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Opinion

New York City Should Start Preparing Now for a Biden Infrastructure Plan


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New Yorkers at work (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


A major new federal infrastructure investment seems increasingly likely this year. During the campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to boost the economy and tackle climate change. President Biden now has signaled that he intends to move his Build Back Better plan forward later this month, and it could have bipartisan support.

New York City should start preparing to seize this opportunity. 

Few other cities would benefit more from a public works-style program to get the economy going and confront the climate crisis. By the end of December, New York City still had 568,000 fewer jobs than in February. The city's unemployment rate (11%) is far higher than even the worst-off state. A federal infrastructure program would help, creating loads of jobs that would be accessible to many of the New Yorkers who have lost work during the pandemic. 

At the same time, the city faces an urgent need to protect coastal communities from storms and sea level rise, modernize vulnerable infrastructure, and transition away from fossil fuels. 

But to take advantage, city policymakers will need to start identifying—and planning for—sustainability and resiliency projects that can be ready to go this year. 

There's no shortage of infrastructure projects that would add jobs and help the city become more resilient to climate change. For example, the infusion of federal dollars could jumpstart city initiatives to protect Lower Manhattan, the Rockaways, Soundview, the South Shore of Staten Island, and other low-lying neighborhoods that are threatened by rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.

As one example, the markets at Hunts Point feed millions of people across the tri-state area, yet the low-lying peninsula is in great danger of flooding. A public works project to bolster flood protections around the food distribution hub would not only protect the region's food supply, but also create thousands of good-paying jobs in the Bronx, which has the highest unemployment of any county in the state at 15%.

Across the five boroughs there is also pressing need to build out green infrastructure to capture and divert sewage and stormwater that currently flows into the city's waterways nearly every time it rains. And constructing thousands of curbside rain gardens, upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, and building new sewage capture tunnels to do so has the potential to employ thousands of out-of-work New Yorkers.

Alongside resilience measures, New York City can use federal public works investment to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Support from Washington could help the city deploy solar panels across thousands of city-owned buildings and upgrade energy transmission lines to give the city access to wind, solar, and hydropower upstate.

It could also help ramp up much-needed energy retrofits, especially replacing thousands of aging gas boilers and moving to electrified heating systems. And all these public projects can enlist and train New Yorkers in new, sustainable careers they can take to the private sector as the economy recovers and transitions to a carbon-free future.

But these flood protection, solar panel deployment, energy retrofit, and stormwater diversion plans cannot be mere sketches. For the city to make the most of Biden's "Build Back Better" infrastructure agenda, policymakers must act now to lay out federal funding plans for projects that can break ground this year and get New Yorkers working again. With citywide unemployment still lingering above 10%, and sea levels and temperatures continuing to rise, we cannot afford to wait.

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Jonathan Bowles is executive director and Laird Gallagher is associate editor of the Center for an Urban Future, an independent think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity in New York. On Twitter @NYCFuture.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Leveraging City Assets and Community Input to Jumpstart Our Economic Recovery


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Construction workers at work (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


As our city stays focused on managing what we hope to be the final chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also need to keep thinking proactively about driving a strong and just economic recovery.

It’s no secret that in my Brooklyn district and across the five boroughs, there’s a long road ahead. Our official citywide unemployment rate is now hovering around 12%, with the highest jobless rates still in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

A recent report showed that year-to-date filings for new construction – one of our city’s most vital industries – are currently at their lowest point since the Great Recession a decade ago. Kick-starting our construction pipeline will play an important role in creating more good-paying jobs to help drive the city’s recovery. One way to start is by looking seriously at opportunities to develop on city-owned land in ways that serve long-standing neighborhood needs – particularly the increasingly urgent need for more truly affordable housing.

There are a host of ideas out there about how best to deal with our affordable housing crisis, from community land trusts and comprehensive planning to reforming the land use approval process (ULURP) and rejuvenating our public housing. All of those ideas and more should be on the table but all will take lots of time and money to get right and get going, two things that our city doesn’t have enough of right now.

So how can we get started on driving our recovery and dealing with our affordable housing crisis sooner, without waiting for Albany or Washington or revising the city charter? Part of the answer is all around us in the form of city-owned land.

I am certainly not the first politician to propose building affordable housing on city-owned land. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve had conversations with myriad stakeholders about how to activate city-owned sites. Proposals to build on city-owned land seem like a silver bullet – the land is ours, we should be able to do what we want with it! – but they haven’t been scaled up for the reason they’re appealing: public ownership raises the stakes and makes the dynamics that come with any development much more acute: “Who is this for?” “How tall will it be?” “Where will people park?” “Who is making money off this and how much?”

When it comes to developing city-owned land, we have a trust deficit as big as our budget deficit and if we don’t implement a framework based on trust and respect with impacted communities from the start, we’re doomed to repeat the development stumbles of the past.

In order to deal with that trust deficit, I suggest we create and convene, in collaboration with local community boards, Constituent Assemblies to review all the city-owned sites in each district to come up with a vision for how to best use them to jumpstart our recovery and put a dent in our housing affordability crisis. Each Constituent Assembly would be made up of stakeholders representing everyone with a stake in the area – from renters, homeowners, and business owners to immigrants, seniors, and organized labor – and will receive pro-bono technical support from affordable housing experts to make sure the Constituent Assembly’s vision is grounded in reality. Local elected officials could then work with city government entities - the housing department, Economic Development Corporation, and more - to issue requests for proposals that conform to the Community Assembly’s vision. As proposals come in, the Assembly for the area of each proposal will serve as another guiding light along with the relevant community board in helping the City Council member determine whether to lend his or her support to the proposal in the land use review process (ULURP).

You may be saying, “Justin, we already have community boards to issue advisory opinions on ULURPs, why do we need Constituent Assemblies?” And I’m glad you asked! While doing this in collaboration with community boards is crucial, community boards have a lot to do and cover a lot of ground, whereas Constituent Assemblies would be laser-focused on this one issue of what to do with city-owned sites in their assigned area in order to balance neighborhood concerns with city-wide priorities. I believe that focus is key to accomplishing anything and by focusing their time, Constituent Assembly-like bodies in Europe have tackled far thornier issues than building affordable housing.

There’s no getting around having debates about development in this city – they’re as old as the city itself. But I firmly believe that by starting these debates sooner and outside the twin pressure cookers of ULURP and social media, representative groups of constituents can grapple with the trade-offs inherent in any development in a much more just and productive manner that would ultimately lead to better results.

We should get started now by identifying sites that make the most immediate sense. There's no time to waste.

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Justin Brannan is a member of the City Council representing parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.

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New Federal Aid Can’t Diminish New York State’s Responsibility to Our Children


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Gov. Cuomo visits a school (photo: governor's office)


Thanks to the election of the Biden-Harris ticket and a newly Democratic U.S. Congress, New York can expect much more favorable treatment in any new federal pandemic relief program than it would have received from the Trump administration or Republican Congress.

But however much New York gets from the federal government in the coming months, it won’t be enough for our public school children if the state uses that federal aid to replace rather than add to the state’s own funding of our public schools.

The $1.1 billion in federal stimulus money already received went to local school districts. But at the same time New York state officials used the new money as an opportunity to lower the state’s own school funding.  

In general, federal funds are supposed to be used to supplement rather than to supplant or replace local contributions, but unfortunately, the current pandemic relief plan leaves the states some flexibility to reduce their own investments in education.  

New York’s budget problems are real, with tax revenues declining in many areas because of the damage the coronavirus epidemic has done to our economy.  The state’s most recent estimates predict a total deficit of more than $60 billion for the next four years.

The good news — at least for the moment — is that according to both the state and city fiscal officials, tax revenues have come in somewhat above the most pessimistic projections, and new federal funds can certainly help close remaining budget gaps.

But when our schools fully re-open, we won’t be getting back to the pre-covid world.

The “new normal” will include hundreds of thousands of students who have lost weeks of valuable learning time, despite the heroic efforts by teachers, both in classrooms and online.  That deficit must be made up.

Most importantly, our schools will also need significant new investments in mental health services to help children manage the emotional damage caused by the sickness and deaths of loved ones, along with the prolonged isolation that affected so many families.

Schools are far from the only areas that will need new funding to deal with the long-term effects of the pandemic. Too many New Yorkers will continue to struggle with unemployment, homelessness, and food scarcity.

The state’s budget process will have to balance these needs with available federal help and the strength of the New York economic recovery, which could take years. Additional revenue ideas now on the table range from levies on the legalized sale of marijuana and on-line gambling to increased taxes on the wealthy.

There will also be other possibilities, which the Legislature can weigh.

But whatever strategies the state develops to deal with the budget challenges posed by the pandemic, our children will have to meet the challenges of a post-covid society. They won’t be able to do so if the schools never see their fair share of new funds.

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Michael Mulgrew is the president of the United Federation of Teachers. On Twitter @UFT.

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How Many More Covid Deaths Behind Bars Before State Leaders Act?


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


For nearly a year, we’ve borne witness to the devastating effects of COVID-19. We wept at the sight of fellow New Yorkers entering hospitals, and at the images of trucks storing our deceased neighbors. But there are tens of thousands of New Yorkers whose pandemic traumas have, by design, been kept out of our sight. They are the hardest hit and the least protected. These are the New Yorkers incarcerated in jail and prison cages across the state, and our state leaders are failing them when they need help the most. 

New York’s incarceration problem isn’t new or unique, but the failure of state leaders to respond to COVID-19 behind bars has spiraled an already horrifying crisis to new lows. With no option for social distancing, poor access to hygiene, and inadequate medical care, jails and prisons are coronavirus hot spots. Thousands upon thousands of people across New York’s jails and prisons have contracted the virus, and dozens have died. Inexcusable delays in testing made tracking the virus’ spread incredibly difficult. And a recent plan to vaccinate incarcerated people, which was only prompted by litigation, will only apply to people aged 65 and over and people the prison system deems as “medically frail.” It’s unconscionable that all people in jails and prisons aren’t being offered the vaccination like other people in congregate settings across the state. 

This intensifying crisis didn’t prompt the immediate action we needed or that public health experts urged — to curb admissions and to release as many vulnerable people as possible. Instead, state leaders did the opposite. The historic bail reform laws passed in 2019 were working to bring the state’s pretrial population to historic lows at the beginning of the pandemic. However, months into the worsening outbreak, state leaders gutted key provisions, bringing the jail population up nearly 30% higher than before these rollbacks went into effect. 

Just as troubling is the failure to release those inside state prisons. Over the past year, a shrinking number of people have been granted parole and New York’s strict parole laws mean that far too few can access this opportunity for release. This is unfortunately nothing new. 

Before the pandemic, our elected leaders fell victim to the fear-mongering tactics that some backwards-facing members of law enforcement and media have recycled for decades. When bail reform passed in 2019, law enforcement flooded the media with inaccurate stories that were filled with lies and anti-Black rhetoric. The evidence has long made clear that reducing incarceration does not lead to increases in crime and, in the case of New York, bail reforms did not impact crime rates, according to the NYPD’s own data. What these reforms did was dramatically decrease unnecessary pretrial jailing at a time when jail made people four times as likely to contract COVID-19. 

We cannot afford another legislative session of pandering to these dangerous fictions. 

In November, voters gave New York elected leaders a mandate: pass bold criminal justice reforms that bring our families and neighbors home and make our communities safe.  

Our state leaders must take action to protect the more than 30,000 people in New York prisons. Even as some vaccinations roll out, Governor Cuomo must use his clemency power to immediately release people who are older, immunocompromised, and nearing release. The Legislature must work to reform a parole system that has resulted in far too few releases. Passage of both the Fair & Timely Parole Act and the Elder Parole bill will begin to offer the release opportunities people in prisons deserve. 

Elected leaders must also revisit bail reform, be honest about why they rolled so much of it back, and actively work to address the rapidly increasing jail populations driven by their misguided rollbacks. The same leaders who invoked the names of Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco to demonstrate the injustice of pretrial incarceration must recommit to bail reform so that too many other New Yorkers don’t come to the same tragic fate. 

New York leaders failed to meet the moment to address COVID-19 behind bars, and they must act now before more lives are lost. It’s our moral obligation and it is in the interest of both our collective public health and safety. 

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Rodney Holcombe is FWD.us’ New York Criminal Justice Director. On Twitter @rodnationn & @FWDus.

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New York’s Economic Recovery Relies on Environmental Funding


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Green investments are the future (photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


2021 has the potential to be a pivotal year for New Yorkers. Vaccine distribution is underway, and plans are being drafted to rebuild New York’s economy. As state leaders consider how to address the state’s deficit and create a sustainable future, investing in environmental programs is the answer. 

Environmental programs, such as the Environmental Protection Fund, are proven to aid in state economic recovery, create good-paying jobs, and strengthen local economies while protecting our environment and mitigating the effects of climate change. This is what New Yorkers need and Governor Cuomo is already leading the charge.

In his 2021 executive budget proposal, the governor continued his commitment to conservation by including funding for critical environmental programs, despite the deficit caused by the pandemic. The Nature Conservancy of New York, along with over 175 organizations in the New Yorkers for Clean Water & Jobs Coalition, were thrilled that Governor Cuomo is maintaining record funding levels for environmental programs. 

The governor announced a continued commitment of $300 million for the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), which supports 350,000 jobs across several industries, including construction, agriculture, recreation, tourism, forestry, recycling, and recreational fishing. EPF-supported industries add $40 billion to the state’s economy every year. By making this continued investment, we’re protecting local jobs, while also preventing pollution, improving public health, and ensuring clean air and water. 

The governor’s budget also devotes $440 million for State Parks capital projects over the next four years. Every dollar invested in state parks generates $5 of economic activity. Aside from the economic lifeline this funding brings to local communities, we have seen the importance of parks and outdoor spaces in the past year. Public parks experienced the highest ever visitation in 2020, with a record 78 million visitors. This comes as the state continues to open new parks and trails, like the Empire State Trail, that keep us connected to nature when we need it most. 

We’re also excited to see a $550 million commitment for water infrastructure projects. We need to update our water and wastewater systems now to provide clean, safe water for communities across the state and protect our beloved lakes, rivers, bays, and harbors. For every $1 million in state investment, we’re able to create 17 local jobs. 

As we continue to navigate our way out of this budget crisis and face down the threats of climate change, we look forward to working with the State Legislature to reinstate the $3 billion Environmental Bond Act to build a more sustainable future for New York. A recent report showed that the Bond Act has the potential to support 65,000 jobs in the state, resulting in an estimated $6.7 billion in project spending. We cannot pass on this opportunity to put people back to work. 

Labor, business, and environmental leaders all agree that the Environmental Bond Act will help build a sustainable future for New Yorkers. It will modernize the state’s water infrastructure, improve public health, reduce flood risks, and enhance the quality of life for millions of people.

It’s clear that we need these critical environmental programs not just to protect and preserve our beautiful state, but also to kickstart our economy and rebuild New York. These investments will lead to a sustainable and prosperous future for all New Yorkers.

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Jessica Ottney Mahar is New York Policy and Strategy Director at The Nature Conservancy. On Twitter @jessicaottney & @nature_ny.

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A Roadmap to a Carbon-Neutral District, and a Model for the City


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Lincoln Restler, the author


With unprecedented environmental catastrophes and more hundred-year storms each passing year, the climate crisis is fully upon us. Our leaders of government and industry have failed to rise to the greatest challenge facing our planet. That abdication of responsibility is inexcusable, but we don’t have time to wait for them to get it together. We need to lead the way. As a City Council candidate, I have a plan to make my district - Brooklyn’s own 33rd - the first carbon neutral district in New York and the United States.

Part of what feels insurmountable about the climate crisis is its magnitude. That’s why I want to start small -- at the neighborhood level. Transformative change starts on the ground, and across this district, neighborhood associations, community organizations, and advocacy groups are already mobilizing to make our communities greener.

In Brooklyn Heights, neighbors have come together to demand a green reimagining of the BQE highway. Local advocates have organized brilliantly in opposition to the new fracked gas North Brooklyn Pipeline. And it was the tireless fight of local environmental advocates that secured Superfund designations to clean up the two horribly polluted waterways at the north and south ends of our district - Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. It is clear: if you give the people of these neighborhoods a concrete plan to turn their district green, they will make it a reality.

Our 10-point plan for the district offers a roadmap to carbon neutrality and an end to dependence on fossil fuels. It’s a localized approach that targets the largest sources of greenhouse gases: buildings, transportation, and waste. With 53 concrete policy solutions and a community-centered organizing model, we hope it will provide an actionable template for other neighborhoods and cities to build on. 

Make no mistake, we need Green New Deal legislation at every level of government and a comprehensive New York City waterfront resiliency plan. But there are ample resources that can be tapped now to enact the policy solutions outlined — we just need to make it easier for New Yorkers to access them in order to change their neighborhoods, their homes, and their lives to meet this moment. 

Since buildings represent 70% of our city’s emissions, the core of this plan is reducing that footprint. We can do this by changing how we power and heat our homes and offices. This means retrofitting our buildings, including replacing fossil-fuel-burning boilers and stoves with efficient electric systems. The City has the means to do this by legalizing energy storage systems to capture solar power by providing low-cost financing to encourage mass utilization of electric heat pumps; and by expanding tax incentives and easing regulatory approvals to install solar on every viable roof from Boerum Hill to Greenpoint. These approaches aren't only critical for the fight against the climate crisis — they’re also vital to improving residents’ health and lowering electricity costs.

At every turn, we have to create solutions that center those who are most impacted -- Black and brown low-income New Yorkers. NYCHA tenants should be the first to benefit from updated, safer, and healthier energy systems and appliances. The 33rd City Council District includes 12,000 individuals living in unacceptable conditions in seven NYCHA developments. We need to secure the funding from every level of government to comprehensively renovate these developments. With the Biden administration, a U.S. Senate Majority Leader from Park Slope, Chuck Schumer, and the leading champion for NYCHA in Congress, Representative Nydia Velazquez, representing our neighborhoods, we finally have partners in Washington to help transform our NYCHA developments into environmentally-efficient, healthy, and safe homes, while ensuring that renovations don’t lead to massive interruptions in the day-to-day lives of residents. 

Transportation represents 30% of our city’s emissions - the largest source after buildings. To reduce dependence on gas-guzzling cars and discourage personal car ownership, we need to make it easier and safer for pedestrians, bikers, and subway and bus riders. We need to create safer cycling routes and push the MTA to improve bus and subway service, while improving accessibility and affordability for low-income New Yorkers. And because cars won’t magically disappear, we need to increase the availability of electric vehicle charging stations. 

And as with our district's housing stock, we need to utilize our district’s assets in the fight for carbon neutrality. That means the City mandating curbside composting pick-up and converting an empty Department of Sanitation site on Newtown Creek into a community composting facility. And we should transform the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a model industrial park, into a hub for the clean-energy industry and green jobs.

The lack of urgency from our elected leaders got us here, but new energy from those entering into office can help get us out. If I’m lucky enough to be elected, our district office will serve as a green organizing and education hub, bringing the community together and launching outreach efforts in collaboration with the impressive climate activists who have laid the groundwork to tackle these issues. As an almost entirely waterfront district, we will have a staff member dedicated to climate justice and a team of climate fellows to help spread the word and reach residents across every corner of the district. Through dynamic outreach and organizing, every resident of the district will have access to clear and compelling information that will enable them to reduce their carbon footprint. 

This plan needs to be community led, so we will be out listening at every community event from the McCarren Park Greenmarket to NYCHA Wyckoff Gardens Resident Association meetings. We will encourage neighbors with more resources to invest more and work together to ensure low-income residents and residents of color — who are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis — experience the positive impacts of these policies. We want to help tenants organize their buildings to demand retrofits, support neighbors in launching community solar campaigns, and connect NYCHA residents to green jobs.

The climate crisis is the existential crisis of our time. There is no greater or more urgent issue facing us and future generations, but big changes are often born of small beginnings. Turning one City Council district carbon neutral in the biggest city in America is a humble first step, but it is a first step that we can achieve together. Seeing the results of change, even on a small scale, inspires progress. There’s no reason to wait for someone else — we as neighbors can start together.

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Lincoln Restler is running for City Council in Brooklyn’s District 33rd district. His full policy proposal for a carbon-neutral district is available here. On Twitter @LincolnRestler.

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The G&T Test Contract and Why Mayoral Control of Schools Needs to Go


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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office)


The politics of New York City public schools reached a fever pitch last week, when the Panel for Education Policy (PEP) voted down a vendor contract to give the Gifted and Talented (G&T) test this Spring. Along with 22 other Community Education Council members from throughout the city and one state senator, I testified in opposition to the contract for several reasons.

First, the mayor recently announced that starting in 2022, the test would no longer be administered for admissions. More on that in a bit. Second, we are in a pandemic. Sending four-year-olds to test in person, with someone they don’t know, who is wearing a mask, in elementary schools, many of which are opening and closing with COVID-19 cases, is not a responsible government action. Lastly, the city’s standalone G&T programs are widely known to exacerbate racial segregation. With so much of the pandemic’s impact disproportionately affecting communities of color, the next cohort would needlessly magnify this long-time structural injustice.

I’m a public school parent and mother to a daughter who attended a G&T elementary school but whose middle school class is balanced with students from all District 3 elementary programs. I’m also the President of Community Education Council 3, and led the city’s first districtwide middle school diversity initiative so that this could be possible. I support accelerated learning. I also support integrated classrooms, schools, and the system, as part of a long-term strategy to prepare children for a thriving future.

The PEP’s vote, the only time it has voted down a contract in opposition to the mayor, was both a victory for progressive policy-making, and solid evidence of the need for major structural changes in the way that public schools are governed.

Progressive education policy centers the core belief that education is a human right. Thus, government institutions have a responsibility to offer every child an equitable, high-quality education from kindergarten through twelfth grade. For decades, ‘reformers’ have lobbied for school choice, testing, and more prep for testing. In the process, they have commodified learning and turned public education into a competitive ecosystem that tracks winners and losers -- and the losers, more often than not, are Black and Latino students.

Mayor de Blasio’s unilateral announcement that the G&T test would be phased out as part of a new direction in accelerated learning, but without further detail on what this new direction would look like, is not surprising. Stakeholders have become all too familiar with the poor planning, overtly political, and terrible communication operations under mayoral control of city schools. Which is exactly why the governing structure must be changed.

The PEP’s unprecedented vote made headlines, in part because a majority of the PEP is appointed by the Mayor, and it is generally a rubber stamp for his agenda. It’s essentially authoritarian rule, and it does not work. We need common sense checks and balances, stakeholder input, and accountability. What we need now is public school democracy. 

The pandemic exacerbated myriad problems that have been simmering under mayoral control for years. Who makes decisions on pedagogy, budgeting, school staffing, teacher training, student supports, enrollment, and building issues? This is the underlying question that gets to the heart of the politics - it’s why our kids get used as pawns in a game of political chess. Deeper than those decision-making pressure points are the system’s central leaders: the executive and the governing body. Under mayoral control we have no true governing body. The PEP flexed a governing muscle last week, but the political theatre that led up to the meeting and its fallout - one PEP member was dismissed - are emblematic of centralized control problems. 

Nearly 20 years ago, Mayor Bloomberg worked with New York state leaders to abolish School Boards, to decrease local graft and consolidate operations. However, only 32 years had passed since Mayor Lindsay ceded control in 1969 to local governance. The Mayor having sole control wasn’t working then either. 

No one wants to return to the old School Boards. What we need is the best of both structures.

Education advocates, teachers, and parents know that now is the time to create a hybrid governance structure that maintains central strength but fosters peripheral authority where it’s needed. A true governing body would be responsible for holding the executive and the Chancellor (who works for the Mayor), in check. The State Legislature and Governor Cuomo are required to make a decision on this issue in 2022, so we have time to collaborate on specific elements of this new structure, but the work ahead demands clarity now, as shown so clearly of late and for years, that mayoral control doesn’t work for our students. 

Finally, what was striking about the testimony at the PEP, both in opposition and in favor of the G&T test, is that parents and teachers want high-quality public schools. We want opportunities for learning expansion, for enrichment, for language and culture, with plenty of room for rigor. The division we experience, the battles for admissions, testing, and choice, are a reflection of government neglect and political malfeasance. No one wins when children don’t learn.

We must center equity and democracy, as we continue such a dangerous phase of our existence as a city. The pandemic, the Trump administration, and extreme economic hardships have brought New York City to the brink of disaster. We owe it to the next generation of New Yorkers to get it right and give public schools back to the public.

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Kim Watkins is a public school parent, president of Community Education Council, District 3, and a candidate for Manhattan Borough President in this year’s election. On Twitter @kimwatkinsnyc.

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New York's Arts and Cuisine are the Soul of Our City, We Must Do More to Revitalize Them


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A darkened theatre (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


The COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental to New York’s economy, with people losing jobs, businesses shuttering, and our city government accumulating astronomical deficits.

While city and state governments continue to roll out recovery plans, industries that keep getting overlooked, like the arts and dining, have been the backbone of neighborhoods on the West Side of Manhattan.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1,000 New York City restaurants have been forced to shut their doors—and that number is climbing. The theater industry has experienced similar woes, with over 40 theaters closing and over 51,000 employees losing their jobs. 

Restaurants and the arts aren’t just staples of our neighborhoods, including the communities encompassed in the 3rd City Council District; they’re the cultural and economic lifeblood of our city. We need a comprehensive plan to revitalize these industries—one that allows them to thrive despite our current reality. Because let’s face it: these industries go hand-in-hand in our West Side neighborhoods, as people usually go out to eat and drink before or after seeing a show. If either one of them fails, they both fail.

Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, I witnessed firsthand a cultural shift from a time when the streets were lined with pimps, peep shows, and drug dealers. An evolution began when artists came together and helped create a renaissance and true rebirth of the former red-light district, creating a place where people of all walks of life would be welcome and could come to raise families, create businesses and fulfill their dreams. Their careers in the arts embody the heart and soul of our city. 

Anyone who has lived here for more than 30 years has seen the landscape change, but if we don’t act quickly and effectively enough these industries could become perpetually debilitated. 

This is why we must denounce any notion of the arts as a luxury. The full diversity of the arts are a major tourist attraction and fundamental to our economic, psychological, and spiritual health. The essential revenue they accrue from both visitors and New Yorkers serve to replenish our city’s coffers over and over, helping the city to provide essential services.  

This is why in a time when our budget deficits run deep we need this crucial economic driver to rise from the ashes with fervor.  

We must swiftly organize a series of forums where constituents, independent theater groups, and local leaders in the restaurant and bar industry work to identify district priorities related to the arts. When I take office as the local City Council representative at the start of next year, I will organize such discussions and we will then formulate and execute a plan in conjunction with our mayor, borough president, and state representatives. By spring 2022, a pilot program will be implemented. 

We will work in conjunction with restaurants, bars, and other local businesses, utilizing every opportunity and resource available to revitalize our theater industry. This initiative will include regularly holding socially distanced and outdoor performances, as well as fundraisers in parks and open spaces. 

Once we are able to safely congregate again, we will bring this effort indoors and witness our theaters, cafes, restaurants, and bars resurrect themselves from the wreckage of the pandemic. We must give life back to these industries and preserve the vibrancy of our community—one that artists don’t just work in, but live in as well. 

While in the midst of a second wave of the pandemic, we can no longer rely on tourist dollars to fuel these industries. In 2019, New York City tourism reached a record high—66.6 million individual trips with about $47.4 billion generated in direct spending for the city, according to a 2019 NYC & Company report. However, tourism dropped more than 60% in 2020.

That is why we need a proactive approach.

Governor Cuomo recently announced a plan that would provide performance venues, as well as restaurants and other indoor spaces, a clear path to reopen. It will utilize mass-scale rapid testing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. It also includes 150 pop-up concerts and performances throughout the state, featuring stars like Chris Rock and Renée Fleming. In addition, the state has partnered with the Mellon Foundation to put 1,000 artists back to work through grants.

However, these efforts cannot stop there. Our city cannot shy away from forging public-private partnerships. A significant list of large companies and corporations within New York City will be more than willing to help if only asked, knowing the positive publicity and advertising their efforts will generate. According to Forbes, 73 Fortune 500 companies are located here, and we must take full advantage of their resources.

When people come to the West Side we want them immersed in talent, art, culture, and cuisine. That’s why my plan includes creating affordable art spaces in empty storefronts through a program that establishes a “Mom and Pop Way,” because we must never forget our small businesses. 

We will also implement a temporary Universal Basic Income (UBI) for small businesses and independent contractors, with the ultimate goal of instituting a permanent, universal UBI for city residents in the future. Federal PPP loans may cover payrolls for many business enterprises, but in a modern economy where so many of our artists and restaurant and bar workers are independents, it falls far too short of our workers’ economic needs. 

We will additionally push to implement rent stabilization for mom and pop commercial spaces and small businesses, and to establish a moratorium on big box stores so they cannot take advantage of the pandemic’s impact and snatch up these locations. Strictly enforcing the law written by Manhattan Borough President Brewer limiting storefront square footage must be a top priority now, and I will focus on its enforcement as a Council member.

While I don’t take the seriousness of coronavirus lightly, it is still imperative that we allow our restaurants to remain open using strict social distancing guidelines and other safety precautions to protect our health. The data clearly shows that an extremely small number of COVID-19 contractions occur in restaurants, a testament to the responsible behavior of these small business owners, most of whom have complied with regulations despite enduring such trying social and economic times, and the many thousands of New Yorkers who work in these establishments, as well as patrons.

Since theaters first opened in New York the arts and culture have been a driving force of our economy and the soul of our way of life, surviving even the darkest of times. This cannot stop now.

As they say, the show must go on.

***
Aleta LaFargue is a candidate for New York City Council in the 3rd District, which includes parts of Manhattan’s West Side. On Twitter @Aletafor3.

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D.C. Riot Exposed Problems with Policing That Must Be Reckoned With


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Donald Trump is endorsed by the PBA (photo: Jim Waston/AFP/Getty)


The January 6 riot at the Capitol in Washington D.C. exposed deep liabilities within law enforcement. Cops and ex-military men and women actively participated in the insurrection. While some on-duty officers acted professionally, even courageously, others were clearly complicit with a violent, lawless assault on our nation's capital. Numerous politicians and pundits, including our new president Joe Biden, commented that if it were a Black Lives Matter protest, and not mainly a white mob, the law enforcement response would have been much harsher, if not brutal and deadly.

All this should not have been surprising given what's known: large urban police departments target Americans of color daily, showing their stark racial bias. A study released in August 2020 by the Brennan Center for Justice reported that "research organizations have uncovered hundreds of federal, state, and local officials participating in racist, nativist, and sexist social media activity.” Abusive cops are tolerated daily. The chickens came home to roost.

For example, in New York, the city that my organization, PROP, works in, we know these numbers regarding NYPD practices: 85-90% of all misdemeanor arrests are of New Yorkers of color; about 95% of juvenile arrests involve Black and Latino youngsters; about 90% of the people locked up on Rikers Island are New Yorkers of color, most of them there because an NYPD officer has arrested them and they are too poor to afford bail.

Last year the two largest police unions in New York—representing police officers (The Patrol Officers Benevolent Association) and State Troopers (The Police Benevolent Association of the New York State Troopers)—endorsed Donald Trump for president. They chose to get behind an autocratic politician whose words and actions have clearly provided comfort and support to white supremacist groups. What message, or warning, were these unions sending to the rest of the country by enthusiastically backing a politician who launched his presidential bid in 2015 with a speech featuring racist comments about Latino people and then ramped up from there.

In jurisdictions across the country, politicians in power and police brass regularly give a pass to officers who engage in misconduct. In Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, the officer who applied his knee to George Floyd's neck, thereby killing him, had at least 22 complaints or internal investigations involving him. He was sanctioned just once, the department sending him a letter of reprimand. Still, that department assigned Chauvin to partner with and train police rookies.  

In Kenosha County, Wisconsin, the district attorney declined to indict Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times up close and in the back, not even on a relatively minor charge like reckless endangerment.

The Brennan Center reported that "officers' racist activities are often known within their departments, but only result in disciplinary action or termination if they trigger public scandals."

In New York City, officers who engage in conduct that is undeniably abusive or lawless are rarely if ever fired or even the recipients of slap-on-the-wrist sanctions. The New York Times published 62 videos of NYPD officers physically intimidating and violently assaulting New Yorkers who participated in the protests following the murder of George Floyd. The city's own Department of Investigation issued a report in December finding that the "NYPD...resorted to aggressive disorder control methods that stoked tensions and stifled free speech."

New York State Attorney General Letitia James, according to her office, "filed a lawsuit against the NYPD and its leadership to end its pattern of using excessive force and making false arrests against New Yorkers during peaceful protests." Yet, despite all the contrary evidence and reflecting the corruption of public discourse that leads to police officers thinking they are above the law, last summer both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio provided very limited criticism of the NYPD and mostly condoned its handling of the demonstrations. De Blasio went so far as to make the Orwellian claim that city cops by-and-large acted "with restraint."

As if to underline the problems cited in the Brennan Center report and in the Attorney General's lawsuit and to emphatically demonstrate the disparity in how police handle a mob of white supremicists and marchers for racial justice, on the night of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the NYPD clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters at City Hall Park in Manhattan. Video clips show officers charging the demonstrators. A Daily News article quoted a participant: "They were really violent. Cops were shoving folks, pummeling people, tackling them."

Asked about the incident, Mayor de Blasio justified the officers’ actions by saying that after the Capitol riot in Washington, there is particular sensitivity about any protest near City Hall.

The DC riot threw a number of our nation's problems into stark relief, including how the racist culture and practices of our policing apparatuses undermine the ability to truly protect and serve all American people. Perhaps the revelation will turn out to be a positive outcome, leading our society and government to seek responses other than cops to address and resolve social problems, and for all localities to look much more closely at their police departments. A recent example of this new attitude took the form of relying on thousands of National Guard troops, rather than local or state police, to ensure public safety on Inauguration Day in America's capital.

***
Robert Gangi is Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project. On Twitter @GangiFromPROP & @PROPNYC.

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It's Time to Stop Tolerating Wrongful Convictions and How They Undermine Our Legal System


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State Senator Myrie, a co-author, with other electeds and advocates


2020 was a year of tragedy and despair, hope and resilience. In 2021 we must take long overdue steps to address the myriad injustices laid bare by the pandemic, and others plainly evident well before COVID-19.

We must shore up our medical system and our schools. We must rebuild our social safety net. And we must once and for all, decidedly and without hesitation, address the long-standing harms perpetrated by the criminal legal system against communities of color. This is why, in 2021, we will be advocating for legislation that will finally start to address the pernicious issue of wrongful convictions in New York.

We are a Black State Senator representing parts of Brooklyn most deeply impacted by mass incarceration and a person wrongfully convicted of a shooting in Brooklyn during the 1990s. This summer we marched alongside thousands of New Yorkers to protest police brutality and the racial injustices that are ingrained in our criminal legal system. We were saddened, but not surprised, by the tragic and avoidable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans at the hands of police in recent years, and those going back decades. For us, and the community that we live in and serve every day, stories of injustice are all too common.

Our criminal legal system has been failing the Black community forever. Black Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but almost 40% of the prison population. This stark racial disparity is a result of years and years of inequality and injustice. After slavery was abolished in 1865, the number of Black people arrested and incarcerated surged, leading to the country’s first prison boom. Since then, the incarceration of Black Americans has been used as a form of social, political, and economic control

We are both proud of the pre-trial reforms the New York State Legislature passed in 2019, thanks, in part, to years of advocacy by groups like VOCAL-NY. But bail, discovery, and speedy trial reform enhance legal protections for people accused of crimes going forward, and does not repair the harm committed against Black people and other communities of color by racist or biased policing and prosecutions prior to 2020. Justice demands that we not only look forward, but also bring to light past harms committed by the state against our communities.

In 2020, Senator Myrie (a co-author of this column) introduced in the Senate, along with Assemblymember Dan Quart in the Assembly, a bill to affirmatively address wrongful convictions in New York. The bill, drafted with input from directly-impacted people including Roger Clark (the other co-author here), will remove barriers to post-conviction review to ensure that people who were wrongfully convicted have a meaningful opportunity to clear their names. Under the current law, they do not; people who have been wrongly convicted can only bring their case back to court if their case fits into a very narrow category. Because of this, judges routinely deny hearing new evidence in a wrongful conviction case because of procedural and technical roadblocks. 

Since 1989, 2,619 people nationwide have been cleared of all charges against them after being wrongly convicted of a crime. In New York alone, 291 people have been exonerated, and significantly, over half of those people are Black. But those exonerations are only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands more wrongly convicted men and women in New York who, because of the way the law is currently written and interpreted, have no legal avenue to bring their case back to court. We must fix that. 

Wrongly convicted men and women may have faced racial injustice or police brutality that was not caught on camera. They may have pled guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to avoid the lengthy prison sentences that arose during the ‘Tough on Crime’ era. Or they may have been denied their constitutional rights while being funneled through a racially-biased legal system. 

No matter what the circumstances were, people who have been wrongly convicted in New York deserve a chance to be heard. Their stories and evidence deserve to see the light of day. Denying people that opportunity discredits our entire criminal legal system.  

2021 provides a crucial opportunity for New York to address decades of systemic racism against the Black community. Passing the Wrongful Conviction Bill is a long overdue first step.

***
Senator Zellnor Myrie represents the 20th State Senate District in Brooklyn. Roger Clark is a Community Leader and criminal legal system reform advocate at VOCAL-NY and the Founder of the Crimmigration Initiative. On Twitter @SenatorMyrie & @VOCALNewYork.

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Gowanus Rezoning Exemplifies Smart Housing Policy in New York; Let's Get It Passed


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Housing (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Reversing the many factors contributing to New York’s long-standing housing emergency will not be easy, but it is possible. In fact, the path toward a more equitable and affordable city is already emerging. 

In the proposed Gowanus rezoning, we can see the future right in front of us. The proposal is a model example of the sort of planning that, if replicated, will result in the city we aspire to create – one that overcomes rising housing costs and confronts our legacy of redlining and segregation.

To be clear, rezoning is just one piece of a complex puzzle of initiatives that must be implemented together to achieve our goal. These pieces are laid out in the new United for Housing report, which is the product of a coalition comprised of more than 80 experts with backgrounds in housing policy, community organizing, tenant advocacy, and more. 

Gowanus and the surrounding community board are predominantly white, and wealthy. Its proposed rezoning is particularly notable because communities of color have disproportionately been the sites of new affordable housing construction. This practice both reinforces existing residential patterns of segregation and keeps expensive neighborhoods like Gowanus out of reach for too many New Yorkers.

The proposed rezoning would start the process of tearing down those barriers. It would create roughly 3,000 new affordable homes in a neighborhood with a median household income of nearly $120,000. 

These units would rent below the neighborhood average, unlocking Gowanus for working-class New Yorkers with potentially transformative effects for future generations. For example, research shows that children who move from a low- to high-opportunity neighborhood have a better chance to “reduce the intergenerational persistence of poverty.”

It will also improve the lives of countless families already living in the area if it is accompanied by a capital commitment to make improvements in adjacent New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing properties, overdue for much-needed repairs. This, too, is a blueprint for change. For too long, NYCHA has been siloed from the general housing conversation, and must be brought in from the cold to be part of a broad-based solution.

Finally, the rezoning would help create an environmentally-friendly Gowanus that will complement the canal clean-up that is underway, develop sustainable buildings with green roofs, remediate brownfields, and create a publicly-accessible esplanade. In other words, the rezoning provides a boost to the entire community.

This holistic approach does not come easily. It is the product of years of work by community activists, local elected leaders like Council Members Brad Lander and Steve Levin, and the city government itself to create an inclusive rezoning responsive to the needs of the community itself.

The importance and potential of the Gowanus rezoning to serve as a catalyst for change should not be lost on any New Yorker. While there are still the usual not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) objections to new development, in this case encased in unsubstantiated environmental concerns, the final proposal is proof that smart, coordinated, development is not just a pipe dream. It is more than possible: it is already happening.

If enacted, the Gowanus rezoning will improve social mobility and benefit new and long-time neighborhood residents alike, especially once investments in local NYCHA developments are included. And, in the process, it can serve as a template for the next decade of housing policy in New York.

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Rachel Fee is the Executive Director of the New York Housing Conference and an author of the United for Housing: From the Ground Up report. On Twitter @RachelFeeNYHC & @theNYHC.

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