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Expand the School Ban, End the Use of Facial Recognition in New York


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An NYPD command center (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Schools are safe, but the rest of New York is at risk. This is the reality of facial recognition in the Empire State, where facial recognition is now illegal in schools, but remains all too present in other aspects of life.

The landmark law was lost in the 2020 chaos, signed by Governor Cuomo without any public statement on Christmas Eve. Still, even without the fanfare, it remains the law, and a long overdue law at that. New York may be the first state in the country to ban school facial recognition, but that’s partly because we were set to become the first state to actually use it. Not the whole state of course, just the town of Lockport, New York, which earned the dubious surveillance distinction as the first public school to install the biased biometric tracking system.

Now, it’s time to go further, enacting a comprehensive ban on governmental facial recognition. And we’re not alone in calling for this.

Today, our organization, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, is partnering with Amnesty International and the Privacy NY Coalition to launch Ban the Scan. This global campaign will bring international pressure to bear on passing a facial recognition ban here in New York, New Delhi, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and other cities around the world.

Despite the new ban on school surveillance, we still need to do more. Sadly, the children whose privacy is protected in the classroom are still subject to endless facial recognition scanning as soon as they walk out the schoolhouse door. This is because police officers remain free to use facial recognition technology nearly anywhere else in the state, even to track children. And here in New York City, we’re tracking the public more than ever.

According to a recent NYPD filing in a public records lawsuit I brought against the department, the NYPD has run more than 22,000 facial recognition searches in just the past three years. And as the numbers skyrocket, facial recognition increasingly becomes the tool of choice for low-level offenses like graffiti, shoplifting, and trespass.

Perhaps the most infuriating part of facial recognition is that it simply doesn’t work, at least not as well as advertised. Facial recognition has already led to the false arrests of numerous Black men. And these men aren’t outliers. According to a federal review of facial recognition algorithms, the software is more error-prone for Native American, Black, and Asian faces. At times, the technology can be ludicrously off-base, as when Amazon’s facial recognition technology misidentified Oprah Winfrey as male and misidentified 28 members of Congress as known criminals.

And New York’s facial recognition is particularly problematic. NYPD officers have used celebrity lookalikes for facial recognition searches, a practice that has absolutely no scientific support. In one case, officers failed to get a match for a blurry image of a man stealing beer from CVS, so they searched an image of Woody Harrelson instead. Officers have also repeatedly photoshopped crime scene photos before running facial recognition searches, opening a suspect’s eyes, closing their mouth, or even pasting on the entire jawline.

Even when facial recognition does work, even when it’s not biased, it still remains a potent threat to civil rights and democracy as we know it. With facial recognition, a single photo can capture the identities of everyone taking part at a political protest or attending prayer at a house of worship. Using facial recognition, officers can track New Yorkers across the city, following their every movement for days, and never once getting a warrant.

But even if a warrant were needed, that still wouldn’t be enough. The solution to facial recognition isn’t a check and balance, it isn’t a matter of requiring more procedures. No, the only answer to a technology as dangerous as facial recognition is a complete and categorical ban.

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Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. Caroline Magee is a Civil Rights Intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a third-year student at Emory Law School. On Twitter @FoxCahn and @cbam0912.

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Immigrant, Black, and Brown New Yorkers Need Albany to Deliver a Recovery for All


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New York budget season has begun (photo: Make The Road New York)


Immigrant, Black, and brown New Yorkers have experienced unspeakable losses and suffered catastrophic economic consequences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Community members have lost loved ones and lost jobs at disproportionate levels, and struggled week after week to try to pay their rent and feed their families. And they have made very clear that they expect bold, transformational solutions from state government to meet the scale of the need.

Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo has continued to fail to rise to the occasion. As we saw again in his State of the State and budget addresses, the governor keeps responding to this crisis with the politics of austerity. Yet again, he spread falsehoods to dim the prospect of raising taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and throw cold water on efforts to meet the needs of excluded workers, tenants, and more.

Last week, Make the Road New York launched its 2021 Respect and Dignity platform, which counters Cuomo’s politics of austerity with a vision for a true economic recovery for New Yorkers. Instead of merely looking to Washington, our state needs to pass bold and crucial legislation that will benefit all communities and deliver justice.

Our platform begins with raising taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to meet survival needs of those who are struggling. Hundreds of thousands of community members are currently blocked from unemployment and all income relief, due to their immigration status or recent incarceration. Our most vulnerable neighbors are in mounting rent debt and in constant fear of losing their homes. The demand for food pantries has increased exponentially — working-class New Yorkers are going hungry. 

Meanwhile, New York’s billionaires have become $77 billion richer since the start of the pandemic. While billionaires have profited throughout, immigrant, Black, and brown communities are hurting more than ever. Governor Cuomo must stop shielding the wealthiest New Yorkers and begin putting working-class people of color first. This legislative session, Albany leadership and Governor Cuomo must pass legislation to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and create an Excluded Workers Fund, which will allow for direct cash payments to workers who have been denied economic relief. 

Rebuilding our state also requires prioritizing tenants and canceling rent. Working-class New Yorkers are facing staggering rent and mortgage debt, leaving families on the brink of eviction with bills they will never be able to pay back. We must protect tenants and homeowners by passing the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act and canceling rent and mortgage payments immediately for those who need it. 

To those who, like Cuomo, say the money’s simply not there, we say: nonsense. Six items of progressive revenue legislation, known as the Invest in Our New York package, would raise $50 billion, more than enough to deliver real relief to excluded workers and tenants, and reverse cuts to vital services like health care and education. With Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor should stop impeding progress and legislators should pass these bills.

A true recovery for New York does not stop there. We must work to rebuild our state to protect trans women of color and our students from over-policing and criminalization. It is imperative we repeal the Walking While Trans Ban, which the State Senate is about to pass, and ensure we put an end to ineffective and discriminatory discipline practices in our childrens’ schools.

The Walking While Trans repeal bill has enough support from legislators to pass — it should be a priority for the legislative calendar in both chambers. And as criminalization of Black and brown youth has continued to run rampant throughout the pandemic, Albany must also pass the Solutions Not Suspensions Act to help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Over the last two years, immigrant and working class New Yorkers have organized and led substantial progress in Albany through vital measures including strengthening the rent laws to restoring access to driver’s licenses for all and limiting ICE’s access to courthouse grounds to the repeal of 50-a’s shield of police disciplinary records. But the pandemic has further exposed the gaping inequalities and vulnerabilities facing communities of color. New York must center equity in ensuring that our communities survive this pandemic and have their basic needs met.

Now, more than ever, we urge Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to address the needs of our communities, protect and help New Yorkers get back on their feet. 

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Javier H. Valdés and Deborah Axt are the Co-Executive Directors of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @javierhvaldes & @debaxt.

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Cancel the Gifted and Talented Test Now, Not Next Year


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The Mayor, First Lady, & Chancellor at a school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Last week, Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carranza announced that they will administer the controversial and problematic test for admissions to “gifted and talented” classes this spring, for perhaps a final year. Then: 

“We will spend the next year engaging communities around what kind of programming they would like to see that is more inclusive, enriching, and truly supports the needs of academically advanced and diversely talented students at a more appropriate age… We will also engage communities around how best to integrate enriched learning opportunities to more students, so that every student – regardless of a label or a class that they are in – can access rigorous learning that is tailored to their needs and fosters their creativity, passion, and strengths.” 

Yet the question arises as to why they will continue to give these exams to children as young as four years old at all. They are exams that few respected researchers believe are either valid or reliable. Why not end the practice now, especially given the risks and considerable cost of administering this test during a pandemic? 

We have posted many critiques of New York City's gifted program over the years on our NYC Public School Parents blog, including this one by esteemed education leader Debbie Meier in 2007, when Chancellor Joel Klein first instituted a standardized, high-stakes testing process for admissions to these classes in the supposed name of "equity."

As Meier wrote, “They are using two instruments we know for a fact provide racially biased results--it's the data that the canards about racial inferiority are based on and comes with a history of bias. Both class and race. Furthermore, we know that psychometricians have unanimously warned us for years about the lack of reliability of standardized tests for children under 7.”

The admissions outcome is clearly racially- and economically-biased, as nearly half of all students who take the test in the wealthiest part of Manhattan, District 2, score as “gifted” (meaning at 90th percentile) while very few score that high in the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn or the Bronx. Some parents pay up to $400 an hour for their four-year-old children to take test prep classes. 

About 29,000 children took the gifted test last year, and about 3,600 got offers for seats in gifted classes. Currently, according to the New York Post, Asian students account for 43% of these students, followed by white students at 36%, Hispanic students 8%, and Black students 6%.  

The best article on the unreliability of these tests was published back in 2010 in New York Magazine, which cited a peer-reviewed study showing that most children who are identified as “gifted” by scoring in the top percentiles on ability and achievement tests no longer do a year or two later.

The Department of Education is proposing to renew its testing contract with Pearson, which produces the exam, through Oct. 31, 2021 and at a cost of just under $1.7 million. And that amount doesn’t include the substantial, but undisclosed, cost that the DOE will pay for teachers to give the test one-on-one, which takes about an hour for each child.

Doesn’t the city have anything better to do with nearly $1.7 million – in the midst of an economic crisis and looming budget cuts to schools? Especially when staffing in schools is so constrained that online class sizes have ballooned to 40 or 60 students or more?

See also the negative record of Pearson as reported in the DOE contract documents, including many documented errors in administration and scoring.

Although the list of Pearson misdeeds the DOE offers is lengthy, it omits most of the company’s past performance errors in schools nationwide, and even in New York.

The DOE list leaves out the most famous scandal of the absurd pineapple passage on the 8th grade state reading exams in 2012, which became a symbol of the risible low quality of standardized exams. The nonsensical pineapple passage had been included year after year in Pearson exams, in at least six states and many districts, leading to widespread protest from students and teachers until we called it out.  

The DOE list also unaccountably omits how in 2013, the company mis-scored the results of the gifted exams for thousands of New York City children, after which the DOE said it was reconsidering whether to renew its Pearson contract.

It doesn’t mention how in 2013, Pearson agreed to pay $77 million to settle a case with the New York Attorney General’s office, for improperly taking New York education officials on junkets and developing curriculum materials through its Foundation, which were then marketed and sold at a profit by the company.

The current version of the DOE guide to admissions to “gifted and talented” classes says on page 3: “Why Take the G&T Test? There is no harm in having your child tested.” Really?

It goes on: “The results of the G&T test are confidential to you and will not be shared with current or future schools—these scores are used only to determine eligibility to apply for G&T programs.”

However, data security at Pearson is known to be weak.

The DOE list also omits how, in 2018, there was a huge breach that included personal student data collected through the Pearson AIMSWeb assessments. This breach, which affected hundreds of thousands of students nationwide, including many in New York State, occurred in November 2018. The FBI discovered and notified Pearson about the breach in March 2019, though the company unaccountably failed to inform any district about the breach until the end of July 2019, almost nine months after it occurred. In several of these districts, their contracts with Pearson for AIMSWeb had lapsed years before, but the company had held on to the data.

Contrary to the language and intent of the New York State student privacy law, Education Law Section 2-D, the DOE chief privacy officer has told me they do not intend to ask any company to delete data they hold for New York City students until all their contracts with that company have ended; DOE has several outstanding contracts beyond the G&T test with Pearson for years to come.

The DOE’s incomplete account of Pearson’s problematic record includes several allegations of discrimination, including a still-open investigation of the company by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, based on employee complaints of discrimination on the basis of age, sex, disability, and race.

The contract with Pearson for the gifted exam is to be voted upon on January 27 by the New York City Panel for Educational Policy (those who would like to speak on the proposal can register here). Also on the agenda are changes in the PEP bylaws and chancellor’s regulations related to Community Education Council and Citywide Council elections.

Let’s hope the PEP members vote to reject the contract for this unreliable, unfair, expensive, and racially-biased exam, which should have been cancelled years ago, produced by a company with a deplorable record.

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Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. On Twitter @leoniehaimson.

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Letter To The Editor: One Key for the Governor’s New 'Commission on the Future of the New York Economy'


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Governor Cuomo at a factory (photo: governor's office)


To The Editor:

As Gotham Gazette recently reported, “Cuomo Focuses on Economic Revival in Second 2021 State of the State Speech,” Governor Cuomo presented a seven-point agenda for economic recovery in New York, including a new “commission on the future of the New York economy” led by the NYU Wagner School of Public Service. The commission will be given the crucial task of creating “a roadmap to find opportunities for New Yorkers to get back to work in jobs that pay well,” while taking into account the systemic issues of inequity and structural racism. As such, it is essential that this body considers the wellbeing of all New Yorkers, including those with arrest and conviction records, who come disproportionately from low-income Black and brown communities.  

All too often people with past records are sidelined and ignored in important conversations such as these, causing great harm to them, their families, and communities across New York. This is no small matter, and it is a statewide issue: 2.3 million New Yorkers have criminal records, and due to pervasive stigma and discrimination, these individuals are often shut out of jobs, homes, and educational opportunities – all of which are integral to economic stability.

The Clean Slate New York campaign is working to change that by supporting the passage of legislation to achieve automatic expungement of conviction records, enabling people to move ahead with their lives and fully participate in our shared communities.  

This legislation is particularly crucial right now: while COVID-19 has impacted all our lives, it is individuals who were already struggling in a pre-covid world who have been hit the hardest. To ensure a sustainable and equitable New York now and after the pandemic ends, we cannot leave them out. If we fail to address employment barriers for individuals with conviction records, we will only risk prolonging the pandemic and the associated economic crisis.  

It is imperative that the state’s recovery efforts include provisions for all New Yorkers, so that we can avoid perpetuating and replicating both pre-existing and covid-caused inequities. The proposed development of this commission by Governor Cuomo represents a unique opportunity to forge a better path forward that includes Clean Slate policies and ensures no New Yorker is left behind. 

Sincerely,

Tracie Gardner, Vice President of Policy Advocacy at the Legal Action Center, and Judith Whiting, General Counsel at the Community Service Society of New York 

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The City’s New Plans to Help Disconnected Young Adults


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Mayor de Blasio with city youth (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged New York City since early last year has presented daunting challenges for our youth and young adults. Students from pre-kindergarten through college have missed out on months of in-person instruction, not to mention the countless everyday interactions beyond the classroom that help them discover who they are and who they want to be. Young adults who held jobs before COVID-19 are disproportionately likely to have fallen out of work in the months since then, as the economic sectors most likely to employ them—food service, hospitality, retail—have been among the hardest hit. 

These recent traumas should not overshadow a painful truth: even before the pandemic, far too many young New Yorkers reached adulthood without the educational credentials, in-demand skills, relevant experience, or support system to fully realize their aspirations. In 2018, one in eight New York City residents ages 16 to 24 was out of school and out of work—a status with ominous long-term implications both for their individual success and for our community. Adding enormous pressure on a system that was already falling short, COVID-19 could push that number to one in four. 

In this context, the city’s Disconnected Youth Task Force has just released a report, Connecting Our Future, that looks closely at who New York City’s out of school and out of work young people are, how we’re serving them, and what we can do to more effectively address their immediate and long-term needs. 

Since taking office in 2014, Mayor de Blasio’s highest priority has been to render New York the most equitable big city in America. That aspiration starts with making sure every young person has access to high quality educational and developmental opportunities that can put them on a path to career readiness, economic security, and fully engaged citizenship.  

This vision helped spur Pre-K for All. It deeply informed the Equity and Excellence for All initiatives of the Department of Education, which has greatly expanded college access and student supports. It was why we doubled the number of slots in the Summer Youth Employment Program since the mayor took office, reaching 75,000 in 2019. It was also the motivation behind major investments the City has made in CUNY programs such as Accelerated Success in Associate Programs (ASAP). 

And it is why, in the current crisis, the mayor is announcing a series of actions to provide immediate assistance for youth and young adults. 

One new initiative will help young New Yorkers earn their driver’s license and then connect to career-track jobs in the transportation sector. Another effort, in collaboration with CUNY, will target thousands of former college students who did not complete their degrees and Class of 2020 high school graduates who were accepted into CUNY but have not yet matriculated, providing support to get them back on track for higher education.

Finally, we have redesigned the Work Learn & Grow program to focus on college readiness and work experience: this past fall, more than 2,100 high school students had opportunities to earn college credit, and this winter they have begun paid internships through which they can earn up to $3,000. 

Beyond the short term, the Task Force report also calls upon the City to embrace a long-term vision to make sure that every young New Yorker reaches adulthood fully prepared for career success. The CareerReadyNYC report we released in July 2019 provides this vision, calling for closer alignment between educational and career exploration/work readiness experiences, as well as fuller partnerships between the City and our robust employer and philanthropic communities. While much more needs to be done, this work is well underway.  

Inevitably, the disruptions of 2020 have slowed our progress. But they have not shaken our commitment to our city’s youth. Over the course of 2021, that will mean centering them in New York City’s recovery. Further out, we must build and relentlessly improve connected systems to make sure every young New Yorker can go as far as their talent and drive will take them. 

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J. Phillip Thompson is New York City Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives. On Twitter @NYCMayorsOffice.

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New Yorkers Must Push Candidates Hard for Economic Recovery Vision


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


We’ve all been watching events in Washington, D.C. with horrified amazement and trepidation. 

Regardless of Washington, New Yorkers have work to do at home. We’ve been living through a pandemic for just about a year. Everyone in New York is aware we face major budget crises at the state and city levels. Resolution of our fiscal problems is one of the biggest challenges of 2021 and will influence New York City’s choice of candidates for top elected positions, including mayor and comptroller.  

This is not a normal election. As we begin to vet candidates in this year’s elections, it is critical that New Yorkers take extra care to research policy proposals beyond the slogans to assess how the next generation of political leaders can strengthen our economy while addressing long-standing systemic inequities. With the advent of ranked-choice voting beginning this year in special and primary elections, an understanding of the issues will be even more crucial because voters need to differentiate candidates so they can list their preferences. 

The details of the current budget deficits may seem obscure to most New Yorkers – we look at empty offices, closed stores, and not-so-packed subways and sense the consequences are coming. But we haven’t seen big cuts that are aligned with the projected size of the deficits—now more than $60 billion over five years. That’s because the state’s political leadership, which has responsibility for much of the city’s budget, has been waiting for a partial bailout from the federal government. Moreover, over the past year, the state hasn’t been transparent with the public. Among many behind-the-scenes gimmicks, it is withholding payment of bills due to non-profit groups and others, for example. A reckoning has to come. 

Although the chances of federal help look better with a slim Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, whatever comes is unlikely to be enough—Governor Cuomo said as much in his recent series of State of the State speeches.

Regardless of how much of a bailout Washington provides to the states, New York has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct long-standing, glaring inequities in our tax system. For progressives, a key to the solution is raising revenue by taxing the rich. A lobbying campaign they launched as a coalition on January 5, at the start of the state’s annual budget planning process, is called “Invest in Our New York” and pushes for a package of tax increases aimed at wealthy individuals and corporations. Advocates have been fighting for many of these proposals for ages, but this year they are hopeful, in part because of the size of the deficits created by COVID-19 and in part because of the shifting political landscape. 

The key proposals for the state include a more progressive tax system (we currently have an almost flat tax system for people who make between $20,000 and $1 million a year), and additional taxes on billionaires, capital gains, Wall Street taxes (updated from the well-publicized Stock Transfer Tax previously proposed), corporate taxes, and meaningful inheritance taxes. More on these measures can be found from the Invest In Our NY campaign. The debate over these proposals is an important one – New York State has been on an austerity diet that kept taxes down while under-investing in crucial infrastructure long before the pandemic hit. While critics argue that such targeted initiatives will push the rich to flee New York, advocates say the benefits outweigh the risks of losing some wealthy New Yorkers. Moreover, they point to research indicating that the majority of wealthy people in New York and elsewhere do not make residency decisions based on state and local income tax rates.  

While the coalition’s work is impressive, and many of the proposals it backs are valid and understandable, any solution to New York’s financial woes must be considered in the context of a broader vision that addresses the critical challenges facing the foundations of New York’s economic success. Progressives too often fail to acknowledge that there is a real, measurable net decline in New York population and special, pandemic-related concerns about losing residents and business to other localities. 

Job-creation policies that promote a healthy economic environment for workers and small business entrepreneurs while also addressing vulnerabilities that might entice corporations to leave are critical. The alternative is erosion of New York’s economic power, which will undermine its ability to recover from the pandemic, making it impossible to stave off cuts to services and implement progressive tax reforms.  

An economic recovery strategy needs to address a real concern about losing business and residents and other issues beyond taxation. An analysis published in Trade & Industry Investment magazine in 2016 on why corporations relocate their headquarters found complex sets of conditions behind decisions. Studies show that availability and caliber of talent seem to be higher priorities than taxes. While the talent pool is a long-standing strength for New York, trends toward long-term and near-term population decline coupled with likely changes in work patterns following the pandemic call this strength into question. U.S. Census Bureau data over years shows more Americans leaving New York in recent years than coming into it, although immigration helped keep population status quo. And New York is almost sure to lose at least one Congressional seat following the 2020 Census due to this population reduction.

These topics are complex and need to be examined and discussed. The state controls much of New York City's taxation policy, with the exception of property taxes, so reforms at the state level need to be evaluated too. By the time legislative proposals reach public attention a lot of behind-the-scenes work has gone into them. The quality of the evidence behind some arguments is not always apparent, however, and, compounded by the government’s lack of transparency, there's a real gap in local news coverage and analysis that would help us evaluate many policy proposals intelligently. 

So, here’s what we should all ask each and every candidate running in the 2021 New York City elections:

Given the city’s limited ability to raise taxes beyond property taxes and central role of the state in determining the city’s financial situation, how can the next mayor work better with the governor and state legislators to create a healthy New York recovery that balances business demands with social needs?

How can the government work with the private sector to retain business and stimulate job growth in ways that promote equality and do not rely on ineffective corporate tax breaks yet satisfy real corporate needs? Is there a role for a New Deal WPA-like program?

What revenue raising proposals will you fight hard for, including those proposed in the Invest In Our New York campaign?

How wasteful is the New York City budget and how can it be made more efficient and effective? 

Are you willing to fight for meaningful property tax reforms that take income into account when setting rates?

Given the importance of real estate in New York City on many fronts, what are the key real estate challenges in the city, and how can they be addressed? A moratorium on residential evictions is a must but it also wreaks havoc on small landlords – on big ones too, although they can better withstand a temporary dip. And of course, how can we address vacant storefronts and get them back in action?

Especially from mayoral and comptroller candidates, New Yorker City voters deserve to hear a coherent account of candidates’ visions for achieving fiscal health and, in particular, what plans they have for job creation, bolstering the small business recovery, and balancing the demands of large corporations that provide so many jobs. A nuanced discussion of what the city can do realistically on its own and how it should approach the state and federal governments, as well solutions to vulnerabilities such as reverse economic migration are musts as we enter the recovery phase of this pandemic with a new generation of city leaders.

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Wendy Diller is on the board of Three Parks Democrats, an independent Democratic club on the Upper West Side, and a journalist focused on the intersection of business and science.

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Further Deregulation of 5G Technology Won’t Close the Digital Divide


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Broadband for All (photo: Phillip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Just before the new year, a representative of a little-known telecommunications infrastructure company, Crowne Castle, made the case in an op-ed at Gotham Gazette that the key to closing the digital divide in New York State is more deregulation.

No one would disagree with the author’s assessment of the underlying problem: the pandemic confirmed, in case anyone remained unconvinced, that access to high-speed broadband is indispensable in modern society. Remote learning is impossible without it, and hundreds of thousands of New York school children are being left behind because their households lack high-speed internet service. At a time when visiting hospitals or a doctor’s office can be literally life-threatening, broadband is critical for conducting telemedicine as well as securing vaccine appointments. Likewise, for small businesses pivoting to online sales in order to keep their businesses alive. And on and on. Further, nearly one-fourth of New York State households don’t have home broadband (a sad fact unmentioned in the prior op-ed).

Crowne Castle says telecoms are begging to deliver 5G wireless service to everyone and pins the cause of the digital divide on alleged over-regulation of 5G small cell infrastructure in New York State. Strip local governments of the authority to regulate access to public streets and property, remove allegedly excessive fees, and just like that, deployment of 5G wireless technology will magically close the digital divide.

Pretty seductive, eh? Well, don’t be fooled. In fact, Crowne Castle’s cure means doubling down on exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.  

There are two primary causes of the digital divide, and both can be traced directly back to industry-driven deregulation of telecommunications over the past 30 years. First, the failure of broadband providers to build out high-speed infrastructure comprehensively and equitably has left an untold number of New Yorkers without access to high-speed broadband. In many rural and lower-income areas, telecom companies decided it simply wasn’t sufficiently lucrative to invest in new, high-speed fiber networks. The second major cause of the digital divide is that many low-income New Yorkers just can’t afford high-speed internet service. While 92% of New Yorkers with incomes of $75,000 a year or more have home broadband, slightly over 50% of New Yorkers who make less than $30,000 a year have it. The pandemic has highlighted the impact of this harmful inequity.  

Contrast this dilemma with the construction of the original universal telephone network in the middle decades of the 20th century. When AT&T was a regulated monopoly, state and federal regulators ensured that every American home was served by telephone service and that service was affordable. But swept up in the deregulatory fervor of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the 1996 Telecommunications Act deferred to markets, which were dominated by self-interested mega-corporations, to deliver next generation technology to the nation. The theory was that if cable companies and telephone companies freely competed in the marketplace, consumers would get the most advanced telecommunications products at reasonable prices.

The theory was wrong. Allowing telecom companies to pick and choose where they wanted to compete meant that some communities—like most of New York’s upstate cities and many rural areas, never got telecom fiber that would compete with cable companies. Unchallenged by telecoms, cable companies in those areas failed to upgrade their already overpriced services. Much of New York State endures a cable monopoly, with service that is both crummy and expensive. And in many rural areas, there is no high-speed service at all—and no mechanism for regulators to force buildout. Telecom and cable companies demanded deregulation and received it on a platter; today’s digital divide is the result. 

That’s why the additional deregulation proposed by Crowne Castle is precisely the wrong solution. New Yorkers should also cast a skeptical eye on the hype surrounding 5G. First, 5G service available today provides no solutions for rural communities where broadband is least available. A few providers are piloting fixed 5G for home service, but the technology faces significant obstacles to large-scale deployment. For example, the fastest 5G spectrum cannot penetrate trees and walls—and is therefore not a reliable substitute for wireline broadband. 

Second, the promised speeds of more than 500 megabits per second are not available from every carrier and don’t even reach most urban consumers today. For example, Verizon’s heavily hyped “ultra-wideband 5G” delivers superfast wireless speeds only in parts of dense urban areas, whereas its more widely available 5G using low-band spectrum is actually slower than 4G LTE much of the time. Ultra-wideband 5G requires radio and antennas spaced just a few hundred feet apart because the spectrum only travels short distances. AT&T Mobility also relies on low-band spectrum and has faced similar criticism that its 5G speeds do not exceed its 4G network in many cases.

Finally, 5G is not cheap. To take advantage of ultra-wideband 5G, you must purchase a 5G enabled phone and there has to be a 5G network of small cells blanketing where you live or work. That hardly seems like a formula for increasing the availability of high-speed internet to low income New Yorkers.

The Communications Workers of America, alongside other consumer advocates and elected leaders, has been fighting for reasonable regulation of 5G deployment to protect workers and consumers as this new technology comes online. New York City in particular has implemented sensible, model regulations that require orderly deployment of small cells. The city has pushed carriers to build in low-income as well as wealthy neighborhoods, and has required small cell operators to be transparent about the construction contractors they hire and the safety and training of their workers. In contrast, in cities where 5G deployment is like the Wild West, operators have hung small cells seemingly randomly, without regard to aesthetics or safety, and in some cases have even drilled holes in the middle of public sidewalks to install poles to support the cells. 

 

 Repeatedly over the last several years, the industry has tried to sneak small cell regulatory preemption into the state budget under cover of darkness, in an effort to nullify regulatory initiatives like the one in New York City. Wisely, state legislators have successfully rebuffed this maneuver each time, preserving the authority of the state’s cities and towns to promulgate sensible regulations to protect workers and consumers. That’s the way it should stay. New Yorkers should remain skeptical of claims that deregulation is a panacea for the digital divide, and instead focus on policies that can truly promote additional broadband buildout and universal access for low-income New Yorkers.

***
Bob Master is Assistant to the Vice President of CWA District One. City Council Member Francisco Moya is Chair of the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. On Twitter @cwabobmaster & @FranciscoMoyaNY.

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Let’s Honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Restoring Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands of New Yorkers


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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the arc of justice (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Today we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in July we will honor and mourn the first anniversary of the passing of Rep. John Lewis, who marched side-by-side at Selma and together championed voting rights as a key aspect of the Civil Rights struggle for Black people in the United States. 

In recent weeks we have witnessed both the best of democracy -- massive voter turnout, particularly among Black Americans, overcoming voter suppression tactics to drive historic U.S. Senate wins in the deep south -- and the worst of democracy -- white supremacists running roughshod through the U.S. Capitol, leaving five people dead.

In recent years, across this country, we have watched in dismay as voter suppression tactics targeting people of color have regained a foothold through both laws and intimidation, with the support of powerful state actors and right-wing militias alike.   

Preventing people from voting was such a significant strategy of Donald Trump’s failed re-election campaign that he went so far as to undermine the U.S. Postal Service in order to limit the efficacy of mail-in ballots. 

Democracy is an act, the late Rep. Lewis stated in his final address to the nation. "The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it."

So what would you say if I told you that New York State retains in its laws a Jim Crow-era voter ban, written explicitly to disenfranchise Black people in the aftermath of formal emancipation? 

The racial impact of the targeted disenfranchisement of individuals on parole cannot be overstated, given how generations of mass criminalization and mass incarceration have targeted Black and Latino communities. Criminal convictions have been used to suppress Black voters since the day we won even the most tenuous right to the franchise. 

New York State, long a progressive beacon in the nation, must take a principled stand against this trend, to promote voting, especially in communities targeted for voter suppression.

One easy immediate fix is to codify Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order on voting rights for people on parole, through legislation currently on the table in the state Legislature (bill S830). The governor’s order provides pardons for the purpose of voting to most people on parole, and is a critical first step; but we must do more.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, only about 1,000 of the 30,000 people who newly received voting rights thanks to the governor’s order actually registered to vote, because of confusion in the process. In addition to ensuring that restoring voting rights is enshrined in the law, the bill would provide notice and an opportunity to register to vote upon release from prison.

There should be no confusion among eligible voters as to whether or not they legally have the right to vote. The continued success of our democracy, undermined substantially during the past four years, depends on this. Iowa, California, Washington D.C., and Florida took significant steps towards righting this wrong in 2020. Will New York State stand up and be next?

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Rev. Kirsten John Foy is President and CEO of The Arc of Justice. On Twitter @KirstenJohnFoy.

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We Need a Full Plan to Save the Arts in New York


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Empty theatres abound (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Theaters shuttered—some will never return. Countless entertainment professionals in perpetual unemployment—fortunate if they still qualify for unemployment benefits or union-backed healthcare. An entire season of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker” productions moved online. 

The stage was set for Governor Cuomo’s announcement this week to revitalize New York’s critical arts industry—an economic engine, essential creative torrent, and source of joy, community, and soulful fortification for all of us, and an industry devastated as much as any by the pandemic.

While we applaud the governor’s attention to the arts and some of the commitments he made in his State of the State, it will take a lot more to support the arts—both the institutions and the individuals—than pop-up performances by Chris Rock and Amy Schumer. 

Don’t get us wrong: prominent New Yorkers sharing their star power is a piece of the puzzle (and, if nobody’s doing this already, let’s turn their pop-up shows into a Made-in-New-York Netflix special, and commit the proceeds to support regional non-profit theaters as the recent online production of A Christmas Carol and fundraisers by the Actors Fund have done), but such celebrity events are the icing, not the cake; the sizzle, not the steak. And New York’s arts need a full buffet of innovative, well-resourced, ambitious efforts—as creative and nimble as our arts world itself.

We may not be Chris Rock, but we are enmeshed in the world of independent arts. As performance practitioners, producers, and non-profit board members (Justin, the founder and Board Chair of The Tank, a 17-year-old performing arts venue committed to tearing down economic barriers to presenting and experiencing new work; Tiffany, a Tank Board Member and Artistic Director of Elisa Monte Dance, a 40-year old Modern dance company committed to creating an inviting, welcoming and forward thinking environment for dance artists) we’ve seen the fate of too many independent venues before and know the juggling act we all do to survive. We’ve also seen how artists—backed by smart public policy—can sustain lives for themselves and art for the public.

So what can the city and/or state do? From grants and loans to small theaters to negotiating with and supporting landlords with non-profit tenants to programs that keep paid staff in their jobs, rather than sending them onto unemployment, to initiatives that care for freelancers and independent contractors who make up so much of our cultural ecosystem, there is no shortage of policy possibilities.

Give property tax breaks to landlords to pass on to small nonprofits, guarantee loans to back payroll, hire artists to become teachers' aides that support small cohort learning when schools reopen, use theaters as classrooms because we need more space, open public spaces up to public performances that operate within clear, sensible distancing rules—a policy-maker or legislator doesn't need to look far to see endless possibilities that could subsidize our cultural landscape and leverage our cultural capital to help sustain, nourish, and rebuild our city.

(Hint: many of these ideas could be great ones in the best of times as well as the worst of times.)

We're not pretending to know which policy is best. We're the creators—we know what our city and society needs, we're here to help create it, and support the thousands of artists that call The Tank home each year however we can, as we have been doing during the pandemic in which we’ve kept our staff employed, expanded the team, and continued to give artists a stage and a stipend. Right now, we’re here to challenge and partner with the policy-makers ready to make that happen. 

Here are a few principles that lawmakers should look to in order to ensure the vibrancy of independent arts in New York:

1. Space is sacred. We need space to create, share, and experience art and culture. In the near-term, that may be outdoor space. In the long-term, it's knowing we'll still have our indoor ones. When the world is ready to come out of our homes and off our screens we’ll need to have spaces that are protected for cultural experiences.

2. Creativity isn't free. We don't go into art for the money, but creating art can't only be a game for the independently wealthy. We want to respect creators' time and work, compensate them, and allow them to build viable lives off their cultural contributions. That means backing venues that support artists, backing salaries of staff in these venues, and promoting policies—from tax policy to health care to worker protections—that support freelancers and independent contractors.

3. We're all in this together. Everyone, from the student in universal pre-K to the housebound senior at risk in this pandemic, benefits from live performance. Let's subsidize it to make sure it's accessible to all: from where it takes place to how much it costs. And let's make sure that everyone has access to creating—without financial obstacles, gatekeeping or other systems of marginalization slamming the doors on the next generation of performers.

4. It can't just be the big guys. We want Broadway to come back; we want the members of Broadway unions and staff at big theaters to be taken care of until it does, but we want to make sure any program doesn't just work for the big business of Broadway but for the huge constellation of small, independent venues. For artists just starting out, it’s these venues that make New York worth coming to in the first place. 

5. Be Bold and creative! This is advice you’d give to any performer, writer, designer—let’s challenge Governor Cuomo to the same. The governor announced a plan to employ 1,000 artists—why not 50,000? New York is possibly the only city that could implement a program at this scale and still engage only a small portion of residents who make a living in the arts. Why not build a New Deal, WPA-style public works corps, or create a program that floods our schools with artists running enrichment programs in underfunded neighborhoods or even in-person, small-pod experiences for remote students?

Governor Cuomo suggested pop-up shows—let’s make them every Saturday night, in every town and city that can partner to host them, every week until the pandemic lifts, bringing together the headliners with the newcomers, giving a boost to the emerging artists on the coattails of our Empire State celebrities? Governor Cuomo talked about flexible seating—how about flexible real estate? A program to give empty spaces for a year to arts nonprofits, giving landlords life in their storefronts and covering utilities or insurance, then work with them to scale up to a mutually agreeable rent in subsequent years. Or borrow “cheap money” with interest rates so low and build and update arts venues across the state. Use union labor, put folks to work, and prepare for the next generation of theater- and concert-goers ready to emerge from the covid cocoon. 

If we look at major legislative achievements in our history they relied on the combined efforts of everyday people, artists, activists, and legislators. Now is the time for a big achievement.

Independent performance spaces are the lifeblood of the cultural life of New York City, pumping ideas and creativity and talent through every fiber of city life. Small arts venues give performers their first stage—whether those artists are stepping up from the Bronx or busing in from Buffalo. These are the venues where you can take risks as a performer and learn your craft. It's where young and new audiences can afford to see shows. And these are the spaces from which the creators emerge who then shape our culture through theater, dance, film, music, and more.

There's no question that New York runs on cultural energy, from the bright lights of Broadway to the world-class concert stages to the glorious outdoor festivals. The city needs those venues open again, when it is safe for performers, staff, and audiences. But the cultural heart of our city can't beat again without the lifeblood running through it—so any plan to support Broadway or Lincoln Center or BAM needs to also ensure Off-Off-Broadway, independent music venues, rehearsal spaces, and the ecosystem of small performing arts spaces, come back. There is more than one way to be an artist. Not everyone wants to be The Metropolitan Opera or New York City Ballet. We need small and mid-sized companies, independent artists, collectives, and community-based art to create a healthy arts ecosystem.

In the best of times, independent spaces like The Tank exist on a razor's edge—a couple bad box office months away from insolvency or one greedy landlord from a rent hike and eviction. You can fill column after column with the names of the beloved venues that have closed in recent years: as prominent as CBGB’s and UCB, as quirky as the Zipper, Galapagos, and Shetler Studios—and those are the famous ones. In the best of times, it's the mix of community support, shoestring budgets, volunteer labor, staff devotion, and luck that keeps these venues alive. Having moved among more than half-a-dozen venues since our founding, we feel fortunate every day we are able to continue in our artistic mission.

So in the worst of times—which a pandemic is for the live arts—we're all in deep sh*t. Venues that eke by on $10 tickets are locked up tight and people should be able to experience quality art at this price. Volunteers and artists are facing their own economic and health crises. Landlords that want to be generous face their own financial crunch, as do foundations and donors. Companies that are too small to be taken seriously for loans may just blink out. 

Think about what artists have contributed to New York City. In a time when the city is experiencing collective trauma, allow artists to do what we do best—heal, entertain, and bring out catharsis. When our city recovers—when, not if—we'll need these venues, or at least the people that brought these venues to life to help create new ones. And if those people flee the city or flee this industry or can't overcome their own financial insecurity to produce, support, and give their life to art, then our whole city will be the worse for it. Although New York is extremely competitive it is also a place where you can create opportunity. Dreams come true here. Everyday we are living ours.

The show must go on. The show will go on. We're not giving up on New York. We know New Yorkers won't give up on us. And we need New York—the government, institutions, power-brokers, policy-makers—to do the same.

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Justin Krebs is the founder and Board Chair of The Tank and a candidate for City Council in Brooklyn’s 39th District. Tiffany Rea-Fisher is a Tank Board Member and Artistic Director of Elisa Monte Dance. On Twitter @justinmkrebs and @treafisher.

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Seizing the Opportunity to Create New Affordable Housing at Reduced Cost


affordable housing building corner

Housing (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


In Governor Cuomo’s State of the State this week, he announced support for plans to convert underutilized commercial buildings into supportive and affordable housing, saying, "The housing problem in our cities has gotten worse. But the crisis of growing vacancies in our commercial property provides an opportunity. We should convert vacant commercial space to supportive and affordable housing and we should do it now."

The governor is right, and this could not come at a more critical time. With an economic downturn and real estate devalued, some buildings – especially hotels and class B and C offices – are distressed, creating an opening for owners willing to sell at a discount and for nonprofit developers to purchase buildings and transform them into desperately-needed housing.

Nonprofits like Breaking Ground are ready to jump on these opportunities and will need investment capital from government partners to move them forward, with the potential to unlock thousands of new housing units that can be brought online quickly. It can also be done much more efficiently and affordably: repositioning old hotels into housing can be done at nearly half the cost of ground-up new development. New construction of supportive housing costs nearly $500,000 per unit on average and often takes at least two years to build and open. However, the conversion of distressed hotel properties to SRO supportive housing could cost just $300,000 per unit and be ready in as quickly as 12 months.

There are many formats the new housing can take, from traditional affordable and supportive housing models where each unit has its own private kitchen, bathroom, and living area, to reinvigorating the older concept of SROs, or single-room occupancy. 

Converting legacy hotels to SROs would fill an immediate need and help provide more flexible forms of housing in the continuum that serves people experiencing homelessness and people in need of a deeply affordable place to live. With on-site services – including meal options and education around simple and healthy cooking for units that cannot be equipped with kitchens – this housing would be especially attractive and suitable for seniors, youth, and other single adults. 

Today, more than 18,000 single adults utilize New York City’s congregate shelter system, and thousands more sleep on the streets and in the subways. By creating new SROs, we could reduce this number significantly and fast.  

We know this model works. Breaking Ground has led successful conversions of multiple hotels in the city including our flagship 652-unit Times Square location – which opened 30 years ago and is still the largest supportive housing residence in the country – and the Prince George hotel in the Flatiron District. Breaking Ground also has a current hotel renovation underway: 90 Sands in Dumbo which will bring nearly 500 units of affordable and supportive housing to one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country next year. Thousands of previously underserved men and women have built lives of dignity and security in our supportive housing sites, including repurposed hotels.

It’s a win-win. Public dollars can be leveraged now in a way that was not possible just a few months ago, and this period likely will not last.

More often than not, we lament over not investing in smart real estate opportunities at the right time – this moment should not be one of those times, especially as New Yorkers continue to suffer from the loss of jobs and income, and with the looming threat of the loss of housing. With support from government partners, we can fast-track the creation of new deeply affordable housing for the formerly homeless and low-income New Yorkers.

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Brenda Rosen is Breaking Ground President & CEO. On Twitter @BrGround.

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We Need Joe Biden to Become the Climate President, and for Chuck Schumer to Help Get Him There


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Joe Biden with solar panels (photo: Christopher Dilts/Biden for President)


Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. Global warming and extreme weather are accelerating.

We need Joe Biden to be the Climate President, especially after the four lost years under  climate-denier Donald Trump. This begins with Biden taking comprehensive executive action on climate change on day one.

A number of large coalitions (e.g., ClimatePresident.org) have outlined a comprehensive list of executive actions the president can take without the need for congressional approval. It includes setting a goal of moving to 100% clean electricity by 2030 (though that sector accounts for only a quarter of carbon emissions). It embraces a commitment to environmental justice and a just transition to ensure that all individuals benefit from the changes.

Most importantly, it calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground, including a halt to new fossil fuel infrastructure and a ban on fracking. Other countries have shown that a dramatic increase in renewables does not necessarily result in major cuts in greenhouse gas emission.

Biden’s support for rejoining the Paris climate accords is a welcome common-sense step. The head of the United Nations has pleaded with countries to declare a climate emergency – and act accordingly. Just like America did after Pearl Harbor, we need a society-wide mobilization of all resources and brainpower to solve the climate crisis.

Many scientists sugarcoat the realities of climate change, worrying that the truth would lead to despair and a sense of hopelessness. Yet the present approach is falling far short of the needed climate action; saying climate change is real is not a solution. Young people have become our climate leaders, rejecting the timid, go-slow approach of our political leaders.

The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has consistently underestimated the speed and severity of global warming. The warming that has already taken place in the Arctic has exceeded what scientists thought wouldn’t happen until the end of the century. The IPCC’s warning that we have 11 years left for unprecedented worldwide action on climate is overly optimistic; we must do everything we can immediately, not propose 30-year deadlines.

A decade ago I helped the Green Party initiate the first call in the United States for a Green New Deal. It combined a rapid ten-year transition to 100% renewables, zero-emissions with an Economic Bill of Rights (guaranteed living wage jobs, universal health care, housing, education) as FDR had called for in his last State of the Unions.

Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunshine Movement two years ago elevated the Green New Deal to a new level of public awareness. Unfortunately, subsequent Green New Deal versions have weakened it, dropping the ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure. Democrats have pushed the deadline for “net-zero” emissions to 2050 and too often just use the term Green New Deal to highlight that investing in renewables is a job-creation strategy. They promote carbon capture, an expensive and speculative technology designed to allow the continued use of fossil fuels.

The response to COVID-19 showed that it is possible to rapidly change day-to-day existence. The Green New Deal should be the core of our covid economic relief package, as Europe and South Korea have done. Newly-elevated Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has highlighted that a green economic stimulus will be a major focus for him, along with 100% new renewable cars by 2035. He has formally co-sponsored the THRIVE agenda developed by Green New Deal organizers. Climate groups are looking for Senator Schumer to go bold and make 2021 a transformational moment. As usual, there will be fights over what fits into a sustainable green package. 

The world has slowly begun the long-overdue pivot to develop renewable energy. But we will not avoid climate collapse if we believe we can merely unplug our industrial societies from fossil fuels and plug into renewables. The American lifestyle, with its wasteful consumption of energy and resources, is not sustainable.

Pope Francis in his Climate Encyclical pointed out that the capitalist system and its focus on profits has failed humanity. Climate change will be solved only if we make the common good our top priority. Solving climate change means embracing a world based on sustainability and equality. Ecosocialism would enable us to democratically plan the economy to meet everyone’s basic needs within ecological limits. Having hedge funds get rich off of renewable energy won’t solve the climate crisis.

Far more attention needs to be paid to transportation, the largest source of emissions, and buildings, the fourth largest. We have to reject the use of natural gas as a bridge fuel; rather it is a gangplank to climate disaster. We need to heat/cool buildings by using geothermal or air heat pumps. We need expanded mass transit, not hundreds of millions of electric cars.

Biden’s call for climate action helped him win the election. His climate policies in the general election were significantly stronger than during the primary. The world needs him to continue his evolution to a climate champion.

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Mark Dunlea is a leader of the Green Education and Legal Fund. On Twitter @DunleaMark.

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