Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



A Free-Market Solution To The Affordable Housing Crisis

Hammel Houses - NYCHA

Hammel Houses, NYCHA (wikimedia)

Mayor de Blasio's recently released affordable housing plan is extensive and forward thinking – but also extremely expensive. The 200,000 units it envisions are estimated to cost $41 billion, of which $8 billion will come from City coffers.

We could reach the same goal without such astronomical spending. In fact, the City could do it without spending a single dollar from its budget.

To accomplish this feat, we need to harness the power of the market. Here is a five-point plan for how we can do so to create a housing plan that serves all New Yorkers:

First, we must put to use the vast sums of funding in the capital markets to build mixed-income housing and provide for low-income households through a partnership between the public and private spheres. This funding can help generate more housing in a cost-effective way.

Second, there are numerous tracts of land around the city that are not meeting their full potential. By enabling development in these areas, we can reduce the overall cost of land to a level that promotes the creation of affordable housing. For a start, more than 30 million square feet of development rights related to NYCHA projects are sitting unused in Manhattan. In addition, the City controls or outright owns many other properties around New York, including the nine blocks in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Zone and the 90 acres adjoining the Brooklyn Army Terminal, that could be turned into thriving mixed-income developments.

Third, developers should be required to lease the ground on which new projects are built, which can generate ground rents through the luxury component of the development. The additional funding, in turn, can be set aside for a self-funded rent voucher program.

Fourth, the solution to low-income affordability is not more low-income housing; rather, it is more income. We can empower struggling working households by providing them with the income needed to rent an apartment like others in the marketplace, in the form of transferable or "sticky" vouchers. These rent vouchers would be self-funded by the new mixed-income communities to be created under this proposal.

Fifth, to make these ideas a reality, we need to create an independent Affordable Housing Authority. An Authority with the appropriate mandate and powers can solve the problem using a public-private partnership model. Similar agencies, such as the 42nd Street Development Corp., have successfully revitalized neighborhoods around the city. The new Authority would simply apply this proven archetype on a citywide scale.

By using this model, the funds needed for new developments can be financed through capital markets without the massive outlays of the mayor's plan. Indeed, we can completely redevelop many of the city's aged and dilapidated NYCHA projects, using this very model.

Creating affordable housing is one of the major public policy challenges of our time. Fortunately, we have the financing and know-how to fix this problem in an economical way. Now we need only the political will to make it happen.

Leonard Grunstein is Managing Member at Hanlen Real Estate Development & Funding

Have an op-ed idea or submission? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


New York City's Classroom Space Crunch


(photo: Michael Albans)

Last week Class Size Matters released a new report, Space Crunch, which analyzes the school overcrowding crisis in New York City, and points out the need to improve the City's proposed five year capital plan for school construction. While the real need for seats is likely over 100,000, the plan would create only about 38,000 new seats at most.

Among the findings in the report:
School overcrowding has worsened in the last six years, especially at the elementary grade level. Elementary school buildings currently average 97.4 percent capacity, according to the DOE's figures in its utilization report, known as the Blue Book. The median figure is at a shocking 102 percent. High schools are not far behind at an average of 95.2 percent.

What this means in real life terms is that class sizes are pushed above reasonable levels, students have lost their art, music and science rooms, are assigned to lunch as early as 10 a.m., or have no access to the gym. Many special needs students are forced to receive their mandated services in hallways or closets rather than in appropriate dedicated spaces.

In eleven city school districts, elementary schools average above 100 percent capacity; in 20 out of the 32 districts, they average above 90 percent. In addition, high schools in Queens and Staten Island average above 100 percent. More than 30,000 additional seats are needed in just these districts to bring their average down to 100 percent.

Even more seats are needed to address overcrowding at the neighborhood level, as evidenced by thousands of students sitting in trailers in 21 districts, and thousands of prospective kindergarteners on wait lists for their zoned school in 19 districts. In addition, the city's population is growing fast, and the two consulting companies hired by DOE to project enrollment have predicted increases of 60,000 to 70,000 students over the next five to ten years.

At the same time, most experts believe that the utilization figures reported by the DOE are faulty and actually underestimate the actual level of overcrowding in our schools, The Chancellor has appointed a taskforce to improve the formula.

Thus while the real need is likely greater than 100,000 seats, there are only 33,754 to 38,654 seats in the proposed five year capital plan – with the latter figure dependent on whether the state's "Smart Schools" bond act is approved in November. Unless the plan is significantly expanded, our students are likely to be sitting in even more overcrowded schools in the years to come.

The capital plan is also unlikely to achieve the DOE's widely-publicized promise to eliminate trailers or temporary classroom units (TCUs). While it has been reported that "only" 7,158 students are sitting in these trailers, the actual number of these students is likely 50 percent higher – as the DOE has omitted from its count thousands of high school, middle school and elementary school students, as well as severely disabled students, who attend classes in these substandard structures in more than 40 schools.

Moreover, although DOE officials have promised that the capital plan will accomplish the goal of eliminating trailers, many of which are in disrepair and long past their expected lifetime, and have allocated nearly $500 million to remove them and recondition the school yards on which they sit, there is not a single dollar in the capital plan dedicated to replacing their seats.

The past failures of the City to adequately address the problem of school overcrowding is due to many factors, including the disappointing record of the Bloomberg administration in school construction, with fewer schools built than in earlier periods. In addition, the DOE has redefined the size of a classroom downward in recent years, which may lead to building code violations, as more and more children are squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. This year, the city's class sizes are at a fifteen-year high in grades K-3, and the largest in grades 4-8 since 2002.

The Department of Education has also made policy choices that have worsened overcrowding; including hundreds of small schools and charter schools inserted into existing buildings, eating up classroom space through replicating administrative offices and specialty rooms. In the report, these breakdowns of policy and planning are revealed by the DOE's own data, surveys, and interviews with principals and other school officials.

The report concludes with a number of policy recommendations, suggesting how the DOE can improve the school utilization formula. These reforms, along with enhancements to the planning process, and a more aggressive capital plan funded in part by "impact fees," would help ensure that more of the city's students are provided with the space they need to learn.

We are urging the City Council to insist on expansion of the plan to at least 50,000 seats this spring -- the DOE's admitted need – and for the City Comptroller or another independent agency to undertake a needs assessment that is more credible than the DOE's. There has not been a transparent needs assessment for our schools undertaken for more than twenty years. None of the goals for improving public education, including expanding pre-kindergarten, reducing class size, providing a well-rounded education, or establishing community schools with wrap-around services, are possible without a more ambitious capital plan. Only with significantly improved planning, policies, and funding can our public school students be provided with the facilities – and the quality education – they deserve.

Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters, a citywide advocacy group dedicated to improving opportunities to public school students through reducing class size.


Vergara's Shaky Significance

students matter vergara

The students of Vergara (Monica Almeida/NY Times)

A June 10th lower court decision in Vergara v. California found that five California teacher employment statutes violate the State Constitution's Equal Protection Clause by disproportionately maintaining "grossly ineffective schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students."

Speculation immediately turned to Vergara-type suits in other states with the aim of eliminating or weakening teacher tenure and other job protections across the country.

Not so fast.

The ink is hardly dry on Vergara and a lengthy appeals process awaits. Meanwhile the contested statutes remain on the books. Final victory for plaintiffs is hardly inevitable since the trial court decision shows scant evidence proving that the statutes themselves, rather than feckless administrators' failure to initiate required evaluation and termination proceedings, were the cause of plaintiffs' alleged educational injury. In addition, the court's high bar requiring the state to show a compelling interest in preserving each of the current statutes is wide open to appellate attack.

On the other hand, there is little legal traction to arguments that Vergara is over-dependent on suspect test score data and predictions that teacher quality will fall without the statutes' job security guarantees. Not that those aren't good points - but they are not legal arguments. As the court took pains to address, this case will be won or lost on legal principles of equal protection based on California precedents and facts established at trial, not policy pronouncements about the best system of teacher evaluation and due process rights for optimal educational quality. Judge Treu made clear that he believes the judicial system is too crude an instrument to decide those matters and that, under our system of separation of powers, curtailing the evidentiary parade of horribles that he said "shock the conscience" requires legislative remedies.

Which is why Vergara is more an opening for public debate - likely the main intention of the lawsuit - than it is a catalyst to directly bring about substantial changes in state or national education law. For example, Judge Treu found that California's two year probationary period prior to tenure was too short to adequately evaluate teacher quality, disproportionately penalizing poor and minority students. What if, in response, the state legislature changes that period to three years, which Vergara looks upon favorably? New fact, new case! Any or all of the statutes in question can be tweaked - cynically or not - to meet legal requirements surviving appeal.

Similarly, beyond California, any attempt to nationalize Vergara faces a tortuous path, much like the school finance battles that ensued late in the twentieth century and continue today. Each state, assuming the presence of equal protection, will have its own precedential scheme for interpreting those laws. Each will have its own constellation of teachers' employment rights. Each will have different statistical profiles of the presence or absence of incompetent teachers based on differing measures. In short, each years-long case will need to be financed and litigated individually, an extremely tall order, especially when legislative responses after any wins will have the potential to undo plaintiffs' initial expectation of educational improvement.

Remember, too, that teachers' working conditions are not generally statutory but bargained with school districts. It's even a little weird that tenure is a statutory right at all, treated as a public good rather than a private benefit. Teacher unions have been particularly successful in selling that idea so that they do not have to subject tenure, first-in-first-out, and other job protections to the give-and-take of cyclic contract negotiations.

But surely, if the Vergara plaintiffs ultimately succeed at total elimination of tenure, FIFO, etc. at the state level, the fight will just move to districts where school boards will vie with one another to offer sweet deals on job security and due process to attract the best teachers. Like white flight after Brown v. Board of Education, invoked by Judge Treu in the first line of Vergara more as a benediction than a precedent, any state-level evisceration of teacher job protections will have a negative checker-board effect on districts.

I support teacher tenure since it allows teachers uniquely necessary opportunities for classroom freedom and student advocacy that would otherwise be threatened by supervisors or public disapproval. But, with varied experience as a teacher union organizer, New York City Board of Education General Counsel, and expert witness for school districts in termination proceedings, I have too often seen procedural protections used as a sword to preserve ineptitude rather than, as intended, to shield professionalism.

Healthy debate is necessary over these policies and practices, including the crying need for administrators to vigorously exercise their supervisory duties toward probationary and tenured teachers alike. As a catalyst for this debate, Vergara serves a useful purpose even if, as legal mandate, it stands on shaky ground.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of American Public Education Law, 2nd ed. and many other works, including an earlier column, Teacher Tenure Tantrum.

New York City Must Care for Seniors

Rosenthal seniors rally

Council Member Helen Rosenthal speaks at a rally in support of seniors (ALIGN)

Take a close look around your neighborhood and your house of worship and you'll see an aging city. New York, like the rest of the country, is experiencing an unprecedented age wave, as Baby Boomers grow older and life expectancy rises. By 2030 - in 15 years - one out of every five New Yorkers will be a senior.

With this major demographic shift, the need for home care is rising dramatically. Approximately two-thirds of seniors need some form of long term care at some point in their lives. Many are like a 92 year-old member of B'nai Jeshurun we met recently who is struggling to age in place with dignity. She would like to live independently in her home for as long as possible, but the simple physical tasks of daily life are becoming too difficult to manage. She cannot rely only on help from family and friends, and she cannot afford home care services. There are many people like this senior, whose incomes are too low to pay for home care out-of-pocket, but slightly too high to qualify for services through Medicaid.

Seniors should be able to age in place - in their homes - maintaining their lifelong connections to friends and community. As Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel says, "A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old."

As neighbors and people of conscience, we must come together to meet the challenges of caring for seniors.

One small program that has been helping New York City meet these challenges is the Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly Program (EISEP). It helps low and moderate-income seniors over the age of 60 who are above the Medicaid threshold pay for part-time home care services. It also provides home care to undocumented seniors, who do not qualify for federal programs like Medicaid even if they are below the poverty line. Unfortunately, in 2008, City funding for EISEP was drastically cut. In 2008, City funding was at $15 million a year, and today it is at less than $5 million. What was once a robust program currently serves fewer than 3,000 seniors with care needs; that is less than 4 percent of the seniors who could benefit from the program. And the wait list for services is long.

As a first step, the City should increase funding for this vital program. Just this week, the City Council requested that the Mayor include an additional $1.8 million in this year's budget, which would ensure that the 240 seniors on the waitlist are able to receive home care services.

Beyond restoring some funding this year, we need an expanded and sustainable long-term investment in seniors and home care services. Investing more in care for seniors will benefit low-income and undocumented seniors, family caregivers who often juggle work and arranging care for a loved one, and home care workers who earn a living wage working with EISEP clients.

Many of us are dealing with difficult family situations - whether it's how to care for an ailing parent, or planning and saving for our own future care needs. At times it can seem like a private struggle, but we are not alone. By 2030, close to one million New York City seniors could need home care. It's time we heed Rabbi Heschel and start preparing for how we, as a society, will ensure dignity, respect and a decent quality of life for both caregivers and those who receive care.
Helen Rosenthal represents New York City's 6th City Council District and Marilyn Williams is a member of B'nai Jeshurun and a leader in the Elder Care Dialogues.

Closer to Home

Osborne Association

A family visit made possible by the Osborne Association

The evidence that children love and need their parents is all around us. That evidence is a lot less visible when it comes to the 80,000 children with a parent in one of New York's 57 prisons. Maybe that's because most of our prisons are located far from the urban centers where most of our prisoners' families live.

Last week the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee passed a bill (S.1789A) that we have worked on together, along with Assemblyman Crespo in his chamber, for nearly two years now. It brings New York State correctional policies in line with extensive research that shows the positive impact of making, mending and maintaining family relationships both for children and their incarcerated parents. The committee voted in support of the Proximity Pilot Bill, which would add "proximity to children" to the criteria to be considered by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) when deciding where an incarcerated person should serve his or her sentence. Current criteria includes security, mental health and other services, and availability of beds.

This pilot would add proximity to children as a factor to consider for 100 incarcerated parents who meet a set of determined criteria. The Assembly Corrections Committee approved this bill in March.

Distance is the number one barrier to children and families visiting an incarcerated parent or loved one. To their credit, the Legislature and DOCCS supported the establishment of a video visiting program with the Osborne Association, a community organization serving the incarcerated and their children and families. While this program offers real benefits to children and families, it cannot be considered a substitute for children being physically embraced by their parents. In-person visiting is critical not only for the well-being of children, but also to the success of parents when they return home. Family visitation is an effective and valuable anti-recidivism strategy and a public safety strategy.

In his support for this bill last week, Committee Chair Senator Patrick Gallivan recognized that this is a statewide issue: the demographics of the state's incarcerated population are shifting. Just half of women in our prisons are from New York City and its suburbs; 50 percent are from other parts of the state. The demographics of incarcerated men are similar. There are mothers and fathers from Western New York who are incarcerated within an hour of New York City; their children are suffering and their own likelihood of successful re-entry is weakened by not maintaining family ties.

Adding proximity to the calculus is in all of our best interests. People returning from prison are less likely to again commit crimes and are more likely to contribute productively to society when their family relationships are intact. Despite this, DOCCS' current practice seems to favor incarcerating someone far away from home, bringing them closer to home as they near release. But by that time, relationships have already been damaged by distance, and family support diminished. Far too often, the legacy of incarceration is severed relationships, with children also paying a hefty price.

It is time for our state correctional policies to reflect what research continues to confirm: that family connectedness – best achieved through visiting – is integral to successful re-entry, lower recidivism rates, and better outcomes for children. We join together to call on the State Legislature to bring this bill to the floor in both Houses and pass it.

Gustavo Rivera is the New York State Senator for the 33rd Senate District, which extends from the Northwest Bronx to areas of the East Bronx. He serves on the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee.

Elizabeth Gaynes is Executive Director of the Osborne Association, one the country's largest and most effective nonprofit organizations serving individuals affected by crime and incarceration. Follow Osborne on Twitter @osborneny

Justice Denied: A Call for Action in Our City’s Housing Courts

CM Mark Levine

Council Member Mark Levine, co-author (William Alatriste)

If your only source of information on our legal system were Law & Order, you might believe that everyone going into a courtroom to face a potentially life-changing judicial decision would have the benefit of an attorney.

You would be wrong. The right to counsel applies only in criminal court. In civil court, only those with means have attorneys – and everyone else is left to fend for themselves.

This has clear implications for the fields of immigration, bankruptcy and family law. But it is in housing court (the division of civil court dedicated to ruling on disputes between landlords and tenants) where the impact is breathtaking, with sweeping consequences for New York City.

Fewer than 10 percent of tenants in housing court in the five boroughs have the benefit of legal counsel. In contrast, upwards of 90 percent of landlords citywide have representation. This makes housing court in New York City a dramatically uneven playing field.

New York's housing court system is notoriously byzantine, and is complicated to navigate even for attorneys. Tenants forced to represent themselves on this terrain can have difficulty grappling with even basic procedural matters like filing the necessary paperwork to secure a court date. Failure to do so results in a default judgement in favor of the landlord.

The imbalance in housing court carries a heavy toll for tenants: in 2013 there were nearly 30,000 families evicted from their homes in New York City. This figure is steadily rising, up more than 20 percent in the past decade. Two-thirds of evictees have annual incomes of $25,000 or less. Two-thirds live with children under 18 years of age.

For low-income tenants, the consequences of evictions are devastating. Evictions contribute to our record homeless population and the city's rapid loss of affordable housing. Thirty-seven percent of those admitted to our shelter system are coming directly off an eviction, and the vast majority of these individuals had no attorney during their housing court proceedings.

The majority of evictees live in rent-regulated apartments. Once these homes are vacated, landlords can easily exploit legal loopholes to permanently move the units to market-rate rent for future tenants.

Landlords are all too aware of the uneven nature of housing court. The most unscrupulous building owners regularly initiate legal proceedings based on shaky cases. They bank on the fact that few tenants will be able to afford an attorney and many are intimidated into leaving their apartments rather than face a trial.

Even tenants who win their cases don't necessarily come away unscathed. A small industry of tenant screening companies maintains a "black list" of individuals whose names appear in housing court proceedings. Many landlords in New York City and nationally buy these lists and will refuse to rent to tenants who have had cases brought against them, regardless of the final decision of the housing court judge.

Most elected leaders in New York City support ending this clear injustice. The obvious solution is to provide attorneys for tenants in housing court. But funding concerns have prevented anything more than tiny pilot programs from taking root.

There are, however, compelling economic arguments for implementing such programs. Each bed in our homeless shelters costs $36,000 per year. Developing a single unit of affordable housing costs over $250,000. Yet the price of legal representation in housing court is a comparative pittance, estimated at $1,600 to $3,200 per case.

We are collaborating with our ally and colleague, Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, to address this problem. The Levine-Gibson bill, Intro 214, calls on the City to provide all low-income tenants with attorneys in housing court. A majority of the City Council already co-sponsors this bill.

We are optimistic the momentum for dramatic action on behalf of low-income tenants in housing court will continue to mount. After all, viewers of Law & Order know that the little guy can indeed beat long odds and win the case. Especially when they have a good attorney.

Mark Levine is the New York City Council Member for the 7th District in West Harlem and Jaron Benjamin is the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing.


Expanding Opportunity for Civic Engagement to the Next Generation

GC civics day

(Students present at a Generation Citizen Civics Day)

One of the best parts about living in New York City is that even though we reside in the biggest city in the country, individual citizens can play a vital role in deciding community issues. An example of this citizen engagement is our 59 community boards, comprised of local civic leaders, which serve to empower residents to address zoning issues, assess the needs of their communities, and offer substantive policy recommendations to their elected representatives.

But currently, community boards exclude one of the most important demographics in our city - young people. Only residents 18 years and older are eligible to be appointed to these boards. The state Legislature is considering bills, sponsored by Senator Andrew Lanza (S04142) and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (A02448), which would grant up to two 16- and 17-year-olds the opportunity to formally serve on each board. This would ensure that young peoples' voices are heard, while simultaneously demonstrating New York City's support to furthering youth civic engagement. Councilmembers Ben Kallos, Mark Levine, and Ritchie Torres have sponsored a City Council resolution of support, and a public hearing will be held at City Hall on June 9th to discuss the proposal.

The legislation would not mandate the inclusion of 16- and 17-year-olds, but by providing the option, the bill would allow boards to diversify their composition, benefit from diverse input and perspective, and demonstrate their community's value of and investment in their future leaders.

Although the legislation must pass at the state level, city elected officials are doing their part in advocating for the change. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has championed this bill from its inception, and three of her fellow Borough Presidents have pledged their support. It is clear that almost every elected official in New York City endorses this legislation - Albany must act accordingly.

While the bill seems to have overwhelming support throughout New York City and the state, some opponents do argue that young people are not responsible enough for this commitment. It is important to note, however, that this bill does not change the qualifications and high expectations for membership. We should continue to hold our community board members to high standards while also recognizing that some young people are eager for and ready to take on these responsibilities, and that this experience would help them grow as leaders.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer served on his community board at the age of 16. He proved ready for this challenge, and this early political training prepared him for an esteemed, long career in public service. Young people make and sustain commitments all the time: sports teams, clubs, jobs, and schoolwork. They can serve on these boards, and do so effectively.

Others argue that young people are not informed enough to weigh in on necessary discussions involving land use and zoning. But community boards must educate all members on these issues, including adults. Young people would be able to provide a different perspective on these topics that might not otherwise be represented.

Finally, opponents say that there is already poor youth (18-21-year-old) participation on boards, meaning that there is no reason to expand the opportunity to others. But the comparison is not quite fair. Many 18- to 21-year-olds are in college, or living on their own for the first time. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds are, for the most part, much more stable. At the end of their high school years, they have adjusted to managing school and extracurriculars, and they often still have the support and structure of family life to ground them. We should be taking advantage of this life cycle to identify and develop young leaders while they are still firmly part of their communities through school, faith, and neighborhood bonds.

This opportunity may also serve to reinvigorate in-school discussions about civic responsibility and political participation. Knowing that students are eligible for official community board service could encourage teachers to educate students about local government structures and activities, proactively building knowledge of and respect for these institutions among our future civic leaders.

Our communities deserve the best advocates we have, and those advocates might just be carrying backpacks. Let's not hold that against them. The State Senate and State Assembly should pass the Lanza/Rozic bill and send it to Governor Cuomo for his signature this session.

Sarah Andes is the New York Site Director of Generation Citizen.


Submit an op-ed idea or draft to Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Let's Be Cautious With Local Minimum Wage

Mark Weprin

Council Member Mark Weprin, the author, and his guest council member for a day (William Alatriste)

During his State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to work with Congress on legislation that would increase the Federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10. A week later, Mayor de Blasio told reporters that he supports legislation that would raise the State's minimum wage from $8 to $10.10 next year. That same bill, now reported to be backed by Governor Cuomo, would also allow local municipalities to set their own rates for the minimum wage.

I agree with the president, the governor and the mayor that the minimum wage needs to be increased. Working families all across the country are struggling to make ends meet and putting more money in their pockets is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It is outrageous that here, in New York State, retail employees, fast food workers and other minimum wage earners are expected to provide for their families with an $8 hourly wage. The cost of living continues to rise and today's minimum wage is clearly failing to keep up.

At the same time, I have serious concerns about permitting local municipalities to set their own minimum wages. While the concept sounds great in theory, in practice it has the potential to hurt local small businesses and deter businesspeople from opening up new businesses in certain areas of the City.

The Council district I represent encompasses a number of neighborhoods on the Queens County/Nassau County border; the entire district is within a 10-minute drive of Nassau County. Many of my constituents even live within walking distance of the city line. If New York City sets a higher minimum wage, entrepreneurs considering opening businesses in Eastern Queens will have a financial disincentive. Why open a new business in a Queens neighborhood like Floral Park, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park, or Little Neck when you can simply site the business a few blocks away in Nassau County, where the minimum wage is lower? A similar problem presents itself in neighborhoods across the Northern Bronx, which borders Westchester County, and Staten Island, which is close to New Jersey.

Businesses that are already established in areas on the outskirts of the City will also suffer if the proposed legislation is approved. To compensate for the financial losses caused by minimum wage hikes, business owners will need to increase the prices of their products. Doing so could have a devastating impact on many of the local establishments that operate on thin margins to begin with, as consumers will have cheaper alternatives nearby. The consequences may even be severe enough to put some places out of business.

Raising the minimum wage is a great idea, but we should implement the change for the entire country or at least the whole State of New York. Setting different wages in neighboring cities and towns is a well-intentioned concept that can backfire big time.

Mark Weprin is the New York City Council Member for the 23rd council district, in Queens.


21st Century Learning Includes BYOT

cell phones schools

Kids are doing it in Cincinnati and Tacoma. They're doing it in Louisville, Ocean Springs, Dallas, West Fargo, Atlanta, Brentwood and New Smyrna Beach. It's time we worked together for New York City youth to do it too.

I'm talking about students in public schools with programs called Bring Your Own Technology, or BYOT, which support and encourage the use of personal devices like smartphones, tablets or e-readers in classrooms.

Rather than confiscating phones upon entry to the building, teachers in BYOT schools are integrating mobile apps and tools into their lessons. Students use Google Drive to collaborate on projects, answer pop quizzes, participate in class discussions, snap photos of assignments and classroom presentations and much more. Meanwhile, teachers are using their own tools to help them create data visualizations showing whether students have grasped a concept, to track class participation and to communicate with students learning English as a second language.

But, in New York City public schools, mobile devices have been banned since the 2005-2006 school year.

According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 37% of all teens have smartphones, compared to 45% of all adults. Moreover, teens living in households with annual incomes under $30,000 are only 4% less likely than their wealthier peers to own a smartphone. Given these findings, it makes sense for schools with tight budgets to have students use the technology they already own, rather than invest in computers and other digital labs.

Of course, there are hurdles we will need to work to overcome: so many online devices can stress school data networks, forcing many teachers to allow students to access the Internet using their own data provider network, which allows them to get around firewalls blocking social media and inappropriate websites. Not every student in a class uses the same device, and it's important for teachers to receive training before implementing a BYOT program.

With The LAMP, media literacy program facilitators travel to schools and communities throughout New York City, typically transporting laptops, cameras, microphones and other equipment, enabling us to bring 21st-century learning opportunities to young people and adults who otherwise use technology primarily for entertainment. We've worked in schools of five hundred students, all sharing one laptop cart and one media librarian. We've been in school technology labs stocked with computers that rarely get used, often because they're horribly out-of-date or because few people have any training on how to use them to support teaching. Meanwhile, most of the students have their own technology, which they already know how to operate, and which are typically not more than a couple of years old.

Educators and administrators nationwide are acting on what they see as the inevitability of BYOT in schools. As Lenny Schad, chief technology information officer at the Houston Independent School District, told the New York Times in March, 2013 after implementing a BYOT program in Katy, Texas, "My message: It shouldn't be 'if' we do it, it should be 'when' we do it...On a smartphone, there are no limitations. This is the world they live in and we're bringing it into the classroom."

When we confiscate students' smartphones, we are sending them a firm message that technology devices are toys. So it can be no surprise that young people treat them as such, particularly if they're not fortunate enough to be in schools that issue laptops and tablets to each student, or where each student spends school time every day on a computer connected to the Internet. If we're not showing them the endless possibilities of how they can learn and explore with technology, they're being left behind as millions of other young people come to understand that technological devices are actually tools to connect them with an endless array of resources to support learning, civic engagement and creativity, often available at little or no cost.

Successful BYOT programs are not implemented overnight, but as so many wise teachers told me when I was young, anything easy probably isn't worth doing. Models for BYOT programs are out there and working in school environments that are suburban and urban, advantaged and disadvantaged. It's time for all of us – program providers, students, educators, parents, the Mayor's office and the DOE - to work together to relinquish the ban on smartphones in classrooms, and at minimum launch BYOT pilot programs in our public schools to help New York City students gain the skills they need to get jobs in the multi-billion dollar tech and media industries our city is working so hard to build up.

Emily Long is the Director of Communications and Development at The LAMP. Find her on Twitter using @emlong, or follow The LAMP at @thelampnyc.

Gotham Gazette's executive editor, Ben Max, is a member of The LAMP's young executive board. Opinions of neither Ben nor Gotham Gazette are represented in this article.

Principal to Chancellor: Take the Lead on School Discipline

Principal Brady Smith

The author, Principal Brady Smith

"Our schools are learning places. They're not suspension places," said Chancellor Fariña to a room full of principals this past Saturday. Could this mean real change in the way we view students in the classroom?

In Los Angeles schools, they call it "willful defiance"; elsewhere, "insubordination." In New York City, "B21" or "defying or disobeying lawful authority" is the second most common reason students are suspended in school each day (based on the data we have available).

Last year in New York City schools, black students, who comprise less than a third of the student population, served more than half of the suspensions citywide. Students with disabilities, making up twelve percent of the student body, served a whopping thirty percent of principal and superintendent suspensions. Are our black students or students with special needs more disruptive, or more dangerous, than their white peers? No.

Mayor de Blasio has made a public commitment to tackle these disparities and I am confident that in this administration, positive school discipline is a priority. I was thrilled to hear the Chancellor say that the Department of Education is "looking seriously at a revised (Discipline) Code". By focusing on those most impacted, students of color and students with disabilities, we can move on making progressive reforms in school discipline in NYC. The removal of suspension as an option for B21 in the soon-to-be-released 2014-2015 Discipline Code will be a great step in the right direction for all NYC students.

An educator for 24 years and principal in New York City public schools for 7 years, I have seen my share of 'defying authority.' One of my former students, who I'll call Gerald, regularly defied school staff and safety officers. He'd get angry and walk out of classrooms, he'd tell off adults who tried to stop him, and he rejected our initial attempts to counsel him. Suspending him may have temporarily put a stop to classroom disruptions, but it would not have given him the tools to manage his anger and strategies to move past his frustration.

Instead we involved him in a Fairness Committee where fellow students and adults described how his behavior affected them. And together with his mother, we collaboratively devised a behavior contract that included supports he might need from adults at school, supports like the opportunity to take a time out if he felt his frustration getting out of hand. His advisor checked in with him regularly and celebrated with him when he managed his anger. He struggled to make the change, and had some bad days, but ultimately he stayed in school, developed skills in anger management, and mastered his academic content. My experience in schools, with many, many Geralds, has taught me that there are more effective ways to shift defiant behavior than suspension.

The current discipline code allows principal's suspension of up to five days as an option for students who defy authority. Although the racial breakdown of the data for New York City's B21 is redacted, it's not a surprise that this infraction is a hyper-racialized one elsewhere in the country. Students of color and students with IEPs are disproportionately impacted.

In Los Angeles, suspension for their version of defying authority has been removed as an option district-wide. The principal of L.A.'s Garfield High School took suspensions off the table altogether last year, noting, "I can't teach a kid if he's not in school." Far from descending into chaos, the school has transformed.

Policy change has to happen from the top, and must be coupled with school-based training and resources. Removing suspension as an option for B21, providing educators with professional development in restorative discipline approaches, and requiring that positive interventions are implemented before suspension can transform our schools. We are days away from the release of the draft Discipline Code. The moment is now; this is the right administration to position New York City as a leader in ending discriminatory discipline.

Brady Smith
Principal Co-Director, The James Baldwin School


VA Scandal Demands Bold and Decisive Action

coast guard vets parade

Coast Guardsmen, 2013 NYC Veterans Day Parade (Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

Last month, reports surfaced that a Phoenix-based Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care facility maintained two separate lists of patients, one of which doomed nearly 1,600 sick veterans to suffer serious illness without treatment and led to the preventable death of 40 others.

Since the Phoenix scandal emerged, other VA hospitals across the country are warning of similar instances and schemes to cover up excessive waiting times for care. A Congressional hearing earlier this month revealed a 2010 VA internal memo from a high-ranking official addressing "inappropriate scheduling practices" to cover up delays. The practice, referred to as "gaming strategies," should have ended a long time ago, but evidently still exists.

According to the VA Inspector General (IG), 26 VA healthcare facilities nationwide are now under investigation for serious allegations of fraud, malfeasance, and mismanagement. Equally disturbing, some executives from these troubled facilities received performance bonuses upwards of five figures in 2013.

Over this past Memorial Day Weekend, I heard from countless veterans their outrage and disgust with this scandal and the fundamental lack of accountability and widespread mismanagement at the VA. Our veterans deserve the facts and there must be some degree of answerability and consequence for those officials who presided over these heinous acts.

This is why I recently introduced a resolution (Res 0201-2014) to the City Council in support of The Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014. This Act would enhance accountability by providing the VA Secretary the authority to immediately remove Senior Executive Service (SES) employees for performance. Current employment protections afforded to SES employees make it extraordinarily difficult to remove them. This bill eliminates the appeals process to allow for immediate disciplinary action that will ultimately aid in reducing the VA's backlog, improve access to care, and bolster other services.

Going forward, the VA needs to act immediately to ensure that veterans who may have been affected by delays in care secure the medical attention they need. The Obama administration announced this weekend that more veterans will be allowed to get health care outside of VA facilities, but this policy should be broadened, extended, and potentially made permanent to avoid any further delays.

Congress should also move quickly to enact legislation that would provide veterans easier access to care. Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced sweeping legislation that addressed the disability backlog, healthcare, education, and other core issues. Regrettably, this bill was defeated. However, I implore our federal representatives to re-work and re-introduce this package with measures that enhance accountability and streamline the process for veterans to receive the health care services they need and are rightfully entitled to.

Our veterans deserve answers and we need leadership from Congress and the President. Our veterans fought our wars and answered the call to protect our freedoms time and time again. Now it is our duty to fight for them.

Eric Ulrich is a Council Member from Queens and Chairman of the Council's Committee on Veterans.

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