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Opinion

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


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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. 

Op-Ed: Why Bloomberg's Housing Policies May Have Been Fundamentally Flawed


Hammel Houses in Queens, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s second term, homelessness in his city was at an all-time high: Nearly 40,000 New Yorkers were without homes, which was astronomical considering the city’s homeless population had never reached 30,000 before Bloomberg took office. In response, he laid out an ambitious five-year plan to reduce homelessness by two-thirds.

Eight years later, 48,694 people were homeless, according to the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

What went wrong?

The administration’s critics might say that the mayor’s housing policies failed because he’s out of touch with most New Yorkers. His recent gaffe — ”nobody sleeps on the streets” — and the administration’s infamous policy of offering homeless families one-way tickets out of town certainly give credence to that idea. Critics may also point to the mayor’s support for the continued conversion of the city’s rent-regulated system to a market rate system, which continues to obliterate the city’s affordable housing stock.

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However, the mayor’s defenders would probably suggest that the rise in homelessness has more to do with nationwide phenomena; every city suffered during the severe economic downturn and collapse of the housing market, and this helped to create a perfect storm that no one could navigate, not even a man who became famous for understanding market forces. If people don’t have money, they can’t afford a place to live, simple as that.

Whichever camp you’re in, you would probably agree that the mayor’s efforts were, overall, unsuccessful. But was this a result of a billionaire’s blind faith in free markets or of housing policies that were fundamentally flawed?

When it came to the housing crisis that plagued all three of his four-year terms, Bloomberg clearly believed the road to success would be paved by the real estate industry.

Much of the administration’s efforts to curb homelessness relied on encouraging developers to create affordable housing; the “New Marketplace Plan” and 80/20 buildings, where 80 percent of the tenants pay market rate rent and 20 percent have their rents subsidized, trade attractive tax abatements for affordability (until the apartment becomes market rate).

These programs exempt building owners from paying the full real-property tax rate, and one tax abatement program, according to the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, results in an annual $257 million in uncollected city taxes.

But the mayor’s ideology dictates that such incentives are necessary, and that the market forces will solve problems in the long run. And it’s not far-fetched to view his appointments to the Rent Guidelines Board — a group of nine individuals that determine rent hike limits for nearly one million rent stabilized apartments — as an extension of that ideology. Two-thirds of the board members have backgrounds in investment banking, finance, or the real estate industry.

Perhaps the administration’s proximity to the real estate industry helped create the impression that he was far removed from the world of everyday people, and Bloomberg’s creation and preservation of approximately 150,000 affordable housing units and the expansion of supportive housing for people with disabilities, mental health, or substance use issues is overshadowed because of his relationships with realtors.

But the administration’s often-documented poor management of the city’s public housing system, the discontinuation of giving homeless families priority for Section 8 vouchers, and the de-funding of rental assistance programs suggest the mayor simply made bad decisions.

While tax abatements may have temporarily created more affordable housing units, tax breaks ultimately mean less revenue. So while developers took advantage of programs designed with building owners in mind, many of the city’s programs that were designed with the current and potential tenant in mind (as well as the homeless and potentially homeless) anguished. The “Advantage” program — which helped families leave shelters by finding apartments and work — was abruptly discontinued. Forty-four percent of the defunct program’s participants applied for shelter within a year. The program’s failure was reminiscent of its predecessor, the Housing Stability Plus program, which also resulted in many of the former participants returning to homeless shelters.

The mayor even lobbied against a measure that sought to save city funds and prevent homelessness among disabled New Yorkers living with AIDS. He insisted that there was a start up cost for the policy change, which advocates continue to dispute. However, both the mayor and AIDS housing advocates would probably agree that any cost associated with the proposed policy is dwarfed by the amount of money the city handed out in tax breaks to the real estate industry.

In addition to the quarter of a billion dollars the city sacrificed to entice developers into building affordable housing units, the Pratt Center for Community Development estimated the city gave away another $750 million per year because of a tax abatement program that doesn’t stipulate affordable housing units at all.

A full and thorough examination of Mayor Bloomberg’s 12-year record on housing reveals his commitment to free market principles as well as his astonishingly poor decision-making.

But maybe it’s not that complicated: New York’s income disparity gap — which was already one of the widest in the country — continues to grow. At the end of Bloomberg’s three terms, the gap has grown to rival sub-Saharan Africa, according to a 2012 report by the US Census Bureau.

While Mayor Bloomberg tried everything from building more affordable housing units to shipping homeless people out of town, he did nothing to address poverty. His policies may have made the problem worse. And if you don’t have money, you can’t afford a place to live.

It can’t be any simpler.

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Jaron Benjamin is the executive director of the Met Council on Housing, New York City's oldest tenant union. He is also the coordinator of the Real Rent Reform Campaign, which represents thousands of lower and moderate income tenants throughout New York City.

 

The Next Mayor Needs To Make Job Creation A Priority


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Okay, stop us if you’ve heard this one: A guy walks into a New York City employment assistance office. He’s just been laid off, and he’s terrified. At the assistance center, he receives a cursory assessment of his interests, skills and barriers. No one there has a record of whether this is the first time he’s used the workforce system, or whether he has already received multiple services — the city has no system-wide data bank.

He’s given a voucher to attend a training class in an occupation he’s interested in and heads off to one of those proprietary schools he’s seen advertised on the subway. But after completing the training, it turns out that few employers are hiring right now for that type of job — the city workforce system doesn’t always use up-to-date labor-market information.

He’s then sent off to several interviews with employers where his skills are not a good match — his job counselor doesn’t have a close relationship with local employers and doesn’t know what they’re really looking for.

Soon he’s discouraged and decides that the workforce system is not worth his time and local employers are frustrated because they’re not seeing any candidates with the right skills — the system is not fully meeting the needs of either job seekers or businesses.

This story will be repeated all too often unless the next Mayor of New York City redesigns the entire workforce system. Though the Bloomberg Administration significantly improved the workforce system the past several years — despite decreasing federal and state financial support — the current system has likely improved as much as it can within the limits of its siloed and fragmented framework.

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With New York City’s unemployment rate hovering at 9 percent, the next mayor will make job creation for all New Yorkers a top priority. And yet our next mayor will face an even greater challenge: Public funding for workforce development is in steady decline—the city’s Workforce Investment Act (WIA) dollars were more than cut in half over the past decade, with many in Congress urging still further cuts—while the city’s job growth will likely continue to lag behind its population growth.

In response, the New York City Workforce Funders (a collaborative of NYC foundations investing more than $55 million annually into workforce development) and The Clark Foundation commissioned an independent Workforce Strategy Group to “re-envision the New York City workforce system.”

A Workforce System That Works

The good news is that our next mayor will have the power to redesign New York City’s workforce system into an innovative engine for job creation that serves both employers and jobseekers: The Strategy Group just published “Re-envisioning the New York City Workforce System,” which proposes an entirely new framework for how the workforce system could serve both businesses and jobseekers across the five boroughs.

The re-envisioning document frames five key recommendations for all the mayoral candidates to consider:

  1. Appoint a “job czar, ” reporting directly to the mayor, to oversee all workforce resources in the city under one office.
  2. Establish a network of nonprofit workforce partnerships, responsible for coordinating funding streams and putting programs into practice.
  3. Realign financing to reward long-term job outcomes, so that more workers stick with jobs once they are placed in them.
  4. Design a universal data system, to eliminate redundancy and help programs make informed decisions about what works to create jobs.
  5. Create a formal Council of Workforce Advisors made up of foundations, businesses, unions and non-profit organizations to advise the mayor on creating a 21st-Century training and employment system.

Re-envisioning the New York City Workforce System is a blueprint that the next Mayor can use to deliver on the promise of job creation across all five boroughs of New York City.

David LaGreca is executive director of VCG Governance Matters and co-chaired the New York City Workforce Strategy Group, along with Steven Dawson, strategic advisor to PHI. The Workforce Strategy Group included a diverse range of workforce stakeholders with decades of experience in the city’s workforce system. As a volunteer group, its charge was not to articulate the vision for the future, but rather a vision, one intended to engender spirited debate within the workforce, employer, philanthropic and public policy communities. Copies of Re-envisioning the New York City Workforce System are available at: http://www.reenvisionworknyc.org/.

Image courtesy of Thompson Rivers, used under Creative Commons license. 

We Need a Public Health Mayor


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When I walk around the city, listen to people describe their experiences, and observe my own family members, I grow disheartened. Too many New Yorkers are unhealthy because they have inadequate housing, are living in poverty, are unemployed or have low paying jobs, lack access to quality education and nutrition, are bearing inequitable environmental burdens, lack access to open space and safe areas for exercise. These “social determinants of health” adversely affect their health status.

New York needs a “Public Health Mayor” who will address these issues.

Municipal leaders are charged with promoting the health and safety of their city's residents. New York City is no different and, with a diverse city like the Big Apple, it is surely not an easy responsibility for any mayor to tackle.

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However, it is unacceptable that almost 2.5 million New Yorkers have been characterized as “medically underserved” — lacking sufficient primary and preventive care services — and that major gaps in public-health status persist in our city. These gaps were very apparent the day after Superstorm Sandy, when parts of the city’s health care system operated full swing while others were virtually immobilized.

Our next mayor must focus on eliminating health disparities, particularly in immigrant communities and communities of color. This can be done by ensuring the availability of culturally and linguistically appropriate services; improving access to health care for immigrants, the uninsured, and the underinsured; promoting effective primary care and prevention services; helping individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses like HIV/AIDS; protecting resources for women’s health, children’s health, mental health, and early intervention; and developing a high-quality and diverse workforce within the healthcare industry; addressing issues impacting sex workers; and key parts of the Affordable Care Act incentives healthy outcomes, especially for vulnerable communities.

We need assurances that the next mayor will continue to support the public health and hospital system, with health services in medically underserved communities.

There are many moral arguments for public health issues to be one of the incoming mayor’s top priorities. However, I also recognize the insufficiency of those arguments. It is also important to understand the economic case for action. Small investments in prevention can stave off higher future health costs. Mayoral leadership on public policy recommendations like paid sick days only makes our workforce more productive and improves the health of our fellow New Yorkers. Providing social supports to pregnant and parenting women and families has been shown to improve birth outcomes, and avoid costly ongoing infant medical costs. The next mayor can ensure the sustainment of low-cost or no-cost measures that can jumpstart local efforts to address public health concerns and issues.

Whatever your opinion is about the current mayoral administration’s priorities around public health concerns, there is still a need for a systematic, comprehensive and holistic approach that truly involves planning from the ground up.

A “Public Health Mayor” must recognize the indispensable role that community members and labor play in improving health care throughout the city, and through leadership must create an environment that includes community voices in the decision-making and policy-setting processes.

In appointing people to positions such as the Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Health, the mayor can exercise this type of leadership by selecting people who value community input and support community-led approaches to closing the gaps in health status. This can only be successful if the “Public Health Mayor” devotes sufficient attention to these issues, commits the necessary revenue and resources, ensures transparency in spending and operations, and provides accountability for public health programs.

We must recognize that a great city like New York can only fulfill its promise of greatness when it is better for everyone on all economic and social justice issues. For many of our community partners, the Mayor can make a profound effect on access to health care, prevention, wellness and other health issues. The next mayor must be a “Public Health Mayor” who will make addressing public health issues as one of the his or her highest priorities.

Anthony Feliciano is the director for the Commission on the Public’s Health System, whose mission is to fight for equal access to quality healthcare for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, language spoken, diagnosis, or the ability to pay. CPHS coordinated a coalition of community, labor, academic, professional organizations and individuals who sponsored a New York City Mayoral Candidate Forum on Important Public Health Issues on January 16th, 2013. 

Taking A Stand To Restore Paralysis Research in New York State


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There seems to be no greater punishment than paralysis.

It’s easy, lazy even, for me to say -- so many people struggle with horrific illnesses and severe physical challenges. It’s impossible to rank one over the next. But people with spinal cord injuries, and their families, experience a unique, constant anguish.

I found this to be true on July 4, 1998, the single worst day of my nearly 29-year life.

My brother Jeff, then 17, had always been the type to self soothe teenage hormonal episodes with sports — lacrosse, basketball, snow boarding, you name it.

It was with his typical confident skill that he effortlessly dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool. I don’t need to close my eyes to remember what it looked like -- a clean move, one he’d made so many times before.

One simple dive, and our world collapsed. Drowning. My parents’ screams as they jumped into the pool fully clothed. The shock of witnessing a grown boy lifeless and blue, cradled in my mom and dad’s arms.

In an exceedingly cruel twist of fate, athletic Jeff fractured his neck, injured the C1-C2 vertebrae in his spinal column, and at 17 became a high level quadriplegic.

To think about that day is to forget how to breathe, and each flash brings with it an almost unimaginable anguish.

Jeff has battled to adapt to his new life in the years since — navigating a wheelchair, operating a phrenic nerve pacemaker — and the daunting social isolation that comes from being dependent on 24/7 care.

As his sister, and not his primary caregiver, it is agonizing to see his spirits diminish and not know how to respond. As the years go by, his body and soul continues to atrophy. The boy that ran to the field as I would the stage is now imprisoned in his body, a shell of what could have been.

I spent the night of his accident an anxious, bewildered 14-year old, pacing the bedroom of a family friend, realizing there was a great chance Jeff would die, and nothing I could do would save him.

And yet, he survived. Nearly 15 years later, he is alive. And what remains is an extraordinarily intelligent, well spoken, man. A man with life I once thought was lost forever.

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To consider his medical situation “lucky” is to have a measure of grace I do not comprehend. And yet, his story is not over. There are scientists and medical researchers in my state, New York, devoted to the hope that one day Jeff will be reborn again. That there will be a cure for paralysis -- that perhaps a family, years from now, will have treatment options that have yet been discovered.

The New York Spinal Cord Injury Research Program has raised over $70 million for spinal cord research since 1998. This money was raised through moving violation penalties that were put aside into a state fund specifically geared toward spinal cord research grants. And yet, due to political maneuvering beyond my comprehension, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo followed former Governor David Paterson in rerouting these necessary research funds into the state’s general fund. The money is available, but the leadership needed to maintain this financial commitment to paralysis research is gone.

Cuomo’s office said there are no plans to restore this vital funding to spinal cord research. This is absolutely unacceptable, and insulting. As a result of his inaction, potential cures have stalled without the necessary funding needed for scientific growth. Governor Cuomo, this funding must be restored for the 2013-2014 budget.

We must take a stand for the 5.6 million Americans with a form of paralysis. We must take a stand for the researchers currently paralyzed in a pool of red tape.

Take a stand. So that Jeff, one day, can join me.

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Sarah Galli is the Founder & Executive Producer of Born for Broadway, whose mission is to engage college campuses in raising funds for paralysis related organizations through performance, with an annual Broadway gala showcasing the performances of both established Broadway performers as well as up and coming talent. She also co-chairs the Political Advocacy Network for WIN.NYC, dedicated to empowering young, pro choice, Democratic women. For more information, please visit www.bornforbroadway.com. Image of Jeff courtesy the author. Photo by Kenie Huber. Used by permission. 

Downtown, West Side to Lose Voting Power Under Council Redistricting Plan


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After many delays and revisions, the New York City Districting Commission has presented its final proposed new City Council district map to the City Council for approval. Every ten years, the City Council’s lines, like those of every legislative body in the country, must be changed to reflect changes in population as determined by the Census. As the Council has ultimate authority over land use decisions and landmark designations, its decennial redistricting is of course of great interest to us.

One might expect pretty substantial changes in the boundary lines of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Council districts. These districts encompass the Village, East Village, and NoHo, among many other downtown and West Side neighborhoods, and each of these districts grew faster than the city as a whole (in fact, the 1st had one of the largest population increases of any district in the city, while the 3rd , consisting of much of the Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen, had the largest of all fifty-one districts).

But in spite of these dramatic population changes, the Commission proposes only very slight changes to the boundaries of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Council districts, unlike many others in the city. This means that residents of the Village, East Village and the other neighborhoods in these three districts would be among the most underrepresented in the City Council under the proposed new plan. In fact, residents of the 1st and 3rd Council districts, which include most of the Village, would actually be the most underrepresented in the City Council, and have the least voting power, of any residents in the entire city.

READ THE ENTIRE POST HERE

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Andrew Berman is the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. 

Guest Commentary: Means, Ends and State Constitutional Reform


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Politicians weigh means against ends every day. It’s part of the job description. In a masterful film, Steven Speilberg showed us how Lincoln balanced means and ends as he sought the abolition of slavery. The message: bend the rules, but don’t break them: trading jobs for votes was O.K. to pass the 13th amendment; buying them for cash, not O.K. It worked. History was made.

We are not hearing too much these days about New York state government being dysfunctional. Fiscal discipline has been established. Gay marriage was passed. A new decentralized regional economic development paradigm was put in place and made to work. After years of wrangling, scandal and stasis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown that New York State government can get things done.

He saw another opportunity to get things done in the tsunami of public demand for action in response to the tragic massacre of children at Newtown Connecticut. Though gun control was not on his announced agenda for the 2013 legislative session, he promised “the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation.” Cuomo wanted The New York SAFE Act passed fast — both because the iron was hot, and because of the danger that gun control would preempt his pre-laid plans for the session. And he wanted it passed first: before any other governor; before the president. To restore New York’s leadership, he said. To elevate his own political prospects, others opined.   

The governor lined up the votes, and issued a Message of Necessity. By this means the constitutional three day waiting period in the Legislature for acting on legislation was bypassed. No matter that Cuomo had previously been critical of the use of such messages in the absence of a true emergency, and in fact had refused to issue one while still passing a timely budget last year. The gun control bill passed. The end justified the means.

When things seem to be working, governmental structures and processes are a concern for a few professors, a few lawyers, an occasional elected official and a handful of others organized in so-called “good government’ (goo goo) groups. Legislators and lobbyists don’t usually embrace changes in ways of doing business that that they know intimately, and that have made them winners. Their mantra: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Cuomo came into office when things were widely believed to be broken. His key campaign policy document, The New New York Agenda, embraced a great range of structural reforms in state and local government. Thus far, results have been disappointing. Government reform goals – means – have been traded for fiscal and programmatic goals — ends.  The constitutional amendment on legislative redistricting, and now scheduled for a referendum vote in 2014, is a prime example. It does not give us a neutral process. The Legislature remains in control, with the Republicans in the Senate, teetering on the abyss, gaining an insurance policy against Democrats doing unto them in the future what they had always done to Democrats in the past. Hardly reform.

[Editor's Note: Read a letter from Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters on why the constitutional amendment on legislative redistricting was a victory for reform.]

The simple message: making government work is the enemy of reforming government, because it signals — falsely — that institutions and processes need no attention.

Another process change essential for democratizing our politics, campaign finance reform, will again be considered this year. Perhaps with Gov. Cuomo’s leadership, some progress will be made. Yet the agenda is packed, and the opportunities for tradeoffs abound. And even if the influence of big money in our politics can be mitigated through legislation, we still will have what Professor Peter Galie has begun to call our “Potemkin constitution,” full of provisions that have been emptied of meaning through practice or interpretation. We still have a Legislature too diminished in budgetary powers. We still have a judicial system that is in needed of serious structural reform. We still need to give the governor better tools for reorganizing the executive branch.   

The “means” of government, how things are structured and should work, is the special province of the state constitution. In the New NY Agenda, Cuomo called for a people’s constitutional convention to address the big “means” questions we face. Cuomo’s success in making our flawed system work does not diminish the urgent need to make that system better. The next time we have a real chance will be in 2017, when the constitution requires that the automatic constitutional convention vote be held.  

The opportunity to make the “means” of state government New York’s foremost concern presents Andrew Cuomo with a rare chance for truly transformative leadership: a Lincolnesque moment. Will he seize it?

 



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