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Op-Ed: Stop-And-Frisk From A Mother's Perspective


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I often wonder if I have what it takes to raise my black son in New York City.

While concerns about navigating public school application processes and scheduling play dates are common topics among parents, what often goes unspoken is something far more important: the unique challenges that come with parenting a young boy of color in New York City.

With nothing promised for young blacks and Latinos other than low expectations, street violence, negative peer influences and persistent police suspicion, how do we make sure that that our sons grow up safe and thriving? One step is putting an end to stop-and-frisk.

The New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy and all of its implications on crime and race are now at the forefront of political and social conversation.

With a decision pending in Floyd v. New York City, a high profile federal case challenging these practices, along with relentless community activism and a hotly contested mayoral campaign, now is the time to push for leadership that acknowledges the crisis in policing and proposes criminal justice policies and social reforms that will actually keep our young people safe without criminalizing them.

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In a recent mayoral debate, Bill Thompson, the only candidate to address this issue from the perspective of parenting a black son, said “I’m the one who has to worry about my son getting shot on the streets of New York … And at the same point, I don't have to sacrifice his constitutional rights to make sure he is safe … I can have them both."

As a parent, I worry about my son’s safety. As a lawyer, I worry about his rights. Stop-and-frisk promotes neither.

In this climate of heated discussion, the mayoral candidates must acknowledge that stop-and-frisk has proven so damaging and polarizing a practice that it has become New York City’s civil rights issue of the day. Those vying for New York City’s top office must articulate proposals for credible alternatives to stop-and-frisk policing that go beyond weak promises to train police in cultural sensitivity and professionalism.

New York’s next mayor can learn from the successes of other cities that have developed anti-gang initiatives, gun control programs and community collaborations.

Ironically, proponents of stop-and-frisk often cite parental desire for increased youth safety as one of the most compelling reasons for continuing this policy. Like all mothers and fathers, parents of young men of color want their children safe from drugs, violence, and many of the other harmful influences of New York City’s streets.

Yet, draping stop-and-frisk in emotional appeals to safety overshadows its damaging reality. Moreover, those arguments overlook evidence showing that the decline in serious crime in New York City cannot be directly attributed to stop-and-frisk.

While violent crimes fell 29 percent in New York City from 2001 to 2010, other large cities that do not rely on an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy — such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and New Orleans — experienced larger declines in violent crime. In terms of illegal gun recovery, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, from 2003 to 2012, the NYPD increased stops by 372,060, but recovered only 96 more guns, amounting to an additional recovery rate of 0.02 percent.

In fact, in 2011, the NYPD recovered illegal guns four times more often through methods not involving street stops.

Young black and Latino men are indisputably the targets of stop-and-frisk. Male youth of color between the ages of 14 and 24 comprise less than 5 percent of this city’s population, yet they accounted for 41 percent of stops in 2012.

Appallingly, more than 90 percent of black and Latino youth stopped by the police were innocent of any wrongdoing.

These unwarranted stops are not without consequence.

Most critiques of stop-and-frisk focus on damaged police-community relationships and the fraying of youths’ willingness to assist police investigations. While these are significant costs, parents should also consider the emerging evidence of the emotional and psychological harm caused by these often disrespectful, humiliating, and threatening interactions.

Nicholas Peart, a young black man named as one of the plaintiffs in the Floyd suit, gave a first person account of the toll of being stopped and frisked: “Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.”

There are many facts of life that I am prepared to teach my young son. This should not be one of them.

Nicole Smith Futrell is a clinical law professor in the Criminal Defense Clinic of Main Street Legal Services at the City University of New York School of Law.

Shining A Bright Light On Government Spending


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Some say the West Coast has the best beaches, the Midwest has the friendliest people, and that you can't beat the cheesesteaks in Philly.

But financial transparency? Fugghedaboudit. New York City’s got everyone beaten by a mile.

That’s not just our opinion. That’s the view of the United States Public Interest Research Group, which in January named New York City the most transparent municipal government in the nation on the strength of Checkbook NYC, a website created by my office that allows users to view City spending.

Recently, however, we took steps to share the honor: we made the source code for CheckbookNYC.com freely available to every government that wants it.

This “open source” release means that cities and states across the country can leverage our investment in Checkbook NYC to create similar websites of their own.

We hope other places will like New York-style transparency, and we think they will.

On CheckbookNYC.com, you can find comprehensive, up-to-date information about the money that flows into or out of the City’s accounts. Details about spending, contracts, payroll, budget, revenue — it’s all there.

And the site is accessible to techies and luddites alike. Search functionality, graphic visualizations, and an intuitive interface make it easy for anyone to become a fiscal watchdog.

We built it for a simple reason: shining a bright light on government spending helps root out waste and ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely.

When governments know that their spending decisions can be easily scrutinized, they are more likely to use their resources prudently.

The site has the potential to save taxpayers big bucks. Imagine: If Checkbook NYC encourages the City’s decision-makers to rethink just one-tenth of one percent of our annual $70 billion budget, that’s a $70 million savings.

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And that’s just for starters. The site can further drive costs down by encouraging competition among vendors and serving as an early warning system for projects that start to go over budget.

We aren’t giving the code away just out of the goodness of our hearts — we’re nice, but not that nice. We also want to mobilize the collective talents of local governments and technology engineers to improve upon what we’ve created so far.

It’s a civic experiment that we can all benefit from. Say Los Angeles starts using Checkbook, and then develops a new way to map where tax dollars are spent; every government that uses the platform will be able to benefit from Los Angeles’ innovation.

Following this theory, the more rapidly and widely Checkbook is adopted by other states and cities, the better it will become.

To encourage widespread adoption, two of the leading providers of government accounting systems, Oracle and CGI, are building Checkbook “adapters.” Their clients — hundreds of governments across the country — will be able to feed their financial data into the Checkbook system with the flip of a switch. And the company we worked with to build the site, REI Systems, is lending their technical expertise to help get open-sourcing off the ground as well.

The code for Checkbook NYC is available on GitHub.com. Local governments and techies should take a look, and get involved.

No one’s ever going to stop debating about where to find the nicest places, friendliest people, or tastiest grub. But when it comes to financial transparency, we can work together and all become the best.

 John C. Liu is the New York City Comptroller.

Gov. Cuomo’s Tax-Free New York Initiative Makes Economic Sense


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Upstate New York was once the economic envy of the nation. We were truly the Empire State.

Triggered initially by the public-private partnership that built the Erie Canal and later maintained by the construction of the New York State Thruway, companies such as Kodak, IBM, Carrier, General Electric, Syracuse China, General Motors, and Chrysler built major plants employing thousands of workers. Today, most of those manufacturing plants are closed and the jobs are gone.

Over the past several decades, we have seen economic development proposals ranging from casinos to hydraulic fracturing. Nothing has worked, and upstate New York remains stuck in the financial mud.

A new approach is needed if New York State is to grow again.

Increasingly, most of the world’s economic growth can be found in what we call the brain based economy — a marriage of education, high tech, and the design (not the manufacture) of consumer products.

Silicon Valley in Northern California and the Route 128 corridor around Greater Boston are perhaps the best known and most successful examples of economic growth fueled by combining the research and education capacity of first-rate universities, the entrepreneurial spirit of their graduates, and tax incentives provided by state and local governments.

Other states and localities took notice and have successfully copied the model— so successfully that Forbes magazine's recent ranking of best cities for high tech jobs placed Silicon Valley at number seven behind Seattle, the Washington D.C., metropolitan area, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Baltimore and Jacksonville, Fla. All these cities have used lower taxes, education, and available land adjacent to higher education research centers as the formula for economic growth.

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New York State and New York City have begun to move in this direction. Last month, the New York City Council approved the construction of a $2 billion Cornell University Technology campus and office complex on Roosevelt Island made possible by a grant of free land and up to $100 million in improvements from the city. In Harlem, the city’s Economic Development Corp. is developing space to rent to new biotech firms. Our own university is constructing a new Mind, Brain and Behavior research complex on its new campus in West Harlem, and companies like Google and Yahoo are flocking to New York City.

Upstate, in Albany, the SUNY and the State have partnered to create the now world-renown College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, where students, faculty and private firms work together and separately to conduct education, pure research and cutting-edge commercial nano-industry products.

CSNE is now bringing this model to projects in Utica, Rochester and Buffalo. In Syracuse, the State and local governments are assisting Upstate Medical University to work with a private developer to create a mixed-use, medical and high tech research, housing and retail complex called Loguen’s Crossing on the site of an abandoned public housing project.

In May, the governor announced “Tax-Free NY,” offering new businesses an opportunity to operate completely free of New York state taxes for 10 years if they locate and partner at any of the SUNY campuses outside of New York City (some commercial space at private universities and 20 underutilized state assets are also eligible for the program). Those taxes that would be suspended include sales, property, and business/corporate taxes, and the employees are exempt from the state income tax for the same ten-year period.

The program already has the public support of the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, the State Conference of Mayors, and Association of Counties, the Business Council of NYS, the Partnership for New York City, the chancellor of SUNY, and senior executives from GE, IBM, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs among others.

But the program is not without its critics and doubters. CSEA, the state’s largest public employee union, sees the program as a give-away to business and unfairly beneficial to the employees of the participating companies. Others say that New York City should be included — the governor responds that it is upstate that is in most need of new jobs. The Conservative Party opposes the program because government will choose who gets the benefits and instead suggests reducing taxes on all businesses.

Academic research on the long-term benefits of tax incentives is inconclusive— time lags need to be considered to accurately assess the full impact of the incentives and firm-level data are seldom available.

Our view is that the economic situation upstate is desperate and we need to experiment with a variety of programs to see what works.

In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, another New York governor during tough times: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Gov. Cuomo has it right: we need to try things. We need action, not words.

We know that the communities having success in growing their tech and biotech industries have used strategies very similar to Tax-Free NY —leveraging their higher education system, location-based tax incentives, and public-private partnerships.

Particularly given the success of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany, New York should enact the governor’s program.

Eimicke is the founding executive director at the Picker Center for Executive Education at Columbia University. Cohen is the executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Both are professors in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

 

Op-Ed: Turning The Tide On Rent Law Enforcement


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New York’s rent regulation system is defined by two competing forces: we are a city of renters, with a proportion of tenants to home owners (two-to-one) almost the exact inverse of the national balance; we are also one the most lucrative real estate markets in the country, if not the world.

As a result, we have some of the strongest protections in the country, but our rent laws and regulations are persistently undermined by loopholes and lax enforcement.

These gaps in the rent laws are created and maintained through policy interventions. Every few years, New York’s rent laws sunset. When the legislature votes on their renewal, they attach amendments, which can either weaken or strengthen their regulatory powers. Paralleling this legislative process is a series of administrative actions, which change the way the state housing agency — New York State Homes and Community Renewal — interprets and enforces the state’s rent regulations.

For many years, New York’s rent protections were on the decline. A string of weakening amendments was added to the rent laws, making it easier for landlords to raise rents and bring apartments out of the rent regulation system. In 2000, the Pataki administration initiated a major revision of the Rent Stabilization Code, the document that guides interpretation of the rent laws, and sets policies for enforcement. In a set of changes over 150 pages long, HCR pushed through changes that were described by tenant advocates at the time as “an attempt to deregulate apartments on a wholesale basis.” Those revisions drastically reduced the agency’s ability to protect tenants and preserve affordability.

Recently, the tide has begun to turn back towards tenants. In 2011, for the first time in nearly two decades, the rent laws were renewed in Albany with strengthening rather than weakening amendments. One of the most important victories that year was a promise, written into law, that HCR would issue new regulations on rent law enforcement.

Following that announcement, tenants took action to make sure that promise was kept. They met with agency staff, testified at public hearings, and protested in front of Governor Cuomo’s office, calling for swift and definitive action.

Finally, on April 24, HCR issued their proposed regulations: a set of new guidelines touching on some of the most important issues facing tenants, from resetting fraudulent rents to stopping landlord harassment. The proposed regulations are far from comprehensive, but they are a definitive turn away from the agency’s prior orientation and an important shift towards tenant protection. They will create more tools to fight fraud and prevent rent theft.

Take the case of a renter who is currently organizing a tenants association in Washington Heights. Glenda (not her real name) moved into her apartment in 2011. She was told to sign a rider saying the apartment had left rent stabilization because the rent rose above $2,500.

After doing some research, she found that her apartment never should have been deregulated, and that the last legal rent for the apartment was just under $1,500.

Why had the apartment been deregulated? Had any significant work been done in the apartment between tenancies that could have justified that rent hike?

Glenda is currently fighting an overcharge case through HCR, which will likely take months if not years to settle.

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Under the new proposed regulations, however, the landlord would have been forced to provide documents explaining how and why the apartment became deregulated, and proved that rent increases were justified by real, documentable costs. This change would help maintain the affordability of rent stabilized apartments and prevent illegal deregulations.

There is, of course, much more the agency can do with these regulations. HCR could strengthen the succession rights of tenants, who are routinely denied the right to take over an apartment from their loved one because of minor technicalities of no fault to the tenant. They could also take the opportunity to roll back the rents of apartments that were illegally deregulated while landlords received tax breaks. HCR’s proposed regulations are an important step forward, but they alone are not enough to fully correct the giant leap backward the agency took in previous years.

On Monday June 10, HCR will hold hearings on their proposed regulations in Manhattan, Westchester and Nassau counties. The agency needs to hear from members of the public that in the current climate of rising rents and stagnant incomes, tenants need new rules for stronger enforcement.

Samuel Stein is the Rent Regulation Campaign Coordinator at Tenants & Neighbors, a grassroots organization that helps tenants build and effectively wield their power to preserve at-risk affordable housing and strengthen tenants’ rights.

Op-Ed: Poor People Can't Bank on Banking Services


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NEW YORK — There's a joke about banking: That it's only for people who don't need it.

If you really need a loan you won't qualify, but if you don't it'll always be available at a low interest rate and with a smile. Like most humor, there's truth in it.

New York City's Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development studies how the federal government's attempt under the Community Reinvestment Act to make banks serve the communities they operate in actually affects low-income neighborhoods in the city. The findings aren't very good.

Banks are bringing in record earnings but ANHD finds their investment insufficient "to truly help meet the credit needs of low- and moderate-income New Yorkers." They report the city's 23 largest banks have deposits in the city exceeding $590 billion but lend or invest only 1.35 percent of it in a way that benefits low- and moderate-income residents.

That's an amount they say is insufficient "to satisfy their obligations under the CRA."

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More is less. Deposits are up and so is lending. Again, it's just that little of it goes to low-income neighborhoods. ANHD found lending for multifamily properties is "steeply" down in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and of course low- and moderate-income people live in multifamily rental units.

CRA-qualified lending doubled in 2010 as the economy recovered but investments and lending to nonprofits in New York City decreased 30 percent.

Even given that so much "community reinvestment" bypasses moderate- and low-income people, the ANHD study asked how much reinvestment is enough.

Even with average re-investment of 1.35 percent, the study found several banks — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Sovereign, Apple Bank, Astoria, Emigrant, Ridgewood, Morgan Stanley, Deutshe and Bank of NY Mellon — each reinvested less than 1 percent of their New York City deposits in New York City.

JPMorgan reinvested just .36 percent of its more than $256 billion in city deposits and Duetsche Bank just .35 percent. Two smaller banks, Emigrant and Astoria Savings Banks, reinvested .18 percent and .15 percent respectively.

ANHD says 5 percent is a fair minimum for re-investment. That minimum would pump another $12 billion into the city's economy from JPMorgan alone.

That kind of financial investment in underserved communities is absolutely vital to those neighborhoods and residents, but it might not be the most critical thing banks fail to provide.

In the era of megabanks, too large to fail, merging and buying out smaller institutions, there's immense competition for wealth management services and private banking for multi-millionaires but diminishing interest in vital banking services for low-income and poor people.

The four biggest American megabanks — JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — have over 61 percent of all New York City deposits according to ANHD. They also have about half of all city government deposits in their banks amounting to over $230 million. But they're not looking for low-income city resident depositors.

According to the FDIC, 8 percent of American households are "unbanked," meaning they have neither a checking nor savings account. The number is as high as one in four in poor neighborhoods. It may be higher in New York City where both the poverty rate and the cost of living are higher.

Last month I submitted public comments to the Office of the Controller, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve, America's three big bank regulators, about the Community Reinvestment Act, along with Dr. Al Arterburn. Arteburn formerly worked as an economist for the federal government. We wanted to make the case that banks should provide basic services to poor and low-income Americans at affordable costs. But, of course, they usually don't.

Poor and very-low income consumers desperately need basic services like checking and savings accounts. They need them far more than high income consumers do but bank imposed minimum balances, service fees, check charges and punitive penalty fees often make it unreasonable for low-income people to establish or maintain accounts.

"The ability to open and maintain checking accounts is important to those underserved consumers because an inability to have those services requires them to utilize very expensive and sometimes predatory check cashing services, to incur expensive money order or similar charges, to endure the inconvenience and expense often involved in these services and exposes them to often unregulated and sometimes unreliable operations," we wrote.

Of course, it also makes it more difficult to pay bills on time and impossible to save.

These aren't theoretical concerns. Our letter was sent on behalf of and at the request of Care for the Homeless clients in New York City, based on their first hand experiences.

They know that without an account they can't have direct deposit forcing them to pay up to $7 to cash a check and incentivizing them to carry cash. They know not having checking means payments for necessities requires buying a money order. They know without a savings account their difficult struggle to save $5 a paycheck is likely to fail.

They've lived the unpleasant and dangerous inconveniences the inability to use direct deposit, automatic savings or on-line payments force on them.

"Pay day" loans are illegal in New York, so check cashing services in New York aren't allowed to offer them, or any loan above the state's 16 percent usury limit. "Loan-sharking" has always been illegal, yet in the cash and costly world of check cashing apparently pay day-type loans are sometimes available.

The CRA is perhaps the best tools bank regulators have to incentivize financial institutions' involvement and investment in their communities. It operates through bank regulator evaluations of individual banks performed about every 2-to-4 years.

The CRA has been used to push banks to reinvest and has helped reign in "redlining" of poor communities, the long-time practice of not offering mortgages in "bad" neighborhoods.

Though the Federal Reserve website invites comments because they and the other regulators are "currently considering what can be done to make CRA a more effective regulatory incentive going forward to address an unprecedented set of community needs," the CRA has never even rated the availability of basic banking services for underserved consumers.

Enter New York City and the "Responsible Banking Act." Enacted by City Council in 2012 by a 44 to 4 vote over the Mayor's veto, the Responsible Banking Act sets up a Community Investment Advisory Board to review how well financial institutions serve low-income neighborhoods and requires an annual report that the city Banking Commission must consider in determining which banks are eligible to get city government deposits.

Currently 25 institutions are eligible, including JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America.

There's been a glitch, though. When the New York City Banking Commission approved the current eligible depositories on May 13, 2013, it didn't take the annual review into consideration. Actually, there has been no review and no annual report.

More precisely, the Advisory Board required by statute hasn't been fully implemented and awaits appointments by city officials, including by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration.

Crain's New York Business reported last week that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn sent a letter to the Bloomberg administration urging them to select a candidate soon.

In fairness, the city has recognized the problem of lack of access to banking, too.

A 2008 city neighborhood financial services study concluded "for many low-income households, banking has become costly, unpredictable, and out of step with their actual needs" so "hundreds of thousands of New York families living on low incomes choose to remain 'unbanked' and "rely on 'fringe' financial service providers such as check cashers and pawnshops."

With 13 percent of New Yorkers unbanked, almost double the national average, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer launched the "Bank on Manhattan" program to identify better services for poor families.

The Mayor's Office of Financial Empowerment encouraged the unbanked to open accounts through their NYC Safe Start program.

But the numbers of unbanked moving to banking really hasn't moved.

This is hardly a theoretical problem. Surveys show poor "unbanked" people spend hundreds of dollars annually on check cashing and hundreds more on money orders. And what's the value of automatic savings to struggling very-low income people? Think of it as priceless.

Jeff Foreman is policy director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter at @JeffForeman2.

Op-Ed: The Coming Urban Crisis is Already Here


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“For the past several years all the ingredients have been in place for an urban crisis,” New York University's Patrick Sharkey wrote recently, in a thoughtful New York Times opinion piece calling for a national urban policy.

Professor Sharkey’s article gets it mostly right. He writes cities have suffered high unemployment and poverty rates with declining property values. It was the Great Recession in America, but the Terrible Depression for urban areas.

“And yet,” Sharkey points out, “Our cities have remained relatively quiet.” He goes on, and this is where he gets it wrong: "Public housing complexes have not fallen into disrepair, and large numbers of homeless people have not emerged on the streets.”

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Perhaps that’s true across America, though a recent trip to San Francisco makes me question the no large numbers of homeless description, but it’s not true in New York.

New York City’s Housing Authority is a $3-plus billion operation, with 178,000 units serving more than 400,000 residents. But it’s no example of property not falling into disrepair.

On the very day Professor Sharkey’s op-ed appeared, the Times also ran a story headlined “Housing Authority Is Sued Over Slow Pace of Repairs." It reported the plight of a public housing tenant who got a water leak fixed, but was left with a hole in their wall and a promise to fix it later. By later they meant 2014. Maybe.

That’s not an isolated incident. NYCHA admits to a 300,000 work order backlog, with repairs often taking two years. That’s why 300 tenants in one housing development sued NYCHA demanding repairs or civil penalties for problems from leaks, flooding, mold, electrical problems, warped floors and holes in the walls, to broken items including stoves, buzzers, toilets and doors.

There are horror stories about broken elevators elderly and disabled tenants stranded on high floors. Expect more lawsuits.

As New York City’s affordable housing shortfall increases to staggering proportions, the number of public housing units available has been shrinking. The two year repair backlog pales compared to the seven year waiting list for eligible housing applicants.

Large numbers of people experiencing homelessness have emerged — it’s more accurate to say the homelessness crisis exploded. New York’s homeless population increased over 60 percent in the last decade.

Children in city homeless shelters are up 22 percent in one year. In February, the last month we have city figures for, 55,000 people slept daily in city shelters; 22,000 of them were children. It was thousands worse the month before when it was colder. That’s the highest number in New York since … Well, ever. And it doesn’t count the thousands sleeping rough on the streets or in non-city shelters.

Starkey’s prescription isn’t more initiatives “unveiled with fanfare and then abandoned” or “a vast influx of new money," but a priority shift. He argues for ending exclusionary zoning, taking funding from incarceration to fund ex-prisoner re-entry, building police-community relations and for shifting money from mortgage interest tax deductions to investment in affordable housing.

When it comes to New York City’s public housing, affordable housing and homelessness problems, there is no need for massive new dollars either. We know what works, and over time the solutions are cheaper than what we’re doing — what isn’t working — now.

We know, and there’s a great body of research to document, that investing in adequate high-quality medical care and other services for homeless people saves significant tax dollars. It’s the “low hanging fruit” of saving money on human services.

Because many homeless people have not had access to appropriate medical care, many don’t have the habit or experience of using primary and preventative health care, or ongoing integrated treatment. Their more common experience might be getting no care until they’re very ill, then using expensive emergent care leading to avoidable and expensive inpatient treatment and hospitalizations.

A number of public health studies have concluded that homeless people are about the hardest to reach and least healthy subpopulation in most communities. Providing appropriate primary, preventative and ongoing health care to people experiencing homelessness is the biggest bang for the buck in improving health outcomes and tax savings.

It’s true in housing, too. Transitional rent subsidies to move homeless people from shelters to permanent housing isn’t just a better outcome, it’s many times less expensive. Affordable housing for very low-income people, and supportive housing for those who need it, are better outcomes and less expensive than shelters, too.

These are investments that save lives and tax dollars even without considering the better quality of life and increased productivity for the people involved and especially the value of saving children from life-time trauma and developmental delays associated with homelessness.

Jeff Foreman is the director of policy for Care for the Homeless, which helps to shelter and provide healthcare and other services to homeless individuals and families.

 

6 Months After Sandy, A Financial Disaster For Homeowners


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Yesterday marked the six-month anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, an unprecedented disaster that has left many New Yorkers still struggling to recover. Homeowners now face another unexpected hurdle: imminent default on mortgage payments, and with default, the possibility of foreclosure.

The origins of this pending crisis, ironically, trace back to measures mortgage servicers implemented in the immediate aftermath of the storm to alleviate the financial strain of repairing storm-ravaged homes. Mortgage forbearances, which allowed homeowners to defer mortgage payments for three to six months, provided some borrowers with breathing room to start rebuilding.

But as those deferred payments now come due in one lump sum, many borrowers find themselves once again at the precipice of financial insolvency.

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In the days following Superstorm Sandy, a natural disaster quickly turned into a financial one.

The storm struck a broad swath of homes throughout New York. Data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual Assistance Program, which provides grants for home repairs, indicates that over 90,000 New York homeowners sustained damage.

For some homeowners, this damage was catastrophic: nearly 10,000 homeowners suffered damage in excess of half the value of their property.

And though homeowners could turn to insurance and FEMA for assistance, securing these funds has too often entailed a protracted struggle against unresponsive agencies. Insurance adjusters and FEMA inspectors persistently undervalued damage and often denied payments, while what funds were forthcoming trickled in.

Shortly after the storm, mortgage servicers set in motion a series of policies that now imperil homeowners struggling to rebuild. At Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s prodding, state chartered banks and state registered mortgage servicers agreed on November 7 to offer forbearances of 90 days or more to these cash-strapped homeowners.

As the Superintendent of the Department of Financial Services, Benjamin Lawsky, noted at the time: “Too many people have already lost their homes or are facing difficult repairs … [w]e don’t want to add to the problem by having people lose their homes or develop financial problems because they can’t make timely mortgage payments due to the storm.”

The financial reckoning that Cuomo and Lawsky sought to stave off came anyway, though delayed.

This month many homeowners are receiving notice that their forbearances are coming to an end. And with the end of the forbearance comes a bill for up to six months worth of delayed mortgage payments.

Recognizing this impending crisis, Cuomo fired back in early March, announcing a review of mortgage servicer practices and issuing a harsh rebuke: “It would be illogical to offer that relief and now expect lump sum payments from financially-strapped homeowners … [a] homeowner who could come up with three months in mortgage payments all at once probably didn't need forbearance in the first place … [e]veryone else needs more time to repay.”

But as the deadline for repayment fast approaches, the servicers’ message to homeowners has become clear: default.

Wells Fargo, for example, requires nearly all homeowners whose forbearances are coming to an end, and who cannot afford the lump sum payment, to submit a mortgage modification application. As part of this application package, homeowners must cobble together a dizzying array of documents: signed tax returns from the past two years; proof of one month’s income; two months of bank statements; and a host of other papers, forms and certifications.

Homeowners who lost everything in the storm are scrambling to piece together an application that would be cumbersome under normal circumstances. And given what we know about delays in the servicers’ application review process, even if homeowners submit applications before their forbearances end, default still remains all but unavoidable.

Servicers like Wells Fargo, who simply recycled their regular mortgage modification procedures for Sandy-affected homeowners, have an abysmal track record in reviewing these applications, with response times usually measured in months, not weeks. Sandy-impacted homeowners can reasonably expect even greater delays.

As Cuomo said, homeowners who can afford to pay three to six months’ worth of mortgage payments did not need the forbearance in the first place. For those who did, mortgage servicers’ policies have been less than helpful. Mass default, however, can be avoided.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced extended forbearances and streamlined modifications for some homeowners. And Governor Cuomo has called on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to ease restrictive guidelines and permit banks and mortgage servicers to extend forbearances or offer non-interest bearing payments due at the end of the loan.

This latter policy in particular would provide genuine financial relief for homeowners. But with crushing payments looming, the time to act is now.

Christopher Fasano is an attorney in the New York Legal Assistance Group's Storm Response Unit. Image of homes in the Rockaways destroyed and damaged by the hurricane. Photo: Cristian Salazar. 

Op-Ed: The Next Mayor Needs To Make Affordable Housing A Priority


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Job creation, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization will likely be at the top of the next mayor’s agenda, as will the city’s schools, New Yorkers’ health and safety, and environmental protection.

Critical to tackling all of these issues will be a proven method for making a positive impact: the provision of stable, safe, and affordable housing is shown to have a profound effect on childhood development, educational performance, and health outcomes. It can also be the key to community revitalization.

New York’s next mayor must prioritize affordable housing construction as a catalyst both for economic development, and improvement in the well-being of low, moderate and middle income New Yorkers.

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New York City currently ranks near the bottom of the list of major US metro areas in housing affordability-21st out of 25, according to the Center for Housing Policy.

Without bold action, the affordability crisis will only worsen.

New York City’s growing prosperity and appeal is driving up not only the cost of rent, but also the cost of land for new affordable housing.

Most recently, Superstorm Sandy aggravated the city’s housing emergency, displacing thousands of residents from homes that were damaged or destroyed by the storm’s impact.

And while 65% of New Yorkers are renters, about 80% spend over 30% of their gross income (the minimum acceptable standard for affordability) on rent.

These severe rent burdens mean too many low and middle-income households lack safe, affordable housing options, which in turn impedes buying power, economic activity, and community development in too many of our neighborhoods.

The benefits of a strong affordable housing program are clear. A recent HR&A Advisors report, Economic Impact of Affordable Housing on New York State’s Economy, serves as the basis for recommending increased new construction in underserved areas.

According to the report, each year New York City develops over 15,000 units of affordable housing, generating nearly 27,000 jobs during construction, and $2.3 billion in economic spinoff activity. These impacts are lasting, with 4,800 new permanent jobs and $550 million in additional economic activity sustained by the city’s annual affordable housing development.

Building on the affordable housing industry’s legacy of local hiring, the new mayor should implement policies and programs that support using community-based subcontractors, minority- and women-owned enterprises and others small businesses on affordable housing projects.

The New York State Association for Affordable Housing, an association of 300 developers, architects, funders, and others active in the development and management of affordable housing, has created a New York City Mayoral Agenda, available at www.nysafah.org.

This platform proposes sound affordable housing and community development policy for the next mayoral administration. NYSAFAH’s recommendations are based on the unique perspective and expertise of New York’s City’s affordable housing development community, who have been investing in the city’s neighborhoods for over two decades. Our policy proposals will ensure the long-term sustainability of affordable housing, and the responsible use of limited public dollars.

Every New Yorker deserves access to safe, high quality affordable housing. It is imperative that our next mayor make a strong commitment to support the production and preservation of affordable housing as the city continues to grow. These investments will create jobs, grow New York City’s economy, help revitalize neighborhoods, and provide tens of thousands of residents with an affordable place to call home.

Alison Badgett is Executive Director of NYSAFAH. Martin Dunn, Founder and President of Dunn Development Corp. and Kirk Goodrich, Director of Development at Monadnock Construction, are co-chairs of NYSAFAH’s Mayoral Agenda Committee.

Opinion: An Accessible City For All


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If you've ever tried to hail a cab in Manhattan during rush hour, you know it can be frustrating. Add some rain, and it's almost impossible.

But the next time you find yourself fuming over the apparent dearth of cabs, remind yourself of this: of New York City's 13,000 cabs, only 233 are wheelchair accessible. They don't have the option of hailing a cab on a rainy day, or when running late, or simply when they need to get away from the hustle-and-bustle for a few minutes.

We New Yorkers boast that our city is made for everyone, but we fall short when it comes to accessibility.  Too many of our streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, places of business, and modes of transportation are difficult to navigate from a wheelchair, or even a walker.  As a longtime advocate for accessibility on the West Side, I strongly support Councilman Oliver Koppell's long overdue bill to replace every retiring taxi in the fleet with a new wheelchair-accessible model.

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In addition to having a fleet that is entirely wheelchair accessible, we need to keep improving and expanding the Accessible Dispatch Service, a pilot program that allows people with disabilities to call for an accessible cab. Rather than endure the excessive wait-times and high costs associated with Access-A-Ride, we could move to one taxi service that effectively serves all of us.

Comprehensive accessibility would not only improve the lives of disabled people, it would make our city better for everyone. People who use walkers, strollers, shopping carts, and luggage rollers will all have an easier time getting around. Businesses would benefits from new customers. The city would benefit from more tourists. And as our resident population ages, people would find it easier to stick around.

I am pleased that there appears to be momentum in the City Council to move toward a more wheelchair accessible taxi fleet. It's a great step toward living up to our promise: that New York is truly a city built for everyone.

Mel Wymore is co-founder of Citizens for an Accessible West Side and a candidate for New York City Council, 6th District, Upper West Side. Image by May Michaely, used under Creative Commons license. 

Op-Ed: Fight Member Item Corruption Using Participatory Budgeting


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Last week’s events call attention to the importance that each one of the fifty-one members of the city’s only legislature have in determining how we as a city spend $77.7 billion dollars, comprising the fourth largest budget in the country after the federal, California, and New York State budgets.

We are running our City Council campaign in the way we believe government should be run — with the first-ever open platform on our website that allows the electorate to submit solutions to improve the community in which they live. We believe in allowing voters the freedom to shape policy and contribute to the collective conversation by not simply being on the receiving end of a politician’s agenda, but actively helping to shape their own communities and futures. People can vote for the solutions they like, or contribute their own innovations — leading to a participatory conversation about the best way forward.

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We plan to bring the same transparency to the budget process with our year-old pledge to distribute member item funding using the participatory budgeting process that empowers local residents with the freedom to determine how their tax dollars are spent to support and improve their own communities. 

Nonprofits in the community have often fallen victim to predatory budgeting practices by members of the legislature that use member item funding. Legislators are responsible for serving their constituents, but many use member item funding to instead demand personal or political financial gain. Participatory budgeting can help end this form of corruption so that fewer non-profits will be forced to use tax dollars to benefit politicians instead of communities in need.

In the second year of the project, eight Council members are already participating allowing their community to directly decide how to spend more than $10 million in tax revenue.  Ironically, Councilman Dan Halloran, who engaged in participatory budgeting, managed to get in trouble with the member item funds that he kept to distribute on his own. This bizarre twist emphasizes that participatory budgeting cannot be treated as proof that there is no corruption or the appearance thereof.  It also raises the question of whether participatory budgeting should be mandatory and if it should be the sole vehicle for distribution of all member item funding.

Once elected, we hope to bring my experience running a nonprofit and as a technology entrepreneur to create an open infrastructure to transparently host the participatory budget process so that government has the tools to empower the community with the freedom to determine how their tax dollars are spent.

This year has the opportunity to bring sweeping change to city government. We can create a new system where residents are empowered and enfranchised, diluting the old Albany culture of pay-to-play and tit-for-tat corruption. Let’s not squander the opportunity.

Benjamin Kallos is the executive director of a leading good government group, entrepreneur, attorney, and the former chief of staff for Assemblyman Jonathan Bing. For more information about his campaign for City Council District 5, visit www.kallosforcouncil.com. Photo of participatory budgeting courtesy of Community Voices Heard, used with permission. 

Op-Ed: A Democracy We Can Believe In


SUNY Downstate Medical Center

I have participated in a dozen budget debates since taking office. Each year, I have worked with my colleagues in the Senate and Assembly to make sure that the executive budget is not balanced on the backs of New York’s working men and women, and that we remain true to our values as New Yorkers. Many years that task has been difficult, but this year, more than any other in recent memory, the budget has failed to reflect the needs and values of a vast number of New Yorkers. Therefore I voted “no” on the entire budget, as I will explain below.

Essentially, the dash to have an on-time budget  seems to have outweighed the need for a good budget. In order to finish quickly, we have botched many opportunities ranging from guaranteeing the stability and viability of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, to fully funding New York City schools and keeping our commitment to Campaign for Fiscal Equity, to making sure we take care of our most vulnerable populations — the developmentally disabled, the poor, seniors and children.

I am not conflicted about voting “no” on this year’s entire budget and taking the governor to task for breaking faith with New York’s proud history of providing a first-class education for our children, caring for the ill, and helping immigrants to succeed. The Statue of Liberty was put in New York for a reason — and not because we killed immigrant’s dreams, but rather because our community of New York State is where dreams come true.

While there is always pressure to vote “yes” even on a bad budget, there comes a time when one’s silence is a betrayal of one’s community and one’s values. Therefore, as a senator elected to represent a working-class district, a district of immigrants, a district with many underfunded schools, a district of progressive politics and values, I refused to rationalize voting “yes,” however easier that might have been — it would have been a betrayal of what my constituents and I believe.

In addition to the executive budget’s merits, or lack thereof, I think it is important to spotlight the flawed, undemocratic and largely unaccountable budget process that is the true meaning and cause of dysfunction in Albany. Again and again we hear that “dysfunction is ended,” Albany has been fixed, and New York is “open for business.”

Yet all that has really happened is that we have moved from three men in a room to four, and in the process guaranteed that there are no African Americans, Latinos, Asians or women in that closed-door and secretive process. I could go on at length on this topic, but quiet as it’s kept, we all know that the executive budget should be negotiated in public by representatives who reflect all of New York’s stakeholders.

That’s why I am calling for a constitutional amendment that bring back a more inclusive budget process, and give the legislature authority over the budget that matches its responsibility for the end product. It is time we stop making a mockery of our democracy.   

Particularly troubling for me this year was the fact that the initial executive budget made no attempt to save Downstate Medical Center, the fourth largest employer in the largest county in New York State — Brooklyn.

For eight months, Brooklyn’s elected officials pleaded in vain for a meeting with the governor’s office to determine how to keep Brooklyn’s only medical school open and avoid worsening Brooklyn’s health care crisis.

How can you even talk about a working government when one-third of the government refuses to even have a conversation about rescuing an institution that puts $1.3 billion into New York’s economy and returns $12 to New York City’s economy for every $1 spent? How can we talk about an end to dysfunction when the proposal made in the budget, after refusing to meet and discuss Downstate’s problems, was to suggest privatization as a solution to the problem?

Take a close look at the crisis facing Brooklyn hospitals; the ones having the most problems are the private institutions. Yet the undemocratically arrived at solution was privatization. Transparency and accountability create better government decisions for a reason, and the 8,000 Downstate employees whose jobs are on the line and the 400,000 patients who receive care at Downstate every year deserve to have their voices heard, through their representatives.

Voting on the state’s budget is my job, but my duty and my promise to my constituents, is to stand up for their interests as well as the state’s broader interests. And I do not believe that goal is impossible. I do not believe we must discard our dreams and values in order to have an on-time budget.

Therefore let me be clear. I believe that it is possible to provide all students with a sound basic education as ordered by the court in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. I believe we can continue our historic role of partnering in immigrant success through the DREAM Act. I believe it is possible for New York's women business owners and those of color to have a fair chance at contracting with the state. I believe it is possible to right the wrongs caused by NYC’s “stop and frisk” abuses, and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, and have an NYPD inspector general bring greater accountability to the NYPD, just like every other City agency.  

Finally, I believe we are not, nor should we be, a rubber-stamp Senate. Our mandate is to deliver the change our constituents need, and to deliver it openly in the light of day, and not secretly by “four men in a room.”  This too I believe is possible; we can live our values, and as New Yorkers, we can realize our dreams.

Kevin Parker is the state Senator representing the 21st District in Brooklyn which comprises Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Ditmas Park, Kensington, Windsor Terrace and Park Slope.

Photo of SUNY Downstate Medical Center from Wikimedia Commons. 



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