Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Mend the Health Care Safety Net for LGBTQ New Yorkers

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The NYC LGBT Community Center (photo: LGBT Community Center)

LGBTQ New Yorkers are facing a unique and urgent health care challenge. We already experience significant health disparities, and as a result of COVID-19, the organizations that exist to address those disparities statewide are hanging by a thread. Lawmakers have worked with the community for years to ensure these organizations can serve the nearly 1 million of us who call this state home, but without greater public awareness of the outsized challenges that LGBTQ people have suddenly come up against and a renewed commitment from New York state government, our community’s safety net is at risk of disappearing. 

LGBTQ people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because we are more likely to be immunocompromised, and encounter barriers to accessing medical care that the pandemic has only exacerbated. For example, we are at higher risk for heart disease and cancer, and use substances at higher rates. LGBTQ people also experience discrimination from providers and staff, including being refused care. These disparities are compounded for Black people, who are less likely to receive appropriate medical care across the board, from pain treatment to hospital admission. As a result, many LGBTQ people are reluctant to seek care, even in urgent situations.

These challenges are part of why our community relies so heavily on the 70 organizations across New York State that make up The LGBT Health & Human Services Network. Network member organizations provide free and low-cost, affirming health-care services such as primary care, STI and HIV testing, patient advocacy, medication delivery, health education, mental health counseling, and more, in direct response to the needs they see across the state.

The Network’s most recent needs assessment, a survey of 3,800 LGBTQ New Yorkers, revealed that more than one in five have no primary care provider or have had to skip doctor visits due to cost. Nearly one-third cited a lack of LGBTQ-trained health professionals as a barrier to accessing care—and this shot up to 56% for transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents specifically. 

In addition to these year-round services, The Network is also responding directly to COVID-19. Fifty-one organizations have begun providing emergency services, such as offering covid testing, providing PPE and food pantry services, and converting medical facilities to care for COVID-19 patients. Later this month, The Network is launching a search engine to help LGBTQ New Yorkers more easily find affirming, affordable, safe health care services, including telehealth.

However, without access to emergency funding, these services cannot exist. Network organizations currently have a collective deficit of $12.6 million due to the financial strain the pandemic has caused. They face further losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars due to looming policy changes like the Medicaid Carve-Out Plan. The current deficit alone is enough to already do serious damage: Out Alliance, the only LGBTQ community center in Rochester, was forced to let go of all staff and temporarily discontinue operations for the duration of 2020. Eight more members have significant concerns about their organizations’ sustainability. Layoffs and furloughs caused by financial strain are rapidly shrinking the remaining organizations’ capacity to meet a growing need for services. 

Since the HIV epidemic, no other event has had such a profound, overarching impact upon our communities. Not only are individuals particularly vulnerable to illness and isolation; they are also increasingly less able to access affordable, affirming health care. Where are we supposed to turn in the midst of a pandemic if our safety net can’t catch us?

We need lawmakers to understand the crisis we are facing and to take action, by providing emergency funding to ensure sustainable access to life-saving and life-affirming services for our community. LGBTQ New Yorkers can’t do this alone.

State Senator Brad Hoylman represents parts of Manhattan. Glennda Testone is Executive Director of NYC's LGBT Community Center. On Twitter @BradHoylman, @Glennda_Testone & @LGBTCenterNYC.

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Save Our Waterfronts from Our Open Skies: New York & New Jersey

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Manhattan from a helicopter (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin, the author)

“I care passionately about our waterfront,” says Hoboken City Council Member Phil Cohen. “It’s the jewel of Hoboken, directly across from the Empire State Building. We fought so long and hard to get our world-class waterfront, endured epic battles, and now we have helicopters constantly buzzing us in our own park. Somehow the helicopters are always there.” 

That’s because the most intrusive helicopters take off from Kearny or Linden in Cohen’s own state, fly up the Hudson, cross Manhattan in the 80s to hover over Central Park, fly down the East River, and then often joyride around the Empire State Building, Chelsea, and Lower Manhattan before heading out to hover over Governors Island and the Brooklyn waterfront, before returning to New Jersey, where they often circle the waterfronts of Jersey City and Hoboken.

And, of course, the helicopters routinely loiter around the Statue of Liberty to give maximum exposure for their clients’ Instagram accounts.

Sam Pesin, an activist designated the “Superhero of Liberty State Park” by InsiderNJ, has fought to the death one harmful invasion after another into Liberty State Park -- an amusement theme park in 1977, a commercial amphitheater in 1980, 8,000 luxury condo units in 1982, converting the historic rail road terminal into a doll museum in 1982, turning the park into a golf course in 1991, and again in1995, followed by another amphitheater proposal, a water park, a new marina, or even installing solar panels on the park’s recreation fields, plus a Formula One racetrack with viewing stands, writes Al Sullivan, and a high-end golf course. Pesin helped save Liberty State Park from all of this, only to see it inundated with low-flying helicopters, especially on weekend days and evenings. When the Sierra Club was filming “Wildlife of Liberty State Park,” for example, it had to stop repeatedly because the helicopter noise was too intrusive. Pesin is hopeful that the same coalition of community activists and environmentalists that halted other aggressions in the park can be mobilized against helicopters. He has a point. The coalition put together by Stop the Chop NY NJ includes both United States senators from New Jersey, U.S. Congressional Rep. Abio Sires, and mayors of Bayonne, Edgewater, Guttenberg, Hoboken, Jersey City, Weehawken, and several more.

Cohen and Pesin are voicing a parallel grievance to that published by former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Governors Island Alliance executive director Merritt Birnbaum in the New York Times in 2016: “In recent years, New York City has invested over $2 billion in spectacular new waterfront parks. But that investment, and New Yorkers’ enjoyment of their parks and neighborhoods, is being ruined by an invasion of noisy, polluting tourist helicopters.” 

Yet somehow, four years later, our waterfront parks are still being invaded, as is virtually every treasured landmark in our city. 

Manhattan Borough President’s Data Analysis
For years constituent complaints about helicopter noise and pollution have made up the largest and often angriest set of complaints received by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office. (“My biggest constituent issue on nice days,” Brewer said in 2012, when she represented the West Side in the City Council.) But this summer—in the midst of the covid lockdown—complaints unexpectedly shot up, coinciding with the unprecedented onslaught of tourist helicopters from New Jersey. 

 In response Brewer established a task force composed of officials, academics, and activists from both New York and New Jersey. Working from 311 data Zhi Keng He of BetaNYC showed the task force the dramatic pattern in Manhattan heli complaints, contrasting 2019’s relatively low numbers with this year’s record levels.


Yet while 2019’s complaints are low relative to this year, the increase began in September 2019, which saw 404 complaints, up to 729 in December. In 2020, complaints spiked in June—three months into the covid crisis—at 1,061, and hit 1,541 in November.

 Citywide complaints follow a similar pattern, with the spike in June partly reflecting helicopter activity over protests, after which “Other” complaints took off.

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The categorization into NYPD, News Gathering, and Other is by definition rough since 311 relies on the caller to report precisely. Those who use Flight Radar24 or Flight Aware are able to file their complaints accurately, but those without the apps will be guessing. In normal times, the NYPD is not the culprit. All of its seven helicopters are radar-tracked by air traffic control, and only two are assigned to routine patrol (as opposed to rescue), with the result that it is rare for the NYPD to deploy more than one helicopter at a time. Police pilots try to fly at high altitude “to avoid unnecessary disturbance to the public,” says the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information. And the NYPD does not block its signal. 

One reason New Yorkers think that low-flying helicopters must be NYPD is that so many use search lights. “Of course that helicopter is NYPD,” said one of my neighbors, pointing straight up. “Who else would be allowed to direct a search light straight into our building for 15 minutes?”

Other culprits often mistaken for NYPD are news-gathering stations like PIX-11 News and ABC-7’s EyeWitness News, whose helis hover persistently—over New Year’s weekend they buzzed Manhattan for hours at a time. News helis fly in from New Jersey, circle the entire city repeatedly, often below 1,000 feet, and hang over neighborhoods and landmarks. How much of their activity is genuine news gathering?



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What is to be done? Brewer has taken the first step, which is to set up a joint New York-New Jersey task force and begin the analysis. Those living on both sides of the Hudson might ask where this helicopter traffic is coming from and what can be done.

Kearny’s River Terminal Development
The Kearny Heliport (HHI Heliport) in New Jersey launches all of the doors-off FlyNYON tourism flights over New York and New Jersey, although some regular tours also fly from other heliports. (FlyNYON is the notorious sightseeing company whose doors-off tour crashed into the East River in March 2018, killing five passengers.) River Terminal Development is a subsidiary of the Hugo Neu Corporation, a family business for three generations of Neus based in New York. Hugo Neu Corporation describes itself as “a privately held company with deep experience in investing, building and managing businesses in recycling, real estate and related industries.” It prides itself on its Kearny Point development, which redeveloped a historic shipyard into “a diverse community of pioneering businesses,” somewhat similar to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. 

Subsidiary RTC Properties, Inc. itself has 125 total employees across all of its locations and generates $20.76 million in sales. Requests for an interview have gone unanswered but clearly the owners of Kearny Heliport need to be involved in the public discussion of helicopters. Without their facility, the most egregious flights would not be made.

Helicopter Industry Reluctant to Help
Across the country the helicopter industry is organized into regional lobbying groups fighting hard against any further regulation or restriction on their activities. The Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which includes the New York metropolitan region, pledges its good citizenship: “For decades ERHC has worked with the elected officials and community leaders to reduce and eliminate impacts to the local communities.” Yet ERHC has done nothing to temper the behavior of its member, FlyNYON. This is in contrast to its active involvement in the helicopter hostilities of the Hamptons, where ERHC helped broker a modification in routes that temporarily moderated acrimony, ameliorating problems on the South Shore of Long Island while generating new ones on the North Shore.

 While industry leaders privately express concern about the aggressive, low-flying flights harassing New York and New Jersey waterfronts and landmarks, virtually no industry spokesperson or executive seems willing to speak publicly—or even combat these companies privately.

 The one exception is Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of BLADE Urban Air Mobility, who says tersely of the doors-off tours, “They follow no rules and are dangerous, in my opinion.” Wiesenthal has been working with the LaGuardia tower and BLADE operators to eliminate, wherever possible, all overflight of Manhattan. The problem is that Central Park is an official route on helicopter charts and is the LGA tower’s preferred route across Manhattan. Wiesenthal says that except when mandated to follow the Central Park route, a BLADE flight will never fly over Manhattan.


The Federal Aviation Administration
Like all American airspace, New York’s skies are controlled by the FAA, which basically adheres to its “freedom to fly” principle treating the skies of America — including skies over densely populated cities — as highways. Robert Gottheim, District Director for Congressional Rep. Jerry Nadler, who has long been active on helicopter issues, says, “The FAA could change New York’s airspace entirely on its own if it chose. It could designate all the airspace to be controlled by LaGuardia, followed by no clearance. Or it could change the ceiling, essentially eliminating helicopters. Or just ban them all together. All of this is totally within their regulatory authority. They could do it all on their own without any input from Congress. People have a right to a high quality of life in their own residences. It’s not as if they bought a house by an airport and then started to complain. Manhattan isn’t supposed to be an airport."

The bad news is that FAA chief Steve Dickson, who has done nothing to ameliorate helicopter problems over New York’s crowded airspace, has announced that “he intends to stay on under the Biden administration, to fill out the remainder of his 5-year term ending in 2024,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the good news is that although the FAA is a classic clientele agency that views its mission as the promotion of the welfare of the industry it’s supposed to be regulating, it is nonetheless housed within the federal Department of Transportation, soon to be headed by Biden appointee Pete Buttigieg. Said Biden about the appointment: “This position stands at the nexus of so many of the interlocking challenges and opportunities ahead of us. Jobs, infrastructure, equity, and climate all come together at the DOT.” Gottheim is hopeful that the New York Congressional Delegation will be able to work successfully with Buttigieg, whose own presidential campaign had emphasized “high-quality, zero-emissions” mass transit for every city of over 100,000 residents. 

Nadler and his congressional colleagues will be advocating hard for their HR 4880 bill prohibiting nonessential helicopters over New York. Gottheim says, “We hope that with a new administration headed by a Democratic president we can move this legislation.”

An Old Technique from NJ
In a previous incarnation of the great helicopter wars two elected New Jersey officials, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Congressional Rep. Albio Sires, worked with the FAA Eastern Regional Administrator in 2013 to reach an agreement reducing both the flight hours and the number of helicopters operating out of Paulus Hook Heliport. In other words, it can be done, even if it’s not done very often. Elected officials could work with, for example, Kearny and Linden to reduce flight hours and number of helicopters.

Similarly, despite their assurances that they can do nothing, New York City officials could regulate some of the most egregious helicopter behavior if they wished. Rob Wiesenthal points out that tour helicopters must sometimes land in Manhattan, that they often want to refuel here because it’s cheaper and faster, and some tour companies offer charters from New York City heliports. These activities open the door to local regulation. While the FAA says heliports can’t be selective about who is allowed to land, they can ban dangerous or objectionable behavior, such as failure to adhere to the 2016 agreement. Any New Yorkers regularly using the FlightRadar24 app knows that every week several helicopters joyride around New York after taking off from one of the three heliports.

Trump Temporary Flight Restrictions
Because of the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency the FAA drew a huge circle around Midtown’s Trump Tower, from 35th Street to roughly 80th Street and the Hudson to the East River, as a TFR zone or “National Defense Airspace.” This forced pilots north—thus the angry complaints to Brewer from her constituents above 80th Street and below 35th—and reinforced the use of Central Park as a highway. In theory the TFR should be modified with Trump’s exit, although there has been some chatter that restrictions may be retained if Trump asserts New York residency, even partial residency.


The 2021 Mayoral Race
While Mayor de Blasio has done nothing to ameliorate the helicopter onslaught, Stop the Chop and other activists intend to make the industry an important issue in the crowded 2021 mayoral race to succeed the term-limited de Blasio. Several candidates have been quick to designate climate change as a key issue, and of course a safe one, but none has yet said a word about helicopters. Why do we tolerate hundreds of aging, rattling, tour helicopters—flying for the most trivial of reasons—to burn fuel and produce substantial CO2 emissions while hovering noisily over our waterfront, parks, and landmarks?

The country will have a new president soon and New York will elect a new mayor in November. This is the moment for pushing hard politically. We already have a next president who has vowed to work collegially. Let’s get a mayor who knows how to reach across the Hudson, as Gale Brewer has done, and engage our neighbors in this fight to regain our waterfronts.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a long-time editor and writer on cities. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

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It’s Time to Stop Repeating History: We Need Detailed Policing Plans from Mayoral Candidates

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NYPD officers (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As the new year begins and the 2021 mayoral primary unfolds, we need to know more about candidates’ plans for police. In 2020, New York City experienced enormous and persistent protests against police brutality, and the Department of Investigation released a report in December showing the many ways in which the NYPD’s response to those protests fell short. Meanwhile, gun violence in the city doubled compared to 2019, hitting low-income communities of color the hardest. We must demand that candidates for Mayor of New York City move past commissions, task forces, reports, and rhetoric to provide us with detailed plans that address policing and crime.

Although support for the Black Lives Matter movement this summer skyrocketed, New York City legislation has failed to meet the moment. New York State has increased law enforcement transparency and accountability by repealing Article 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law, which had shielded police disciplinary records from public view, and has established a new Law Enforcement Misconduct Office in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, which will go into effect this April. While the city has taken big steps to regulate, for example, the use of police surveillance technology, local lawmakers have largely shied away from addressing issues related to use of force and police brutality.

The City Council outlawed “reckless” chokeholds many years after then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly banned them in 1993 but they kept being used. The DOI report recommends expanding de-escalation and implicit bias training, echoing the de Blasio administration’s officer training courses announced in 2014. The NYPD’s proposed disciplinary matrix, released in August, simply consolidates existing guidance from the Patrol Guide and fails to assign termination as a presumptive penalty for excessive use of force, harrasment, sexual abuse, and other misconduct. If similar initiatives did not address the root causes of police brutality in the past, it is unclear why these actions will produce the meaningful reform this moment requires.

Demands for police reform reached their pinnacle this past summer. In contrast to many of New York City’s previous protests, the George Floyd protests began in familiar spots like Foley Square and Union Square but quickly spread to residential areas throughout the city like Astoria and Bay Ridge. And these protests drew enormous crowds: according to the DOI, in the afternoon of June 4 alone, there were nearly 15,000 protestors spread across the five boroughs. Also notable is just how many white New Yorkers showed solidarity with their neighbors of color on issues of police brutality.

The DOI report describes the NYPD’s handling of protests that were larger and more persistent than any other in New York City’s history. The report itself, however, is reminiscent of many of the police reform efforts of past mayoral administrations. Throughout the last century, city legislators have worked on police reform episodically, through task forces and commissions, and most of those efforts have fallen short. To ensure the DOI report makes a real impact, we need the candidates for mayor to be clear about their plans for meaningful police reform.

And we need them to show how they would provide a real break from repeating history yet again.

In 1935, Mayor La Guardia’s Commission on the Conditions of Harlem recommended that the city discipline police officers who interfered with civilians based on private prejudices. No such change took place. In 1966, Mayor Lindsay delivered on one of his main campaign promises by adding four civilians to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Within the year, however, the Police Benevolent Association mobilized a public referendum that reversed Lindsay’s action. The Knapp Commission of 1970 established a statewide Special Prosecutor’s Office for the criminal justice system, both to monitor district attorneys’ anti-corruption work and to conduct its own investigations. The office was disbanded in 1991.

The 1992 Mollen Commission exposed a culture of “loyalty over integrity.” In response, the NYPD changed some aspects of police recruitment and training, and three years later, via executive order, Mayor Giuliani created the NYC Commission to Combat Police Corruption. The Girgenti Report, released in 1993, effectively ended Mayor Dinkins’ mayoralty by showing how he mismanaged the Crown Heights riots. The report, however, did little to recommend improvements to the NYPD. Mayor Giuliani assembled and then made a point of ignoring his 1997 policing task force, which consisted of lawyers, community leaders, and members of the clergy. In 2013, after a federal judge found the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, the City Council established an Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, joining the CCRB and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption as a third layer of oversight to the police. Each agency has the power only to make recommendations to the NYPD, many of which are ignored.

Despite the various commissions, task forces, reports, and oversight agencies, however, Officer Daniel Pantaleo kept his job for five years after he used a chokehold to restrain and ultimately kill Eric Garner in July 2014. George Floyd’s similar cry – “I can’t breathe” – resonated with a city that has grappled with issues of police brutality and racial discrimination since its founding.

Rather than focus on the isolated episodes of looting in Soho and Midtown, officers kettled and arrested over 2,000 peaceful protestors, including legal observers, pepper sprayed elected officials, and beat up journalists. Although the NYPD’s use of firearms has plummeted at a remarkable rate – from 810 discharges in 1970 to 35 in 2018 – videos from the summer show that police aggression and brutality have persisted.

Attempts to meaningfully ‘defund the police’ failed this fiscal year. Although the NYPD’s budget for the current fiscal year (FY21) was reduced by millions of dollars (the mayor speciously tried to claim $1 billion) in response to public demands, reductions represented aspirational cuts in overtime, sleight-of-hand transfers to other departments, and a $450 million reduction in capital funding rather than a meaningful change in the NYPD’s footprint. The actual budget cuts were closer to the order of $120 million, and even that may not hold. In any case, defunding the police is no magic bullet, and we must listen to municipal leaders of color, many of whom oppose the ‘defund’ movement and believe that well-trained, ethical officers are essential to the safety of their communities.

One of the DOI report’s main recommendations is to teach officers to facilitate First Amendment expression rather than obstruct it. Doing so requires not simply new training, but a fundamental paradigm shift within the NYPD, starting with its leadership. It requires a change in how officers are briefed before attending protests and the tactics they are permitted to use. Alongside this recommendation, we need more ideas that push us to rethink the role police officers play in maintaining public safety. Council Member and City Comptroller candidate Brad Lander’s plan to relieve the NYPD of its traffic enforcement and crash investigation responsibilities is another such idea. Removing officers from schools is yet another.

These policy changes are not radical; they would simply enable officers to focus on the tasks that require a badge and a firearm rather than responding to situations where a police presence heightens tension and causes harm.

In the background, from April 2021, the State Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Misconduct Office will investigate police misconduct and determine the need for prosecution, disciplinary action, or further investigation. This new office may help ensure that, statewide, actions have consequences for officers who abuse their power.

The DOI report is only the beginning of a necessary conversation about police reform in our city, but on its own it is insufficient to bring about change. We must understand how our mayoral candidates plan to implement the recommendations of the DOI report, whom they will appoint for key roles including Police Commissioner, and how they envision making police reform a reality.

In addition, we need new ideas that rethink how the NYPD maintains public safety alongside a broader coalition of organizations and agencies. We can no longer afford to settle for the endless commissions, task forces, and empty rhetoric of the past.

Benjamin Heller is a graduate student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. On Twitter @BenjaminHeller0.

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Community Health Groups Must Be Part of New York City’s COVID-19 Reckoning

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Community clinics must be reconsidered (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

For generations, health care has been vastly different for the haves and have nots, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the divide that was already so apparent to communities of color in New York. 

Having symptoms of the virus myself in the early months I went to Lenox Hill hospital, farther from where I live because my local hospital was already filled with patients. Now, keep in mind, all private hospitals receive government funding, but their internal policies determine what it means to receive basic care. In my case all that meant was a COVID-19 test and a standard x-ray. Any additional testing I may need, including blood work and an electrocardiogram – standard even for basic check-ups – would have to be paid from my own wallet. 

Like most Afro-Latinos, I had been listening to the news of how the death toll continued to rise in my community of Upper Manhattan, and was afraid I would become one of those numbers. I was pained, too, seeing immigrant neighbors not receive the care they need or getting wrong information. But this is not surprising for those of us who have worked in the healthcare system. There have been consistent cuts to funding for health-focused community-based organizations (CBOs), which have an incredible history of advocating for newly-arrived immigrants who are still adapting to a different culture as well as other residents of low-income communities and communities of color.

But the cuts that occurred on multiple levels of government forced many of these organizations to close. If more health-based CBOs were open when the coronavirus upended our lives, the people who live in zip codes where the pandemic hit hardest would have had more options to receive the medical care they needed and deserved, contact tracing could have been implemented from the start, and the information these residents needed to survive would have been accessible. 

The CBOs that had their doors open in New York provided the best care they could, all while the demand for their services increased. So many of them, like the Commission on the Public's Health System, were able to jump-start volunteer efforts to help deliver meals and groceries, and to collaborate with houses of worship to provide remote services. They are still the go-to health care option for many. Most importantly, they have built relationships with their patients, which is their best chance for these men and women to get over the final hump of this health crisis. 

With the distribution of a covid vaccine underway, one-third of Latinos and fewer than half of Black people recently surveyed said they would not take the medicine. CBOs are the ones that can ease people’s fears so they listen to the advice of health professionals. But they need the financial support to effectively treat these communities. 

While larger health nonprofits have great people working for them, many still fall short of ensuring they can serve a diverse group of people. New Yorkers cannot afford to continue to have an antiquated safety net system that leaves out communities of color. 

Even now, advocates struggle to stop budget cuts to Medicaid and the NYC Health + Hospital System. In the midst of this national pandemic, every state has to exercise autonomy. But for years, public and private sectors have invested millions on studies relating to health disparities in New York City, showing that the more money you have the better healthcare you will receive. 

Before COVID-19, there were many studies showing a lack of services in key zip codes, but nothing was done to address it. Only now, when a vaccine is finally being distributed, are elected officials paying attention to the health disparities that have affected communities of color for decades, and money is being allocated to the tracing efforts necessary of infected New Yorkers who were already living below the poverty line. 

No one can say that we are “all in this together” when so many people are continuously robbed of quality health care. When the coronavirus has been contained and we can finally get back to living a semblance of the lives we remember, changes to the way health care organizations are funded needs to be changed to ensure all communities have access to the care they need. Only then will we be able to ensure all New Yorkers can lead a healthy life and truly be ready for the next pandemic.

Miosotis Munoz is a proven community advocate and non-profit leader who has worked in the healthcare and education sectors, and for several elected officials in New York City for almost three decades. She resides in Upper Manhattan.

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Now More Than Ever, New York City Must Prioritize Investing More in Public Education

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Schools need computers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

On November 20, a City Council hearing revealed that 60,000 students still lacked an internet-enabled device from the Department of Education (DOE) to participate in remote learning, which had begun more than eight months prior. That number of students lacking sufficient technology only grows when you include students who lack headphones, keyboards, or other critical pieces of technology that allow students to work in homes shared with other siblings and parents learning and working remotely.

This current situation is unacceptable and untenable, and it raises questions about how we ended up in this predicament in the first place. As a teacher for over two decades, I know firsthand that this current technology crisis, resulting in tens of thousands of students lacking access to a basic education, is in actuality the result of years of chronic under-funding of our schools — the pandemic has merely intensified the problems that have existed for years. Now more than ever, we must acknowledge the lack of investment that has been made and commit to dramatically increased funding to guarantee a world-class public education to all children in our city.

In the year 2020, it is inexcusable that schools were not already equipped with adequate technology for all students before this pandemic. Far too many schools have just a handful of laptop carts that get shuffled among classrooms so the few computers can be shared by all. Of those devices, many have not been maintained, running with slow operating speeds or with missing keys and cords.

Some students have never typed an essay before their first class in college, and many do not have the opportunity to develop the digital literacy skills that are expected of modern jobs. This neglect in basic computer and digital literacy, compounded with learning loss from the current technology gap, will undoubtedly have long-term consequences in skill development as well as later academic and job performance.

At my school, PS6 in Brooklyn, I’ve successfully fought for modern technology for my students, including a state-of-the-art Mac computer lab, so that students have the opportunity to be 21st-century learners and thinkers. The Common Core Standards themselves outline that elementary school students should be able to successfully “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources,” “make strategic use of digital express information,” and “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others” in order to meet college and career readiness standards.

Students cannot achieve these goals without access to technology. While I’m proud of expanding computer access at my school, the fact that I had to advocate so aggressively is a problem in and of itself — it should be the norm that all students have access to modern, high-quality technology since it would be impossible for them to accomplish today’s learning priorities without it.

Unfortunately, the chronic underfunding of our public schools extends beyond technology, and the pandemic has also highlighted other areas where we have underinvested, including in building infrastructure. At the beginning of this school year, dozens of classrooms were identified as unusable during the pandemic because they either had no windows or windows that only opened a few inches. Even now, many students and educators who are learning and teaching in-person are freezing in their classrooms, relying on open windows for ventilation since exhaust fans have not been replaced in years. Consistent and preventative repairs to the infrastructure of our school building is expensive, but allows for healthier, safer environments for those inside.

The fact that our public schools only have approximately 4.9 social workers, psychologists, and counselors for every 1,000 students, has also been amplified during this pandemic, as students cope with the trauma of COVID-19. The National Association of Social Workers recommends that there should be “one school social worker to each building serving up to 250 general education students” but also notes that a lower ratio, such as 1:50, should be used when “providing services to students with intensive needs.”

Given that 20.2% of the DOE’s student population receives special education services and considering the adverse experiences of the past year, school support staff to student ratios in New York City should undoubtedly fall well below the 1:250 threshold. New York City has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic and over the past nine months, our students have been through a range of experiences from confusion and uncertainty to grief and trauma.

With over 24,000 individuals lost to the virus and more than 1.5 million who have filed for unemployment in New York City, many of our students have been impacted directly and significantly by the pandemic. Students’ loved ones may have lost jobs, been hospitalized, or even died, resulting in significant trauma. We must ensure that there is adequate social-emotional care for our students, from increasing the number of mental health care professionals in every school to offering quality professional development to teachers on trauma-informed instructional practices. These measures cost money but are essential.

Lastly, we need to ensure that our class sizes are significantly reduced so that every student can receive the individualized attention that they deserve. In New York City, our average public school class size across all grades in the 2018-2019 school year was 26.4 students. Lowering this figure would result in improved learning outcomes for our students, as reducing class size is one of the “few educational strategies shown to increase learning for all students,” according to  the U.S. Department of Education.

Decreasing class sizes means hiring more teachers, but considering that the former Chair of the Council on Economic Advisers estimated that every dollar invested in reducing class size yields about $2 in benefits, any such expenses are well worth the cost.

Without a doubt, the pandemic has taken an enormous toll on the state’s economy, with officials estimating $59 billion of revenue shortfalls through 2022. But even within a restricted budget, we must show our priorities through the way we allocate money, and prioritizing education means that school funding should not be cut. To the contrary, it should be increased.

While the Department of Education saw hiring freezes and cuts to after-school programs, wraparound services, and teacher professional development, the city’s 5,500 school safety agents are still supported by an approximately $326 million budget, a 2% increase from the prior fiscal year. Shifting funding from the New York Police Department’s School Safety Division (which is in a multi-year process of being transferred to the DOE) to expanding technology access, updating our school buildings, increasing social-emotional care, and reducing class sizes would be a direct way to reduce harm as well as increase academic support for our city’s most marginalized students.

We can also increase funding for our public schools by issuing emergency government bonds and increasing taxes on New York’s highest earners. Similar actions taken after September 11, 2001 were successful in helping the city’s economy to recover. In August, Mayor de Blasio and other lawmakers asked Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to authorize the city to borrow up to $5 billion to help close the city’s budget gaps. If granted, these funds could support a revitalization of the city’s education budget, investing now in our students as the future of our society.

Although we do not know exactly how long this public health crisis will last, we must take immediate action to fully fund our schools. Even under these challenging conditions, we must invest in the resources that every student needs to thrive. Universal access to quality education is not just a priority — it is a necessity.

Rita Joseph is an educator at PS6 Brooklyn, mother of four, and candidate for New York City Council in the 40th Council District (Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens). On Twitter @RitaJosephNYC.

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New York State Has the Resources to Halt Billions in Scheduled Budget Cuts and Reset Next Year’s Framework

Cuomo budget Mujica state

The Governor and Budget Director (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

Everyone is bracing for another difficult year, including economically, in the City and the State of New York. The financial difficulties presented by the pandemic are plain to see, including massive unemployment, a state of near emergency for the mass transit system, the decimation of small businesses, and so much more on top of the staggering loss of life.

But the financial outlook for the City and State is not as bleak as first thought. There are still difficult challenges ahead, because federal bailouts in education, Medicaid, health care, and transportation will not last forever. They are one-shots that can temporarily help State and City budgets, but it will be several years before the economy recovers. A tax increase to mitigate budget cuts and address poverty and inequality is a necessity, and there will be a robust debate on that subject this year.

But New York State now has the resources to halt billions in scheduled budget cuts, and reset the budget deficit for the coming year into a far more manageable framework.

How is this even possible?

The State Budget and Finally, Another Federal Stimulus Package Arrives
The state government’s initial plan to implement the budget adopted in April 2020 contemplated $10 billion in spending cuts, including $8 billion in local assistance, the area of the budget involving aid for local education, health care, social welfare, and transportation. The other $2 billion was for state agency operations, including colleges and universities, the prison system, the courts, and the many dozens of regular state agencies. The budget had been adopted right after Congress enacted a huge stimulus package to help the American economy as it plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic recession, and recognized New York’s own plunging economy in April 2020.

Governor Cuomo and other public officials then began their pleas to Congress to provide another round of major help for state and local governments, which continued for the rest of the year while the Republican-led U.S. Senate rebuffed a Democratic-led House of Representatives package that included large amounts of money for state and local governments. The $908 billion stimulus package just signed by President Trump includes little in the way of broad funding for state and local governments, but did include some meaningful funds for education and transportation, including $4 billion to spare the MTA from massive cuts in 2021.

New York Senator Charles Schumer, the minority leader, issued a press release describing assistance coming to the state. In addition to the MTA bailout, there is $5.8 billion in education funds, $4 billion of which is for elementary and secondary education and $1.4 billion for higher education. There are also COVID-19 health relief funds and very modest amounts for non-MTA public transportation and road and bridge work. According to Senator Schumer, states will direct disbursements of these funds. 

During the wait for additional federal funds, the Cuomo administration began withholding local assistance funds and had withheld $2.6 billion since budget adoption, through September 30, according to a November report by State Comptroller DiNapoli. The remainder of the $8 billion cut was backloaded to the final quarter of the budget year, running January 1 through March 31, 2021, in the hope of finally getting sufficient aid from the federal government to avoid these deep cuts. About $5.4 billion is technically still scheduled for reduction, but there have been other intervening developments.

The State’s Own Finances Improve
The State Comptroller’s November 2020 report estimated that, although New York’s tax revenues were down significantly from the year before, they were forecast to be $3.8 billion above the enacted budget plan through the end of the fiscal year on March 31. Effectively that means the deficit for the year is cut nearly in half. Explanations for the improvement center on the fact that, even though New York’s job loss situation has been devastating, the pain is mostly being felt by low- and moderate-income workers and households, while upper-income workers and households did not suffer anywhere near as much and their tax payments are holding up better than expected.

The State Comptroller’s November 30 cash report on state funds, issued December 18, 2020, confirmed the tax receipt improvement and said the State’s General Fund was holding $13.6 billion in cash, $7 billion above the same period in 2019. The State was in the process of repaying $1 billion from short-term borrowing it did earlier in 2020, and plans to repay the $3.4 billion remainder of that borrowing by March 31 of this year. Another major factor in the State’s healthy cash position is that it has slowed down capital spending, which traditionally has included up to $3 billion a year in cash from tax receipts transferred to state capital projects. The State borrows substantial funds for capital projects, but also uses cash for a portion of its capital spending. At least $1 billion less in cash was transferred to capital projects in 2020, in part due to a pause in spending of this nature.

Another positive development for the State involves the federal Health and Human Service Administration’s continued extension of Emergency Medicaid Enhanced Reimbursement for state governments. Originally part of the first big federal bailout, which replaced portions of state Medicaid spending with federal dollars through June 30, HHS has continued the enhanced funding through December 31, and then again to March 31. The latest extension into the final quarter of the State’s fiscal year brings another $750 million in financial relief to New York state government.

Watchdogs Criticize Lack of Transparency
It should be noted that all fiscal year the State Division of the Budget has provided little in the way of specifics in its spending reductions, as to what areas of the budget are getting reduced, and what local governments and school districts are getting cuts and how much. A coalition of 20 advocacy groups called on the governor and the Division of the Budget to provide meaningful transparency for spending actions and decisions following a December 16 press conference by Governor Cuomo. I urged a similar disclosure process in my first column about this state budget, in April, as had the Citizens Budget Commission at the time.

Current Year Cuts Can Be Halted
The combination of greater than expected state tax revenue and newly-available federal education and Medicaid funds effectively eliminates the need to implement the backloaded remainder of the state budget cuts still on the books from the State’s original financial plan. This assumes the State would “permanetize” the first $2.6 billion in cuts, and eliminate the remaining $5.4 billion tentatively still scheduled. With $3.8 billion in additional tax revenue, only $1.6 billion in cuts would be left. Education is about 40% of local assistance spending, so the State could use $640 million in new federal education aid as a replacement for state dollars, and the extra quarter of federal Medicaid funding of $750 million to replace state dollars. The State has sufficient cash to cover the rest. This would still leave the State with more than $3 billion in federal education aid for the coming budget, as well as $1.4 billion in higher education funds. The State could also help school districts, colleges, and universities with emergency needs now.

What about the $2.6 billion already cut? The problem here is that the State has been counting the cuts to help address a gigantic deficit for the coming fiscal year, which begins April 1. If the State were to take federal funds or its excess cash and backfill the cuts it has already made, rather than permanetizing those cuts, it would add $2.6 billion to next year’s budget gap, rather than being counted toward reducing spending against the gap. That gap was estimated to be $16.7 billion in the State Budget Office’s Mid-Year Update, before the current fiscal year spending adjustments. Instead, it is possible to look forward to see how the changing economic and federal aid picture offers a reset for the coming fiscal year’s budget.

What About the 2021-2022 State Budget?
The State Comptroller November tax receipts forecast for the 2021-22 state budget projected $4.1 billion more in tax revenue than previously forecast, bringing the projected deficit next fiscal year to $12.6 billion. The State Division of the Budget constructed next year’s gap to begin at $16.7 billion, but with implementation of the planned $8 billion in budget cuts, the 2021-2022 deficit would come down to $8.7 billion.

The reset begins with using the comptroller’s forecast revenue improvement of $4.1 billion, and the current year spending reduction of $2.6 billion, to bring the coming deficit from $16.7 billion to $10 billion. That is still very sizable.

While a $10 billion deficit next fiscal year is substantial, having $3-4 billion in federal elementary, secondary, and higher education dollars to replace state dollars and assure stable funding for education in the coming budget puts New York in a dramatically improved position. A budget hole of a similar amount would re-appear in 2022-23, but a year’s worth of overall economic improvement and the end of COVID-19 would also go a long way toward restoring the State’s financial and economic health.

A CBC Recommendation with Good Value
Every year the State uses about $3 billion in regular tax receipts to pay for capital projects in cash, substituting for a portion of the borrowed funds that make up most of the capital budget. The State also has extra dedicated tax receipts that go specifically to pay for capital projects for the environment and parks. As mentioned, during this past year’s tough times, the State reduced some of its capital spending and held on to some of the cash it normally uses for capital projects.

In a May 2020 review of the recently adopted state budget, the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) recommended a significant overhaul of state capital spending. The primary recommendation was to issue bonds to pay for substantial capital spending now paid for in cash. CBC recommended both paring back some low-value capital spending and borrowing. The cash saving reaches $3 billion in the coming 2021-2022 fiscal year. This would not be a one-shot saving where the State would have to find the same amount of money the following year, but a real policy change. Yes, it would be adding to the State’s debt load. The State could do this only for a few years until a broader recovery was under way to minimize future increased debt. But the State would have several billion dollars each year available for several years.

Using federal education dollars and bonding out more capital projects, with the values of each of those options in the $3 billion range, brings next fiscal year’s deficit down another $6 billion. This completely resets the framework for addressing next year’s problems. Instead of the already-reduced $10 billion, the deficit would be $4 billion.

As I indicated, federal resources would still be providing billions for the current and next year’s budget and that will not last forever, though there could be additional federal money headed to New York. Fortunately, though, even as-is the funding gives New York State and City more time to address the struggles New Yorkers are facing. At least that’s a bit of good news to start 2021.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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CUNY’s Adjunct Faculty Should Have the Same Job Protections as New York’s Fast-Food Workers

CUNY graduates ceremony caps gowns

CUNY grads (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

There’s an unwarranted assumption that workers with college degrees are at the top of the heap in terms of not only earnings but also rights and dignity. Despite the obvious benefits of desk work, especially work that can be done remotely during a pandemic, the fact is that many highly-educated workers in New York City are plagued by the same low wages and lack of job security that fast-food workers have been fighting for years. Such is the plight of 15,000 Adjunct Faculty who teach hundreds of thousands of students at City University of New York (CUNY).

Most workers in this country are what is known as “at will” employees. That means they can be fired any day for any reason, no matter how long they have been on the job, no matter how good their work is. “At will” employees can lose their livelihood if the boss doesn’t like red shoes, they need three days off to care for a sick family member, or the employer simply finds someone else who will do the work at a cheaper wage. And if the employer needs to cut the workforce for any reason, they have the complete discretion to choose whom to layoff, and how. The worker who has labored for ten years, or, for thirty, has no “right” to their job.

At one time, many more workers in this country were in unions, and traditionally among the first areas those unions addressed in contracts with management were ways to institutionalize job security rights. But as employers have discovered wrinkles in national labor laws that enable them to resist unionization, the number of unionized workers has decreased and job precarity has grown. Especially for low-wage workers of large employers – McDonalds, Walmart – no one seriously thinks those workers will be able to form unions anytime soon.

And so, some unions, among them the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have trail-blazed fighting for legislative rights for workers if contractual ones cannot be secured. SEIU notably pioneered the “Fight for 15,” the struggle to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Now, its work has resulted in two remarkable new pieces of New York City legislation protecting workers at any fast-food restaurant with more than 30 outlets nationwide.

One bill just recently passed by the New York City Council directs that when layoffs or reduction of hours occur for economic reasons, they must take place in order of seniority, so that longevity in a job provides protection and security from reduction of income. The other recently-passed bill requires that, after a probationary period, workers can only be fired through “due process” and for “just cause”— meaning that the employer must be able to show an arbitrator – a neutral third party – that the worker violated some “policy, rule or practice,” and that the employer impartially applied a disciplinary process leading to discharge. Again, these protections apply only to workers at fast-food restaurants that are part of chains with more than 30 outlets nationwide.

Along with New York State’s earlier doubling of the minimum wage, we see a consistent pattern: New York’s state and city governments are now establishing by law the types of work protections that used to be secured by workers mostly when they were able to organize themselves into unions. The extension of these basic job protection rights to those not in labor unions is both heartening and amazing.

But if these protections are vital for fast-food workers, why stop there? For decades, the proportion of college faculty who are “contingent” or “at-will” has been growing. There’s even a term for them: the “academic precariat.” At New York City’s massive public university system, CUNY, the majority of the faculty are now job-insecure.

Both of us have been teaching for several years at Lehman College, part of the CUNY system. One of us has a PhD and the other is just finishing a doctoral dissertation. But because we were hired as “adjunct faculty,” we have learned that, as the saying goes, those degrees and $2.75 will get us on the subway. While we belong to a union, it has been able to make just a little headway on job security. The protection that fast-food workers just won is far more comprehensive.

After CUNY laid off over 2,000 adjunct faculty this fall – about 15% of our numbers – only one of us is working and the future is uncertain. How that process unfolded, how decisions were made as to who would retain employment, is a complete mystery.

While many department chairs strive to keep long-serving adjunct faculty on payroll and protect those who gain health insurance through this job, there is no contractual obligation. In fact, at some campuses it seems the most senior adjunct faculty were specifically targeted for layoff, perhaps because they make a few dollars more. (And we do mean “a few”: most of us make less than $5,500 for every course we teach.) If seniority can be applied to fast-food workers, why not us?

Even in more normal times, our employers make unilateral decisions about who retains their job and how many courses we teach. Our employer answers to no one, explains to no one, and certainly does not need to prove just cause when deciding to simply not call us back for the next semester. It is wrong for any worker to be treated this way.

CUNY is small potatoes next to multi-billion-dollar corporations like McDonalds and KFC, and our City Council has now compelled those corporations to treat their workers with dignity and respect. Can the Council extend the same basic work protections to the faculty whose mission is to help the youth of New York gain a college education? Like fast-food workers, we deserve due process after a probationary period and the same right to a written explanation and legal recourse if we are dismissed. Like them, we want our employer to be compelled to prove economic necessity before laying off teachers and reducing the number of classes for students. Like them, the first hired should be the last to be laid off and the first to be rehired.

Whenever adjunct faculty complain about low wages or lack of job security and a career track, we are told that no one can stop the “adjunctification” of the university. But many things seem impossible until someone does them. In this city, people have come to recognize fast-food employees as “essential workers,” and that surely helped the Council to muster the courage to make this move. Imagine this for CUNY adjunct faculty. As John Lennon said, it's easy if you try.

Ruth Wangerin is an adjunct assistant professor scheduled to teach courses on gender and on culture, with a focus on the agroecology movement, in the Lehman College Anthropology Department. Marc Kagan is currently teaching about racial inclusion and exclusion in the Lehman College History Department and is finishing his Ph.D. on New York’s transit workers.

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We Have a New Tool to Remove Guns from Abusers; We Must Use It to Save Lives

table of guns mayors office

Guns (photo: Mayor's Office)

2020 has been a devastating year for people across the globe, especially right here in New York City. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly dangerous for people in homes where there is intimate partner violence — an epidemic that has only grown worse this year. Although there have been fewer reported domestic violence crimes in New York City this year than previous years, advocacy groups and survivor hotlines have been flooded with more calls than any time in history. The truth is that domestic violence incidents aren’t actually declining, they are going unreported — a dangerous trend that is leaving many survivors with fewer places to turn as they remain trapped at home with their abusers.

Intimate partner violence is even more deadly if the abuser possesses a gun. Thankfully, a recently-enacted provision of the New York Family Court Act offers a solution to some of the most dire cases, but only if advocates, lawyers, and judges educate the public and actively use this provision to better protect at-risk families.

Each month, an average of 53 women across the country are shot and killed by a partner. Between 2010 and 2017, intimate partner gun homicides shot up by 26% in the United States. For Black women in particular, the reality is even more dire. A 2017 CDC study found that Black women are twice as likely as white women to be fatally shot by their partners. Domestic violence may not be a uniquely American crisis, but in many ways gun violence in the home is, and the situation is deadly.

New York has long had some of the most comprehensive gun laws in the United States, and as of this November these protections finally have the possibility to extend to domestic violence survivors in an under-reported and little-acknowledged legal change.

Now, when a family member knows that there is a gun in the home and seeks an Order of Protection from our Family Courts or Criminal Courts, the court can authorize a search for a gun. In the past year alone, prior to this important addition to the law, the New York City Sheriff served nine such orders of protection from other states, resulting in the removal of eight guns from New York City homes.

When law enforcement serves such orders of protection on the abusive person, the search warrants provision of the order of protection — based on probable cause like any other search warrant — permits law enforcement to inquire about whether there is a gun in the home, and ultimately, if necessary, to search the home and remove the gun(s). But this provision only works if victims both know that it is an option, and feel comfortable disclosing that there is a gun in the home — no small task for someone dealing with the trauma of an abusive home.

As a former assistant district attorney, I’ve responded to heartbreaking scenes of domestic violence, gun violence, and murder. I’ve worked alongside survivors to seek justice, accountability, and safety for themselves and their families. I have found time and again that domestic violence victims are often uncomfortable or skeptical towards the courts system, and that this can be compounded when English may not be their first language, or they may fear immigration or other consequences to themselves or their family.

For such victims, disclosing information about abuse is incredibly challenging, and very few victims are likely to volunteer that there is a gun in the home without prompting. To more fully protect families, judges, lawyers, and advocates should be educated about this new law, and should take a trauma-informed and culturally-sensitive approach to inquiring specifically in every case about the presence of guns in the home.

Policies like this save lives and provide an added measure of safety for survivors of domestic abuse. Joining other states in authorizing judges to issue search warrants as part of orders of protection and allowing law enforcement to remove guns from the homes of those who have an order of protection against them was common sense and long overdue. As we close 2020 and welcome a new year, judges, lawyers, and domestic violence advocates finally have an overdue tool to get guns out of the hands of people who would turn them against their loved ones.

But we cannot expect victims to ask for this provision alone. They deserve our help. Let’s work together to get guns out of abusive households — people’s lives depend on it.

Lucy Lang is a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, former Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, and is a Democratic candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @LucyLangNYC.

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The Mayor Must Immediately Create a Just Reentry System for Those Leaving City Jails

de Blasio prison reentry programming

The mayor at a pre-pandemic jail to jobs (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as another reminder that New York is a tale of two cities. The wealthy and elite were largely able to sequester themselves safely during the height of the pandemic and resume city life once infection rates went down. Many may again be removing themselves as cases rise. But the most vulnerable New Yorkers are still left without basic supports and services.

This is especially true for people released from city jails and detention centers. They were ignored when they were behind bars, where COVID spread at alarmingly higher rates than the rest of the city. Now, with the pandemic still with us and possibly worsening again, these New Yorkers leave the despair and neglect of jail to only once again have their needs discarded as they reenter society. We demand the needs of our formerly incarcerated fellow New Yorkers be met. There can be no equity and equality until we treat all individuals as human beings.

When COVID-19 hit, protecting people behind bars was largely dismissed. People who are incarcerated were largely ignored, even though, as The Legal Aid Society reported, city and state correctional facilities rapidly became epicenters of the virus.

Rapidly soaring covid cases in jails like Rikers and others forced attention to that population and calls to release incarcerated people to protect them from the dangerous conditions that left so many vulnerable to the virus.  The city responded by releasing 1,400 people between March 25 and May 3. As of September 22, over 1,950 people had been released.

This may sound like a good outcome, but in fact the release of incarcerated people during the pandemic has exposed more sharply the injustice of New York City’s reentry programs.

People are released from New York City jails without the basic tools they need to reenter society, including a valid I.D., which is essential for securing housing and other services. Those returning home lack sufficient medication or immediate access to Medicaid coverage due to bureaucratic hurdles preventing the immediate transfer of their medication from jail. Perhaps most shocking of all, many people leave jail, despite the extraordinarily high risk of contracting the virus behind bars, which of course threatens to lead to further community spread given how many people come in and out of our jails.

These basic services could be addressed by the Mayor, who can utilize the IDNYC program to provide a valid ID and effectively transition people’s healthcare upon release from Rikers, while also mandating COVID-19 testing during the reentry process. To further ensure that New Yorkers can get their lives back on track once they leave jail, we must provide safe and stable housing options. Unfortunately, our very own government discriminates against formerly incarcerated individuals through the NYCHA permanent exclusion rule, which can prevent those with criminal records from securing tenancy. We must end this regressive and harmful policy, which disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

We must also pair this change with an increase in affordable housing for those in the reentry process, and the city can and must increase the value of its housing voucher program to meet the fair market rates for housing unit rental prices, while also supporting existing City Council legislation to ban source-of-income discrimination from private landlords.

Establishing a just and wholesome reentry program is essential if we want formerly incarcerated people to fully return to society safely and prevent the recidivism that plagues our prisons and jails. So, Mr. Mayor: What are you waiting for?

Rabbi Barat Ellman is an anti-racism and criminal justice reform activist; a member of CAMMEERR, Children of Abraham, Martin, Malcolm, Ella, Emma, Rosa and Rose, a multiracial, cross-faith group; and of the Faith Leaders for Just Reentry Coalition of Trinity  Church of Wall Street. Shawanna Vaughn is an activist, advocate, and organizer for human rights, and the Executive Director of Silent Cry. On Twitter @BaratEllman & @SilentcrySv.

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It’s Time to Bridge New York’s Digital Divide — Here’s How

students wifi internet laptops

Getting students connected is one part (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

Despite millions of dollars spent and a variety of initiatives undertaken, too many New Yorkers still lack reliable online access at a time when it is more important than ever.

Reliable and fast connectivity is not a privilege, it’s essential. Without it, homes and businesses simply cannot succeed amid this public health crisis, which has forced many to live much of their lives virtually – from remote working and telehealth, to online learning, shopping, and socializing.  

The need to close the digital divide is now a mandate for elected officials at all levels of government. The telecommunications industry is eager to improve service across the state. Unfortunately, a patchwork of regulations stymie investments.

For example, a fee implemented on the fiber in municipal rights-of-way, passed as part of the 2019-20 state budget, makes it cost prohibitive to expand online service to areas most in need. Underground fiber provides the backbone of a strong online network. Also, a recently proposed E-LEARN bill would layer on additional costs. In addition, state lawmakers have twice rejected the governor’s proposed statewide plan to streamline permitting of small cells, the technology necessary to facilitate the deployment of the next generation of wireless connectivity, known as 5G. 

Students across the state face immense challenges getting online as schools shifted to all-virtual instruction in so many cases. Over 700,000 students and 18,000 teachers reportedly lack adequate connectivity, and the problem is particularly acute among Black and brown communities.  

In New York City alone, 40% of households across the five boroughs don’t have both home and mobile internet connections while 18% have neither.

5G will help address the digital divide with faster speeds, expanded capacity, and lower latency. The vast majority of Americans – 81% in 2019 – own a smartphone, making mobile devices an opportunity to address lack of connectivity, especially for young people, low-income individuals and people of color, who are more likely to rely on a smartphone as their primary means of online access.

Corporate philanthropy has rallied to help students in need throughout the pandemic, offering free or reduced-rate internet and donating WiFi hotspots and laptops. Now, elected officials and policy-makers need to facilitate the buildout of a small cell network that will increase coverage, capacity, and advance 5G. To do so, New York City must open a long-awaited reservation period – the time when authorized companies are allowed to bid on the right to use and lease city infrastructure (street and traffic lights and utility poles) to install telecommunications boxes and antennae — and the state Legislature must remove the barriers to deployment.

Reliable online service capable of transmitting large amounts of data is also critical to the success of telehealth, use of which increased exponentially in the pandemic’s early days and shows no signs of abating in popularity. NYC Health + Hospitals, for example, announced its telehealth visits had soared from just 500 in mid-March to more than 235,000 televisits by early June. Telehealth not only helps reduce costs, but also improves access to care in underserved rural areas. But good internet is essential.

Experts predict it will take years for New York and the nation to recover from the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. Next-generation connectivity has the power to transform almost every aspect of modern life and the ability to generate millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs across the state.  

Remote working, telehealth, online learning, commerce, entertainment and essential services, like 911, are all dependent on connectivity. However, we face many obstacles with expanding wired and wireless networks. If the city and state are serious about addressing the digital divide, keeping residents safe, and setting businesses up for success, it is well past time to think bigger than simply making internet subscriptions more affordable. We need the tools capable of ushering us into a world of virtual possibility – we need to enhance the current 4G infrastructure and deploy 5G.

Ana Rua is Government Affairs Manager at Crowne Castle.

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A Trumpian Push to Overturn the Will of New York City Voters

voters kid polls

Voters having their say (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

While much of the nation is focused on Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the will of the voters in the presidential election through court challenges, delays, and proposed do-overs, a small group of politicians is seeking to do something similar in New York City.

At the beginning of 2019, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson established a Charter Revision Commission consisting of appointees of the Mayor, the Speaker, the Comptroller, the Public Advocate, and all the Borough Presidents. That Commission voted 13-2 to recommend, among other proposals, a new system of voting in city party primaries and special elections, called Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV). Only the Staten Island Borough President’s appointee and one of the Speaker’s four appointees voted against the proposal. RCV was then approved by almost 75% of those voting in the November 2019 municipal election and is now law in New York City, applicable to all City Council, Borough President, and city-wide primary and special elections. It’s set to take effect in 2021 when New Yorkers will elect a new roster of city government officials, including a new Mayor.

This is the way RCV works: voters choose up to five candidates running in a given race in their order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the first place votes, that candidate wins. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the one with the lowest number of first place votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are distributed to the second place choices of their voters. If no candidate still receives more than 50% of the votes, the remaining candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their votes allocated to their voters’ second-place choices, and so on until a candidate receives a majority of the votes.

RCV is increasingly employed in municipal and state elections around the country because the method has many advantages. It avoids costly runoff elections and assures that a candidate has significant support among a majority of voters. With the city providing an 8-1 match for certain campaign funds, hundreds of candidates are competing in City Council primaries and special elections this coming year. In a crowded race, absent RCV, a special interest-backed City Council candidate could win with less than 10% of the vote and without truly representing the interests of district residents. 

At a time when our city faces daunting financial, social equity, policing, and economic recovery challenges, we can ill afford to have elected officials who do not broadly reflect the sentiments of their constituents. We need city-wide, borough-wide, and City Council representatives who can work together to heal the city as we come out of this destructive pandemic that has wreaked disproportionate havoc on our most vulnerable residents, small businesses, and much more. 

Ranked-choice voting makes this possible. Candidates will not only have to appeal to their core voters,  but also to a larger audience in order to attract second, third, fourth, and fifth preferences because, in a large field, no candidate is likely to garner 50% of the first-choice votes. Not only will this produce more civilized and democratic campaigns, but may also produce better ideas that can inform city governance beginning in 2022.

And, yet, some are now belatedly seeking to overturn or delay RCV. Are they motivated by the public or their own self-interest? Some opponents argue that voters of color won’t understand RCV and will leave their second through fifth choices blank. Huh? Most studies have shown that RCV actually benefits candidates of color. In San Francisco, which just recently implemented the system, London Breed, a Black woman, was elected Mayor, thanks in part to RCV.  

Others say that the New York City Board of Elections is not prepared to implement the system, despite assurances otherwise from the Board’s Executive Director.  There are now reports that county political party organizations, which appoint the BOE’s Commissioners, are attempting to put pressure on their appointees to get the Board to propose a delay. And, there has been an attempt to get the City Council to somehow reverse the recently-approved City Charter change incorporating RCV based on public approval last year. Some opponents have sought relief from the courts. The State Supreme Court recently denied a request for a restraining order to prevent RCV from being implemented in the special election to be held on February 2 in Queens for a City Council seat, which will be RCV’s first implementation in New York City.  

Do these audacious, last-minute efforts to overturn the will of the voters sound somewhat like what we are seeing coming out of the White House?

Sadly, as with Donald Trump, these efforts are not expected to abate. However, as Justice Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If the public fully understands the mechanics of ranked-choice voting and its advantages, it will be effectively implemented.  The responsibility for educating the public rests with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which says it is fully prepared to launch an education campaign.  With the first Special Election scheduled in six weeks, a major educational campaign is already underway in that district, thanks to the efforts of Common Cause NY.

With two more special City Council elections coming in March and others to follow, the time to launch a citywide campaign is now. Civic organizations should augment the public education effort with their own campaigns, as they did with the successful effort to get New Yorkers to participate in the 2020 Census.

The main event will come in June when we will have primary elections for all city-wide, borough-wide, and City Council races. By then voters should be fully knowledgeable as to how the new system works and we are confident that it will lead to more democratic and healthy campaigns, more pleased voters and empowered elected officials, and a new city government that can work together for the benefit of all its residents.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from through 2008 through 2018, held a number of other roles in and out of government, and is now a columnist for Gotham Gazette. Carl Weisbrod has held many roles in and out of city government, was a member of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, and is now a senior advisor at HR&A.

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