Thomas Wrocklage, a fellow CEC member, lawyer, and co-founder of the anti-integration nonprofit called PLACE NYC. Wrocklage comfortably engages in a range of aggressive antics to harass Maron’s critics, going as far as to dox multiple of Maron’s Black and women colleagues and fellow CEC members, and indefensibly harassing teenagers from Teens Take Charge. Maron has not denounced the offensive tactics or racist views espoused by her supporters on her behalf.  

Ultimately, the segregationist views of Maud Maron and Thomas Wrocklage are not new or unique. Attacking school integration is as American as apple pie. It is the story of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine Black students who integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas in 1957—only two years after Brown v Board of Education held that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. The Little Rock Nine faced white mobs and riots, and the Arkansas National Guard was sent in to stop these nine Black children from entering their school.

This legacy of anti-Black racism and logic lives on. White mothers fought to uphold Jim Crow—they saw their moral authority derive from protecting their white children from the racial threat of integration. While people like Maud Maron seemingly couch their arguments against school integration in a thin veil of parental concern, they remain on the wrong side of history.

It is our duty to go beyond denouncing brazen, bullhorn racism. For far too long and often, more subtle, covert forms of racism go unchecked. To be clear, this is not simply a matter of political correctness or word choices. The issue before us is that the promise of Brown, 66 years later, has not been realized. We must expose and challenge the systemic racism that underpins dog whistles, and bullhorns alike, if we are to have a chance at real integration.

Rigodis Appling, Diana Nevins, Olayemi Olurin, and Jason Wu are public defenders in New York City. On Twitter @rigodis, @artemis_nieves, @msolurin, @criticalrace.

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Lessons from How We Prevented COVID-19 from Ravaging Our Homeless Clients

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Food distribution during the covid crisis (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

COVID-19 has taught us painful lessons about inadequate disaster preparedness and a vulnerable health-care ecosystem. In the midst of access obstacles, insufficient resources, and a limited federal response, a virus of moderate virulence and lethality has taken an appalling toll — over 140,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 including more than 700 health-care workers. Local providers and governments have had to scramble and improvise to manage the onslaught to prevent an even worse disaster. 

At the Center for Urban Community Services, one of New York City’s largest health-care providers to people who are homeless, we have managed to scramble and improvise effectively for our clients and workforce. Our client infection rate has remained below 5 percent, well under the estimated 15-20 percent infection rate for New York City residents. We have also managed to keep our staff infection rate low, and even more importantly, we have had zero staff fatalities.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the American South and Southwest, and in anticipation of influenza season, which we fear will exacerbate the pandemic, lessons of the spring in the Northeast can mitigate a possible second coronavirus wave. Here is some of what we learned:   

Communicate, including about your ignorance.  
Effective action always starts with accurate, relevant information people trust. A crucial ingredient of earning trust is to also be open about one’s ignorance. An early challenge of COVID-19 was that so much was unknown in the early spring about how SARS-CoV-2 transmits, causes illness, and leads to death — we didn’t really know what we were up against.

It was difficult to strategize about reducing transmission when it wasn’t clear how the virus was spreading, and it was difficult to screen people when it wasn’t clear what symptoms reliably correlated with infection. Furthermore, a lack of testing meant we didn’t even know how widespread a problem we were facing. The first thing to be up front about, then, is what you don’t know.

In March and April we communicated frequently with our clients and staff about our plans for trying to keep people safe, but also that we were committed to changing course as new information and understanding developed. An important example of this was the shifting understanding and recommendations about the value of face coverings. Early on we recommended against mask-wearing but shifted gears as evidence mounted about the effectiveness of face-covering. Because we prepared people for course changes, however, our clients and staff embraced mask-wearing easily and quickly.    

Another example of ignorance we allowed ourselves to be open about was the lack of clarity about the symptoms of COVID-19 and about the relative importance of asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread.

Realizing that confusion about these issues made it impossible to reliably identify who might be contagious at any given moment profoundly influenced our strategy in a way that we believe kept our infection rate low. Since we understood we could not completely prevent people who are contagious from being at our workplaces, we transformed our programs and operations to be safe even if people were contagious.

We eliminated as many “close contacts” between client and staff and among staff as possible. A contagious person cannot infect you if you keep your distance, avoid prolonged interactions and wear a mask. We believe our workplaces are currently safer than people’s homes.

Get ahead of the problem and on the side of caution.
By the time there was a first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York City, we had been closely monitoring developments in China and Italy and we had already started educating our staff and clients about the seriousness of the situation. Sensitizing people to the grave nature of the crisis prepared our team to rapidly develop protocols that we ended up executing well before the city and state began issuing guidance.

We had decided how we were going to respond to the closing of the New York City school system and the stay-at-home order before those measures went into effect. Given how quickly SARS-CoV-2 can spread, we believe this foresight and rapid mobilization prevented a significant outbreak at our agency.  

In mid-March we transitioned most staff to remote work, a significant challenge for a client-facing service-provider. Much of our medical team shifted to two-week, staggered rotations to limit the number of providers who would be risking exposure at any given time while also ensuring our clients access to necessary care. Acting swiftly and decisively, with healthcare workers’ well-being driving every decision, minimized the number of clinicians who became infected and allowed us to keep providing care to people. 

Although COVID-19 prevalence in New York City is currently quite low, and the city has moved on to phase 4 of reopening, we recognize this is a fragile state of affairs and that we cannot let our guard down. Our protocols continue to be informed by the assumption that everyone you might interact with might be contagious. SARS-CoV-2 can spread easily and case counts can quickly grow exponentially. We move forward assuming that might happen any time, and we believe this is the only prudent assumption until there is a widely available, effective vaccine. 

Be flexible.
A significant, unanticipated early challenge of this pandemic was the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) — just as toilet paper disappeared from the stores, so did face masks from our suppliers. To address this unprecedented challenge, Center for Urban Community Services formed an informal team to become equipment hunters and importers. For example, we deputized procurement officers who had no such previous experience.

This team collaborated with different organizations in a national, and in some cases international, effort to obtain face masks for frontline workers on our outreach teams and shelter and housing programs. People from all over the country supported this cause, mailing in hand-sewn face masks not only from New York City and State, but also from as far away as Alaska, California, and Washington State.

Through this effort, Center for Urban Community Services was able to distribute over 8,000 face masks to frontline staff and our clients who are homeless. Our investment in this effort has built new supply chains to ensure we have sufficient PPE to protect our staff and clients in future surges. 

Although New York City is experiencing a brief respite, it would be unwise to become complacent. COVID-19 is surging through much of the country and people travel from hot spots to New York every day. The onset of influenza season will almost certainly exacerbate whatever COVID-19 is prevalent in the city this autumn and winter. COVID-19 safety and preparedness has become embedded into all that we do — it must be inherent in our new normal — in order for us to keep people safe and to continue to provide the care and services that are so crucial to our clients.  

As scientists and physicians learn more, and COVID-19 has become less mysterious, it has become clear that good old-fashioned, basic public health measures can reverse outbreaks and control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Social distancing; testing, tracing and isolating; hand hygiene; and mask-wearing are unfancy interventions well within the capacity of a country with the political will to resource such efforts.

By now there are dozens of examples of whole populations of people who, with clear, consistent communication and leadership, are happy to work together to protect everyone. A coordinated effort by government and citizens to employ simple, straightforward tactics could allow this country to enjoy a semblance of normalcy — being with loved ones, going to school, helping one’s neighbors — until an effective vaccine can finally put an end to this pandemic.  

Dr. Van Yu is Chief Medical Officer at the Center for Urban Community Services. On Twitter @CUCSnyc.

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The Path to Better Policing and Safer Communities in Brooklyn and Beyond

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Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, center, is one of the authors (photo: @BrooklynDA)

Brooklyn is at a turning point for public safety and criminal justice reform. Through hard work, creativity, and trial and error, both law enforcement and citizen-powered organizations like East Brooklyn Congregations have achieved a sustained, historic drop in crime—but this year has seen troubling shifts. The recent spike in shootings and homicides – coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis – has thrown people off balance. It’s led to questions – some in good faith and others in service of long-standing political agendas – about whether there is an unavoidable tradeoff between safety and fairness. We believe there is not. Our communities deserve both safety and fairness. 

Now is not the time to retreat, but rather to refocus on what works, and where it can improve. We measure what we value. Our communities value a justice system that continues to reduce crime while also reducing incarceration, racial disparities, and police misconduct. But achieving those reductions will require measuring all the things we care about, so we can target our resources and efforts most effectively and hold both law enforcement and our own communities accountable.

We know from experience that when we accurately track where crime is happening, through a system like the NYPD’s CompStat, we can use police resources more efficiently to drive down crime. And when we carefully gather and analyze intelligence on the small number of individuals who commit the majority of serious violent crimes, as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Crime Strategies Unit does, we can reduce such violence even further. By conducting focused, long-term investigations of gangs and crews that drive most of the shootings, and breaking up out-of-state gun trafficking rings that funnel guns onto our streets, the DA’s Office and the Police Department helped drive murders down by a third and shootings down almost 40% in the last five years.

Good, focused police work has been critical – and our communities can’t afford for police to pull back simply because activists are rightly demanding accountability for law enforcement misconduct and changes in the way communities are policed. If we care about police misconduct and encouraging positive police behavior, we should measure just as carefully incidents of excessive force, as well as positive interactions between the police and communities and make the data public.

The same CompStat principles that reduced crime so dramatically should be applied to misconduct by police officers. If we truly care about reducing racial disparities in the justice process, we should measure disparities at every step -- from arrest, to charging, to bail requests, to convictions, to sentencing, and post-conviction outcomes like granting parole. Then we can craft policies that advance racial equity. If we care about diversion and meeting people’s needs for counseling, mental health services, education and job training, we should measure how often we divert people and which programs are most effective.

We know that we can reduce the numbers of people arrested and prosecuted for low-level offenses and still drive down serious crime; we don't need a return to old stop-and-frisk practices, which communities certainly do not want. Dramatic reductions in arrests and prosecutions for crimes like marijuana possession, for which 95% of those arrested in 2014 were Black or Hispanic, will hopefully strengthen community trust in the justice system. And programs already created by the DA’s Office to offer substance use treatment, job training, and other services instead of jail, have driven down incarceration while addressing underlying causes of harmful behavior. That has made the community safer while honoring the human dignity of the individuals affected.

Beyond these specific programs, we know from social science research that the factors most strongly associated with positive, law-abiding behavior are social connectedness and having one’s basic needs met – health care, education, stable housing. EBC and other community organizations build power to demand these basic services from both government and the private sector every day.  That work – engaging a wide cross-section of the community and benefiting many over time – reduces feelings of isolation and marginalization and powerlessness. People feel like full citizens whose voices are heard and whose visions are realized. That makes us all safer.

Where do we most need support for people returning to the community from incarceration? Where do we most need more substance use programs, or mental health clinics, or youth programs? We don’t know, unless we measure.

As community leaders and law enforcement, we believe in accountability. We also believe that safety and fairness are not in conflict, but mutually reinforcing. We’ve learned a lot about how to make our communities safer while driving down incarceration and expanding non-law enforcement responses to social ills. We can make even more progress on these goals, and hold both law enforcement and civilians accountable, if we measure what we value and apply the lessons we learn to do better.

Eric Gonzalez is the Brooklyn District Attorney; on Twitter @BrooklynDA. Rev. David K. Brawley is the Senior Pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and member of the Governance Board and Strategy Team of East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC).

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The United States of America is Becoming a Failed State

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President Donald Trump (photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)

In January 2018, President Trump disparaged African countries and Haiti by referring to them as “s---hole” countries. He asked why the United States would want more immigrants from these debilitated economies. Given the president’s comments, there is some amount of irony in the fact that the United States appears to be on track to join the same list of countries that he referred to. As a tweet by Jasmine Tyon aptly described it, the U.S. is a third-world country with a Gucci belt. You may not see it yet, but it is quickly becoming a failed state. 

Additionally, sentiments expressed by the president notwithstanding, our country isn’t heading towards failed statehood because it allowed entry to immigrants from under developed nations.

Some would argue that race -- in terms of Trump, racism and white supremacy -- has a lot to do with the United States’ march toward failed statehood. The fact remains that immigrants from under-developed nations have little to do with the failure that Trump has led this country to.

There are a number of factors that precede failed statehood. My focus here is accountability — in this case, the lack of it. 

A failed state is a country with a political economy that has become so dysfunctional that it can no longer function properly. Even if it appears to display functionality, it is not considered legitimate, and that is precisely what is happening to the United States. 

The federal government has many parts to play, but of the responsibilities entrusted to it, the two most essential are both intricately linked to accountability.

The first responsibility is to ensure appropriate segregation of powers so that we don’t end up with a King (having a Queen is unlikely, since as an enlightened, first-world country, the U.S. is still a long way from electing a female president). Even at this point we find ourselves under President Trump, we are unlikely to end up with a King because one cannot be a King while simultaneously abdicating accountability. We currently do not have a King, a Queen, or even, really, a President.

What we have is an aspiring despot — a ruler whose wish is mostly Congress’ command; a tyrannical, oppressive autocrat.

The second most central responsibility of the federal government is to ensure that the rights of U.S. citizens and, yes, undocumented persons alike, remain protected. How protected do you feel these days? 

So what is accountability? It’s rooted in one’s obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for their actions. Notice willingness. If a person does not deem something as their responsibility, then they cannot be held accountable. To deny responsibility and accountability can thus quickly translate into a perpetual state of denial, and that is precisely what our president does.

Trump denies the role he has played in leading one of the world’s superpowers to imminent disaster. From the Mueller findings on obstruction to the impeachment offenses to personally benefiting financially from his government position to introducing his Muslim travel ban and creating racial unrest to the ill-equipped and deadly responses to Hurricane Maria and the COVID-19 pandemic, the list of Trump’s failures is impossibly long and, thus far, with zero accountability attached to it.

In the case of failed states, the ineffective organization of political communities permits powerful individuals to skirt their duties and avoid accountability. That’s what is happening to the United States. American politics has become entrenched in tribalism and sectionalism. This has played an essential role in shaping the United States into a failed state. Individuals are no longer restrained by notions of basic morality. Cruelty gets normalized and combatants become increasingly inclined toward corruption. If this continues, the U.S., I advance, will finally be declared the failed state that our president wants it to be, so he can consolidate power to himself. 

It’s not too late, though. We are still a democracy. As people, we have the power to elect our next leader. If we don’t vote to install a new government that respects the appropriate segregation of powers and works to ensure that the rights of U.S. citizens and undocumented persons are protected, then we are equally accountable for what happens next. 

Come the fall election, you can either shun your responsibility or accept it as an obligation to your country. If we act decisively, we may still be able to reverse our rapid transition to failed statehood and begin to rebuild this country.

Lessie Branch is an Associate Professor at Metropolitan College of New York; author of Optimism At All Costs: Black Attitudes, Activism, and Advancement in Obama’s America; and co-host of HERe ME Podcast. On Twitter @LessieBBranch.

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The Bronx to SoHo: Pull Your Weight in Addressing the City's Housing and Segregation Crises

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Mayor de Blasio with New Yorkers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Dear Mayor de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Brewer, Council Member Chin, and Members and Residents of Manhattan Community Board 2:

My name is John Sanchez, I’m the District Manager of Bronx Community Board 6, a great neighborhood, but also among the poorest in our city. In Bronx CB6, which includes Belmont, East Tremont, and West Farms, there is a 31% poverty rate, a higher than 30% unemployment rate, and 60% of residents are rent-burdened. I love my neighborhood but I can’t fault any of my neighbors for wanting to live in a higher opportunity neighborhood like SoHo or The Village in Manhattan Community Board 2, especially given it would likely help their children’s long-term outcomes for career earnings, health, and educational attainment.

While I am sure many residents in places like Manhattan CB2 finally recognize that Black Lives Matter, in too many parts of our city this call to action stops when it comes to integrating exclusionary neighborhoods and having Black neighbors. I am writing to implore you to take a monumental first step toward equitable integration by supporting the plan presented by Open New York to rezone SoHo and NoHo for thousands of new homes, of which at least 700 would be deeply affordable through the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program.

The rationing of affordable housing development in New York City due to arbitrary zoning rules and local control and the resulting displacement of demand to communities like mine must end.

I actually used to live in SoHo when I was a Resident Assistant at NYU. While the odds of attending NYU as a Black and Latino man from The Bronx are slim but improving, the odds of someone like me building a life in SoHo are six times lower, with only 2% of Manhattan CB2 residents being Black. The neighborhood’s long-standing refusal to construct affordable housing is the main reason for its lack of diversity. While neighborhoods such as Jerome Avenue, Far Rockaway, and East New York have been rezoned during the de Blasio administration, places like SoHo and Riverdale retain their zoning from nearly 40 years ago, limiting the number of people who can live there and preserving their pale “community fabric” instead of fostering beautiful mosaics.

Adding insult to injury, our city’s inequitable land use strategy contradicts the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s very own guidance, which states “MIH requirements work best in strong housing markets. Rental projects in moderate and weak markets do not achieve sufficient returns to achieve feasibility without subsidies.” Allowing the stronger housing markets like SoHo to build without subsidies would allow low-income areas like my community board to have more subsidy dollars to build more units of housing at deeper levels of affordability.

The fiscal crisis brought on by the pandemic makes changing this dynamic even more urgent - if the city is going to cut $1 billion from our affordable housing construction budget, we must get the most equitable bang for our buck with the funding that’s available. 

The pandemic has shown us that viruses don’t recognize the geographic lines that define our land use process. New York is an interconnected city that cannot exist without people of all backgrounds doing their part, especially when it comes to addressing our affordable housing crisis. Whether operating our transportation system, staffing our hospitals, teaching our children, delivering our food, or cleaning our streets, our city would grind to a halt without the essential workers who mostly live in communities like mine. Yet in wealthy neighborhoods like SoHo they’re only welcome to visit when working, shopping, or sight-seeing, but not if they’re looking for a place to live.

If you can accept a food delivery from a New Yorker who doesn’t look like you, you can also embrace them as a neighbor. If you can hire a nanny for your children who looks different from you, you can also embrace their children as classmates of your own children. 

Upzoning SoHo for mixed-income housing would be an important next step in building a New York that is united and open to all regardless of background or income. Let’s show the whole city that building more housing is not a burden on any community, but a benefit for us all that should happen throughout the five boroughs.

John Sanchez is the District Manager of Bronx Community Board 6 and a candidate for City Council in District 15. On Twitter @NYJohnSanchez.

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Efforts to End Racism Must Include Dismantling Housing Discrimination

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Housing discrimination must be addressed (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

In January 2015, I was released from a federal prison in California with the clothes I came in with, a few personal possessions I’d collected over the six years I had been incarcerated, and a bus ticket back to New York City. After a six-day journey home, I found myself subletting a room from a family friend – and as long as the rent was paid on time, they did not ask questions. Living in this apartment allowed me to find employment, cultivate relationships with my family, and continue pursuing my degree at City Tech. Unfortunately, this arrangement did not last. 

In 2017, the landlord conducted a criminal background check and proceeded to evict me. Within a few months, I was in a homeless shelter. 

Communities of color are disparately harmed by so many systems – particularly the intersection of our criminal legal system and our housing system. As a person of color in America, I am constantly straddling those two systems and the racist laws that sustain them. The incredible protests sweeping across all 50 states (and several countries) are demanding accountability to Black and brown lives — investing away from police and toward structural change. But this change can’t begin and end with police reform. It must also extend to all other systems, especially housing.  

After my eviction, I worked tirelessly to find a new home. I called real estate agents, filled out applications, paid for nonrefundable background checks (between $25 and $50 each), put down deposits, and met with landlords. When faced with the question, “Where have you lived for the past five years?” or “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” I answered honestly: “prison” and “yes.” On paper, I had not existed until my release from prison. Between this and background checks that confirmed my history, prospective landlords deemed me unworthy of safe, stable housing.   

My only options were overcrowded, vermin-riddled three-quarter houses, the city’s homeless shelter system, or living on the streets. 

For three years now, I’ve been homeless – bouncing between shelters and temporary arrangements with friends and family. Currently, I share a cramped room with my nephew. The apartment is next to a highway and my window looks out onto a cemetery. 

Unfortunately, my situation is not an anomaly. Housing options for people with conviction records are slim. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) would be a reasonable option, but NYCHA can exclude system-impacted people from applying, living, or even visiting family and friends in NYCHA housing. In short, people with records are systematically excluded from both private and public housing. 

It astounds me that these discriminatory policies persist, especially when research consistently shows that stable housing promotes successful reentry and reduces recidivism. Having a place to call home enables formerly incarcerated people to gain and retain employment, connect with family, and avoid future entanglements with the criminal legal system – all of which contribute to creating safer communities for everyone. 

Legislation can fix this problem by prohibiting housing discrimination based on conviction records. Passing such a law will prevent real estate brokers and landlords from refusing to sell, rent, or lease housing to people based on past conviction records. It would mean people like me could finally have a place to call home. 

New York has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the United States: roughly 80,000 people in the City do not have a place to call home and are in shelter; tens of thousands more are living in informal arrangements like doubling up with friends or relatives. Research shows that roughly 15% of all incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year prior to admission to prison.

Upon release, formerly-incarcerated people are seven times more likely to be homeless than someone without a history of system-involvement. In 2017, 54% of those released from prisons in the state wound up in a homeless shelter in New York City. 

But this is not just a homelessness issue – this is a racism issue. Our mass policing, arrest, and incarceration policies disproportionately target communities of color. As a result, one in three Black adult men has a felony conviction in the United States. The racial disparities in incarceration are particularly stark in New York City, where 90 percent of people in jail are Black or Hispanic.

Every one of those people faces housing discrimination and a hard road back.

When I was released from prison in 2015, I incorrectly assumed that I had paid my debt to society and that I could become a productive, contributing member of my community. Instead, I continue to suffer from the collateral consequences of both a racist criminal legal system and deeply entrenched racism in our housing laws. 

A conviction history should be a history – not a life sentence. If we truly want to create lasting changes to our racist laws and systems, we must end racist discrimination in housing once and for all. 

Devone Nash is a mental health advocate and member of the Fair Chance for Housing Coalition. He lives in New York City and recently graduated from Medgar Evers College with a degree in Psychology.

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Now More Than Ever, New York City Needs Leaders to Welcome Jobs

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Council Member Menchaca & Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

All of us who care about New York City – and if you are a regular reader of Gotham Gazette that surely includes you – are worried about its future. COVID-19 has shuttered our economy and seriously impaired the lives and livelihoods of millions of our residents. It is clear that things will never go back to the way they were and that we must turn this disaster into an opportunity to bring back a different, better, fairer city. 

But fear of change and the demonizing of ‘development’ risk derailing one of the most important vehicles New York has to generate new jobs and revenue: changes in zoning so that neighborhoods can adjust to new conditions and attract more housing and business. In January I wrote about the risk to the city’s plan to upzone Inwood in Northern Manhattan to provide more housing. Though the plan included a number of community enhancements and had been approved by the area’s City Council member, Ydanis Rodriguez, it was challenged in court by local opposition groups. Fortunately the appellate division correctly reversed the lower court’s decision, but the opposing groups have vowed to appeal. 

Now comes another possible derailment of a proposed zoning change: the rejection by Council Member Carlos Menchaca of the proposal to expand Industry City on the Brooklyn waterfront.  This plan to turn the area around the vibrantly successful and creative Industry City into a light manufacturing zone was first announced in 2015 and has been reviewed and refined in response to community input. The developers have indicated willingness to sign a community benefits agreement including all of the requirements Menchaca had specified, including removal of hotels from the plan, restriction on the amount of retail space, creation of a manufacturing hub managed by a non-profit, expansion of the existing Innovation Hub to connect more local residents to jobs, support for worker cooperatives and training and research around green manufacturing.

In both the Inwood and the Industry City cases, despite years of community engagement and input, whether through ‘member deference’ which enables the local Council member to veto a project or, failing that, through the courts, vocal groups have been able to sidetrack the projects. The chilling effect of the failure to bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens is being exacerbated just at the moment when we need to be encouraging outer-borough centers of innovation and employment. 

Of course every effort should be made to assure that the current residents of the surrounding area benefit from new development, and the Industry City plan adopts this goal. Indeed 57% of the 8,000 jobs already created by Industry City are filled by Brooklyn residents and 37% from the immediate neighborhood. This rezoning would bring an additional $64 million in private investment on top of the $400 million already spent on Industry City revitalization. It would attract new kinds of businesses and pump 15,000 more jobs and $100 million a year in tax revenue into the city’s economy. Projects like this are vital to ensuring a healthy future and the stakes are too high to let a determined minority override the best interests of everyone else. 

A few public officials have come forward to defend the Industry City project and urge its approval despite the local Council member’s objection. Two of them wrote convincingly in the Daily News, but they are from other boroughs and are moving on from the Council to other positions at the end of the year. Closer to home, Brooklyn Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. courageously wrote to his colleagues in the Brooklyn delegation urging them to join him in supporting the Industry City zoning application notwithstanding their colleague’s objections. In a follow up op-ed in the Brooklyn Eagle he summed up the argument:

“In the pre-pandemic world, this was already a precedent-setting example of responsible development in our borough that would have been an important project for Brooklyn’s economic future. Now, in the face of a financial crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression, it is an absolute necessity."

"We find ourselves at a historically precarious junction and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the City Council is now faced with a decision that will help to determine which economic path our City ultimately takes…This pandemic has forced us to think anew about what’s best for the greater good of our borough, our city and all of our residents – not just those within a few square blocks of a proposed development – and within that context I believe the choice for the City Council on Industry City’s proposal should be clear.” 

Bravo! Now what is needed is leadership from city-wide officials who are willing to step up and represent the needs and interests of the entire city. So amid mass unemployment in our city, what does Mayor de Blasio have to say? When first asked about it, he said that because it is a private application his administration doesn’t play a “leading role” and that while jobs are welcomed in New York City, it is really between the developer and the City Council.

The zoning process is overseen by the City Planning Commission, a mayoral agency, which plays a leading role in all of these decisions. The fact that no public subsidies are required for the Industry City project is a plus, not an element that makes it a “private application” that is solely between the developer and the Council. For the mayor to take the position that he has no role in this or any large-scale land-use application unless his administration is the main driving force would be quite an abdication of responsibility.

It seems that he (perhaps urged by someone in his administration) thought it might be better to be slightly more engaged, and a few days later the mayor modified his comments when asked about Industry City again. The traditional deference to the impacted area’s Council member is worth respecting, he said, but added:

“But I do think we have to think about some of the overwhelming dynamics we're dealing with right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic and we've got to get people back to work. We've got to find every way to get livelihoods back to people who need them. So, that needs to be taken into account.”

This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Industry City plan, but it is an acknowledgement that the covid crisis should cause City Council members and many others to rethink their priorities and approach to growth, especially jobs. Approving this particular rezoning is the right thing to do and would also serve as a symbol that our elected leaders get that special, hard times call for new approaches. With New York City facing an economic abyss, the mayor has to ratchet up his support and work with the City Council to get the Industry City rezoning over the finish line.

That said, Mr. City Council Speaker, the ball is in your court.

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

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A Portal Does Not Replace A Knock On The Door

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The mayor at a ground-breaking ceremony (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The Department of City Planning (DCP) has announced that it is resuming the city’s rezoning process after a five-month suspension due to the pandemic. But DCP has neither adapted the process that leads to significant land use changes to overcome the obstacles created by the pandemic nor the underlying structural racism embedded in land use decision-making. As DCP said in a recent statement reaffirming its commitment to dismantling institutionalized racism:

“We recognize that planning policies and zoning codes have acted for decades as bulwarks against fairness, inclusion and integration, and that they have played a large role in perpetuating racism and even violence against Black and Brown Americans…We are committed to unpacking and taking on institutionalized racism within the planning profession and examining our own role…”

If the city is to restart rezoning, it cannot be under the same structurally flawed process that it has acknowledged contributes to the disparities that have plagued this country since its inception. The current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing protests for racial justice have further exposed the fatal impacts of institutionalized racism on Black and Latino communities. Resuming this flawed process while there are still pandemic-created obstacles to outreach, education, community organizing, and public participation will cause further harm to these communities.

Community groups that DCP relied upon for “getting out the word” are swamped with the need to feed and care for residents in their neighborhoods during this pandemic and the mass unemployment that has resulted from measures taken to contain COVID-19. The city’s creation of an online portal to provide information on attending virtual DCP meetings is not sufficient and will exclude hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom are low income. A portal does not replace door-knocking. 

Additionally, budgetary changes have greatly impacted how the city will be able to respond to demands for more affordable housing. Beginning a zoning change now that relies on the current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) mechanism is extremely problematic and fundamentally unfair due to the draconian cuts to the city’s capital budget. The funding that would have been used to deepen affordability under MIH and provide additional services to remediate the negative impacts of a rezoning has evaporated. 

There are gaping holes and misguided instructions in the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) manual for gathering the information that goes into environmental impact statements - information essential for community boards, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council to accurately and fairly assess a zoning change before they vote on major land use changes (see more here and here).

These flaws hide the displacement and inadequacy of any anticipated affordable housing, and do not project how a zoning change will alter the racial composition of a neighborhood such as when older buildings are torn down and replaced with new “luxury condos.” The CEQR guidelines assume that tenants in buildings with six or more units are protected by rent regulation even though those protections are frequently evaded. Evictions, already highest in Black and Latino communities, are expected to rise as a result of the pandemic.

The CEQR guidelines are completely silent on the financial impacts a rezoning has on property values - critical information that communities and elected officials need when they try to negotiate with developers for more and deeper affordable housing, schools, libraries, and other community benefits.

In addition to providing resources and information essential to a fair zoning process, DCP must be creative and innovative to overcome the obstacles to communications and outreach created by the pandemic, which still threatens people’s health and undermines the existing public engagement process. 

The city cannot resume land use processes that will impact Black and Latino communities without a massive effort to engage these communities. City government must be driven by the imperative to bring BIPOC into the decision-making. DCP needs to innovate ways to communicate and there are a number of measures DCP can implement today: 

  • The city owns, controls, or can access buildings, spaces, and infrastructure in every neighborhood, from public schools and firehouses to bus-stop shelters and subway platforms. These spaces can serve as neighborhood touchpoints with maps, descriptions of possible buildouts, and other information to alert residents about land use proposals. 
  • Many of these spaces are already in use for emergency services for the community and can serve an additional function as a means of outreach for projects. DCP can create displays, take-away flyers, and other materials for distribution in these areas. It is important that language services and translations are also made available to accommodate residents who do not speak English. 
  • The city needs to extend the timeframe and expand the means of communication wherever possible, such as keeping hearings open so people can testify over time, and facilitating locations within impacted communities where people can submit written testimony, or safely record and submit in-person video testimony, a feature Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has used often during public hearings; and
  • If the city truly wants to improve engagement in these communities, it must provide funding and other resources to community-based organizations, now swamped with providing essential services, to augment their capacity to reach out to community members about proposed zoning changes and encourage them to participate in the process.

This pandemic has demonstrated that the city is capable of changing rules and laws quickly to accommodate extenuating circumstances. It is not merely that these are extraordinary times that require innovation in how governments must engage their residents in decision-making. Government must also be enlightened by the awareness of the long-term structural barriers to engagement that have excluded communities of color from full participation.

Tara Duvivier is Senior Planner and Adam Friedman is Director at the Pratt Center for Community Development, a Pratt Institute Research Center, which provides technical assistance in land use and community development in low-income communities and communities of color throughout New York City.

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More Than a Name: Planned Parenthood of Greater New York Reckons with Sanger’s Legacy and What Comes Next

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Planned Parenthood supporters (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

We are in a cultural and political moment of national reckoning with systemic racism and Planned Parenthood of Greater New York is not immune. We recently announced our decision to remove our founder Margaret Sanger’s name from our Manhattan Health Center and asked the City Council to remove a street sign named after her in the East Village.

Sanger was a champion of birth control — which expanded bodily autonomy for many, including women of color — and she also supported the racist ideology of eugenics. Both of those things are true. We must grapple with the totality of her legacy to allow our patients to access the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care free of fear, stigma, or shame from people who work in opposition of our mission. 

Immediately following our announcement, anti-abortion agitators attempted to hijack the decision as a win of their own — they have weaponized Sanger’s complicated history in their crusade against reproductive freedom, particularly for black women. Their concern is fake and harmful. Women of color know that birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing and treatment, wellness exams, and safe, legal abortion are essential to living a healthy life.

Many abortion opponents’ policies and politicians resist the advancement of Black, Latino, queer, trans, and gender-nonbinary people whose lives are deeply impacted by systemic racism, economic injustices, and health care inequality every day. They are not aligned with our belief that every person has the fundamental human right to bodily autonomy and the freedom to thrive. Instead, they exploit Sanger's name to block access to fundamental health care and health centers.

As PPGNY faces our past and reclaims our story, we expose them and their true intent of shaming tactics to stigmatize sexual and reproductive health care and reveal their deep disdain for women of color, Black women in particular, for daring to unapologetically assert control over our bodies, even after centuries of struggle.  

Women of color have long understood the impact of Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics. More than two decades ago Dr. Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing the Black Body, “Birth control in America was defined from the movement’s inception in terms of race and could never be properly understood apart from race again.” The women of color who created and led the reproductive justice movement have given us a powerful blueprint to connect the dots and shape our work as a reproductive rights organization by understanding women of color ‘don’t live single-issue lives’ and systemic racism shapes every aspect of our lives, including sexual and reproductive health. We are learning, listening, and committing to following that collective wisdom as we work to transform our institution. 

Our decision to reckon with our founder’s legacy extends far beyond renaming streets and buildings. It includes a public commitment to transforming the way we show up in and serve our communities. Our Reviving Radical initiative asks that we: 1) confront Planned Parenthood’s legacy and contributions to historical reproductive harm of communities of color; 2) divest from and dismantle white-dominant organizational cultural norms and values; 3) adopt individual and institutional practices that value people of color; 4) center communities of color’s voices, experiences, and knowledge of selves; and 5) build accountable relationships with communities of color.

These community mandates are fundamentally about undoing the racism woven into the fabric of every institution in this country and making the human right to bodily autonomy true for all. At Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, removing Sanger’s name was an important start but it is by no means the end of this conversation.

Merle McGee is Chief Equity and Engagement Officer at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.

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