Gotham Gazette

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A Redistricting Power Grab

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Inside the State Senate chamber (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

The New York State Senate and Assembly, both now in Democratic hands, last month gave first passage to several changes to an earlier constitutional amendment, adopted in 2014, creating a so-called Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw district lines every ten years for those two houses and the state’s Congressional districts. If passed by the Legislature again next year, and then approved by the voters, these amendments to that earlier amendment will go into effect in time to be used for the drawing of district lines in 2022. That would mean that the version approved by the voters in 2014 would never be used. Every one of the 40 Democrats in the state Senate voted for these changes. In the Assembly 91 of the 101 Democrats were in favor — while nine members, all from outside New York City, voted against. 

Truth be told, I was not a big fan when we New Yorkers voted to place the so-called Independent Redistricting Commission in the state constitution in 2014. I say “so called’ because there was nothing independent about the commission. Eight of its ten members, two each, were appointed by the majority and minority leadership of the Assembly and Senate, and the commission’s recommendations went back to the two houses for adoption. If they failed to pass, the Legislature retained the final authority to do the job itself. 

In my view, self-interested politicians should not decide on any of the conditions or rules under which they are elected or reelected. Truly fair redistricting, I thought then and think now, requires the final decision on district lines to be made by persons who meet two basic criteria: they are not seeking election in those districts and are not beholden to anyone who is. 

For decades, divided partisan control of the state Legislature produced New York’s infamous bi-partisan gerrymander. Republicans controlled drawing the lines for the Senate, Democrats for the Assembly, and then they voted for each other’s plans.  The so-called Independent Redistricting Commission amendment was a response to reformers’ pressure to do something about this. It was the appearance of action masking the absence of real change, accepted by some as “a good first step.” 

The 2020 proposed constitutional amendments if adopted will bring a welcome end to two practices long used by Republicans to retain Senate control: Increasing the number of seats in the body and counting downstaters imprisoned in GOP-dominated upstate rural areas - and not allowed to vote - as residents there, beefing up their population, and therefore their legislative representation. If the amendments pass the size of the Senate will be fixed at 63 members and the provision of a previously passed statute will be constitutionalized, to assure re-enumerat[ion] of incarcerated persons..[at] their place of last residence for the purposes of drawing district lines.”

Less savory, other changes first passed this July would undo two provisions of the original 2014 amendment designed to protect the interests of the minority parties in both houses (at that time the Republicans in the Assembly and the Democrats in the Senate). These are the alternative voting rules specified for the commission to recommend a redistricting plan, and the two houses to approve its recommendations, under alternative partisan circumstances in the Legislature.

To send a plan to the Legislature a redistricting commission now requires seven votes, including that of at least one of the two appointees of each of the four legislative leaders. (This explicitly specifies the mathematical consequence of requiring a supermajority of 7 in a group of 10 members to act, when each of four leaders appoints two commission members.) This provision protected the minority parties in each house, not always previously looked after by their co-partisans when deals were reached between the two majorities. It was also an insurance policy for the then-precarious, now-vanquished, Republican majority in the Senate. 

In the 2020 proposed amendment, just given first passage, the seven-person super-majority has been kept, but the requirement that at least one of these be chosen by each appointing authority has been removed.

The size of the majority in both houses required to pass a commission-recommended plan under the provision in place differs, based upon whether control of the legislature is divided or in one party’s hands. If divided control (the case when the original amendment was passed) a simple majority is needed in each house. If one party controlled both houses (the case now) two-thirds in each house is required. 

Then as now Assembly Democrats held more than two-thirds of the seats in that body. The Senate, however, was closely divided in 2014. This supermajority requirement potentially empowered the Senate Democrats in the redistricting process to a greater degree than before. It also preserved leverage for Republicans if they lost control of the Senate, as then appeared inevitable and has, of course, since occurred. 

Finally, what if deadlock occurred in the commission? (Not an unlikely eventuality, if experience is any guide.) The commission was then to send its most supported option or options to the Legislature, where an affirmative vote of 60% in each house would be needed to pass one of these plans, or an alternative.  

The changes passed this year make the required majority 60%, both if the two houses of the Legislature are in the hands of a single party or the commission is deadlocked. They also make it explicit that, absent a commission recommendation, the Legislature may adopt a plan of its own devising.

Democrats now hold 40 of 63 Senate seats (63.5%), enough to control the outcome of redistricting under the new revisions in all partisan circumstances, but not enough if there is deadlock on the commission under the unrevised rules. Hence, assuming they can retain this size majority this November, or grow it, and the proposed constitutional amendments gain the required second passage and voter approval, redistricting next year and the year after will be more firmly in the hands of the Democratic majorities in both houses. 

The complexity is admittedly a bit mind-boggling, but it comes down to this: The Democratic majority members in the state Legislature – many of whom are self-declared champions of political reform – want to alter a constitutional provision passed to achieve independent legislative districting before it has ever been used, giving themselves greater control of the process. Ironically, the untested provision itself almost certainly achieved only the illusion of reform. Also ironic, given New York’s politics and demographics, there is no chance that districts can be created that will place Democratic control of both houses at risk in the years ahead. With their current ample majorities, Assembly and Senate Democrats could advance real independence in drawing district lines for themselves and for Congress with little or no political risk. But instead they have chosen to preserve the illusion of reform, while further empowering themselves to act in their own self-interest. Maybe Plunkett of Tammany Hall was right after all: “Reformers are only morning glories,” at least on some mornings in July.

Gerald Benjamin is Emeritus Founding Director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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Prosecutors Need To Go After Developer Zoning Fraud

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Time to crack down on zoning fraud, the author argues (photo: mayor's office)

Most of the world now knows the Kushner name for the widespread political corruption of the Trump administration, but the family company has been ripping off New Yorkers for years. How did a slumlord developer get all the way to the White House? 

Fittingly the answer lies with the President’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who paved the way as Mayor of New York City by shifting enforcement of vital building regulations to an honor system. But an honor system only works when there are true consequences for violating it. Enforcement has been tepid at best, emboldening bad actors to falsify plans to build structures that violate zoning and other building codes with impunity, thereby lining their pockets with millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains. The solution is to stop defaulting to civil regulation and start criminally investigating professionals and entities who file false statements. 

The problem stems from the unpoliced self-certification program.

Given the fast pace of development, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) doesn’t review every plan, and regulators don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to scour for falsehoods. Under Giuliani, the city expanded the abilities of licensed architects and engineers to attest to the DOB and other relevant agencies that a project complies with the law. The thinking was that these design professionals were licensed by the city and state and therefore could be trusted to always tell the truth. This ignored the obvious conflict; their livelihoods were dependent on the very developers who stood to profit from violating zoning protections.

On the rare occasion that authorities find a false statement, the punishment is a lowly fine, like the $210,000 in the Kushner case, even though under New York law it’s a felony to submit false paperwork and each false document carries a term of imprisonment of up to four years. The complete lack of oversight allowed the Kushners to harass and eventually chase out long-time tenants from the East Village and the Lower East Side to make way for wealthy, market-rate tenants. 

As the former head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Construction Fraud Taskforce, I’ve fought rampant, unchecked self-certification. More than a decade ago, it was key to convicting executives who falsified the concrete strength of iconic New York City landmarks like the World Trade Center, Yankee Stadium, and Second Avenue Subway. More recent examples include 1059 Third Avenue and 249 East 62nd Street, aka the “condo on stilts.” At 62nd Street, the building’s mechanical void — unoccupied floor spaces usually created to help structural integrity — raised concerns about the added height and sturdiness of the building. Turns out that the architect had filed one set of plans with the fire department, and another with DOB. And after community groups and the Manhattan Borough President complained about irregularities with the mega-project on Third Avenue, which exposed similar false claims, the developers changed the plans. That’s good, but it’s not enough. It shouldn’t be up to ordinary New Yorkers to enforce our laws, that’s the role of the District Attorney.

We need a strong city with good housing, schools, hospitals, and public spaces — not just shaky glass towers filled with pied-à-terres. Developers have long competed in a race to the top by shirking necessary regulations. It’s time for prosecutors to finally pay attention to the fraud building up in front of their faces and that is killing the economic prosperity of our residents and the city. Without consistent criminal enforcement fraud will continue to be a risk worth taking.

Diana Florence is a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney and the former head of the Manhattan DA’s Construction Fraud Task Force. On Twitter @DianaJFlorence.

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Seeking the Next Generation of Public Servants

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New York City Hall (photo: mayor's office)

There is no question that today’s young people demand more from those in power and seek to correct broken systems. The recent wave of protests, petitions, and activism following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of the police brought front and center a change-making generation that refuses to stay silent against horrific injustices. We are outraged and reacting in the most effective ways we know how.

Our efforts have made many strides: catalyzing policing reforms, toppling Confederate statues, and thrusting accountability onto lawmakers to make our cities better. As our frustrations in this nation have grown, and as I reflect on my own family experiences, I want to encourage more young people to pursue careers in government.

My grandmother would often tell me the story about how her father rebelled against a cruel British overseer in then-colonial British Guiana. She described my great-grandfather’s courage and commitment to change that resulted in him being evicted from his home and blacklisted from work in neighboring villages. My grandmother, on the other hand, honored her father’s legacy of rebellion in a different way. What she did, and her recommendation for visionary young people who wish to effect change in their society, was to join the civil service. 

As I’ve learned from my family and come to believe for myself, change can truly be made from within. The Guyanese people did not get real justice in the country they built until a wave of young Guyanese citizens, like my grandmother, joined the civil service and ultimately effected policy that dismantled the country’s slavery-akin labor laws. The same will be true in the United States. More forward-thinking young people working in and leading the public sector will lead to more effective change -- but we must be determined to make this reality.

That’s the work I have set out to do, while encouraging other members of my generation to join me. I’m currently a student at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education/CUNY School of Medicine. Last November, I won the Paul A. Volcker Careers in Government Essay Contest, a competition led by the Volcker Alliance aimed at encouraging students to pursue careers in public service. For the past three years, I’ve worked part-time at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Witnessing the impact of the work I’ve done in New York City local government, even as a college student, has reinforced my commitment to public service. Government can be judged based on how it mobilizes for the most vulnerable and how it reacts to crises. Now more than ever, our country deserves effective leadership. 

The good news is that we have a generation of young people that can bring a wealth of knowledge and influence to the public sector. We are technologically-savvy. We are curious and inquisitive. We are respectful of cultural differences and tolerant of divergent viewpoints. We are resilient. We are advocates. We are many colors. Change cannot happen until public leadership reflects the people it serves. 

I urge you to consider pursuing a career in government. Helpful tips I’ve learned along the way that can help you get started include:

  • Find a cause that you are passionate about.
  • Research your cause, keeping in mind there is likely a public sector job related to this cause that will help you advance change.
  • Search for government internships and jobs around your college and online, and/or join organizations that support those interests.
  • Advocate and protest on as many fronts as you can.   

In New York City, you can search for positions in city government by area of interest.  If you want to look far and wide, check out to see opportunities all across the country at once. If you’re trying to discern whether government is the right fit for you, another great option is paid fellowship programs like the Presidential Management Fellowship in federal service, Govern for America with states, Lead for America with underserved localities, or Coding it Forward for tech workers. You don’t have to be a policy or government major. The expertise that the government needs is wide-ranging.

As my frustrations with those in power have grown, I’ve reflected on the words of fellow Caribbean-American and personal hero, the late Congressional Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who once said, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines…You make progress by implementing ideas.” As we all strive to embody the change that we seek, I believe that we can all be inspired by the lessons from my grandmother, from Rep. Chisholm, and from many others to utilize our defiance and take our abilities to the highest levels of impact through work in the public sector.

Join me. 

Arslan Mohamed is a student at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education/CUNY School of Medicine and winner of the 2019 Paul A. Volcker Careers in Government Essay Contest.

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For Our Most Vulnerable Families, The City Must Delay In-Person School and Improve Remote Learning

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The Mayor and Chancellor visit a school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Deciding if and how we reopen schools this fall has been incredibly difficult and complex for city leaders. Keeping students, teachers, and support staff safe is of paramount importance in any reopening plan — but access to the resources and support that in-person instruction provides is a lifeline for many students.

Only a few weeks out from the first day of classes, it is clear our city is not equipped to safely bring 1.1 million students back to school. For the immigrant populations and communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, the weight of this decision is even heavier, and the consequences of any decision will no doubt fall harder on the most vulnerable among us.

This is a hard decision for everyone involved. But without a concrete plan to protect educators, school staff, students, and their families, Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Education must delay in-person learning. 

Since the beginning of this pandemic, immigrant communities in our city have felt the full force of its destruction. Nearly one in five of the essential workers staffing New York City’s grocery stores, social services organizations, and other frontline businesses are non-citizens and more than half are foreign born. Half of the city’s working class immigrants lost their jobs due to the pandemic, but undocumented immigrants can’t take advantage of rent subsidies or food stamps and did not receive a federal stimulus check. Health disparities that existed far before the pandemic have been exacerbated, with Black and Latino New Yorkers dying from the virus at about twice the rate of white New Yorkers.

Any decision about schools reopening needs to take into account how vulnerable these populations have already been to COVID-19 and place their needs front and center. Like many immigrant families, when I came to this country at age 12, I lived in a multi-generational home with my parents and grandmother. For our families, sending kids to school not only puts them and their parents at risk, but makes it harder to protect our senior population, especially those with pre-existing conditions. I came here without even knowing the alphabet, and it was through the support of my grandmother and teachers at my New York City public schools that I learned English and succeeded in the classroom.

If our schools don’t reopen for in-person learning, there are a number of challenges we still need to address. Many students lack internet access, live in crowded apartments, or are English language learners who need in-person support. Any remote learning or hybrid reopening model must ensure that immigrants and students of color have full access to the resources and technology they need to succeed in an online setting and address the ongoing child care crisis that has left parents with an impossible set of choices. The city must continue providing free child care for essential workers and any other parents who need assistance throughout this pandemic.

Most importantly, it is critical that the Department of Education and city officials keep an open line of communication with parents and students, ensuring that immigrant families have access to resources and guidance in the languages they are most comfortable with. The DOE should follow guidance from the New York Immigration Coalition Education Collaborative, which put forward a comprehensive communications plan that prioritizes reaching immigrant families, those with limited English proficiency, and parents who have low digital literacy. The DOE needs to reach these families where they are, and quickly.

Educators and workers have told us that schools can be reopened safely, but they will require adequate funding for PPE, cleaning supplies, and proper ventilation. So far, the Department of Education has not shared detailed plans or resource commitments. Little to no information about the proposed child care program that thousands of parents will depend on has been released. Just weeks before classes start, the Mayor announced that schools can include outdoor classrooms and should plan accordingly, but provided no road map. It’s clear that the DOE still does not have a clear plan, and teachers and parents are operating in the dark.

There is far too much at risk — especially for immigrants and communities of color who have already suffered so much — for the nation’s largest school district to make such a monumental decision without being fully prepared. Until we have a real plan in place, we must delay in-person learning and focus on ensuring that remote learning is as effective as possible, for all communities.

By Jenny Low, Reporter, Gotham Gazette

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The Schools Chancellor Must Step Up or Step Aside

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Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza (photo: Mayor's Office)

Unless there's an unexpected, immediate turnaround, New York City's public schools need new leadership.

Poorly planned March closures, Spring and Summer distance learning failures, and overwhelmingly confused reopening plans for Fall are evidence of a system in near collapse and the cause of widespread parent and teacher despondency.

This is not all Chancellor Richard Carranza's fault. He works for a Mayor who has been slow and stubborn throughout the city's pandemic response, especially when it comes to the schools. But Mayor Bill de Blasio still has a year and a half left in office and our schools need new leadership now. We need a new Chancellor who will stand up to the Mayor, demonstrating managerial decisiveness and instructional vision. Deferring to de Blasio at every turn is a calamity for our children who face a perilous educational future.

Mayoral control of the city's schools makes the Chancellor's independence difficult. But Police Commissioner Dermot Shea regularly challenges the Mayor and gets away with it. Education is no less a technical field than policing. Carranza, however, has shown little backbone to chart his own course over the past two-and-a-half years and especially for the past six months. He needs to step up or step aside for a stronger replacement.

There is little chance that de Blasio will remove the Chancellor, a loyal soldier. Some will question changing horses mid-stream. But when the water is rising and the Mayor with the Chancellor at his side are stuck, the only choice is to spur change. So, without new-found independence, it remains for Carranza to leave, allowing new leadership to move us forward.

Carranza's greatest and most lasting legacy has been calling out our system's structural racism. He dared utter the word "segregation" when it stuck in de Blasio’s throat. He called for dismantling screened schools. He appointed people of color and women to high positions. No Chancellor in history has been more forceful in their calls for a more just and equal school system.

Those words, though, have not been followed by sufficient action. Here again, perhaps held back by the Mayor, Carranza has not met the moment. He has lagged, rather than led, as a few community school districts made strides improving diversity. Screened schools still promote segregation. Implicit bias training has been overly expensive and of dubious effectiveness. Two reports by the School Diversity Advisory Group have largely been shelved, especially the most significant integration recommendations. Now, inequities accumulate in haphazard reopening plans and budget cuts visited on the most vulnerable. Having broken through on rhetoric, stronger leadership is required to turn verbal commitments into reality.

De Blasio ran out of educational gas with his inspired first burst of effort bringing truly universal pre-kindergarten to New York. But Chancellor Fariña merely reversed Bloomberg-era reforms and Carranza has shown little ability to make strides in either instruction or bureaucratic responsiveness. Many outstanding educators wait in the wings to bring extensive leadership experience, new energy, and independent ideas to our schools. Among them are First Deputy Chancellor Don Conyers, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, and ex-Montgomery County, Maryland Superintendent Josh Starr, who all have enviable track records within the New York City Department of Education and could immediately step into the Chancellorship.


If de Blasio can suppress his arrogance and admit he is no educational expert, allowing a new Chancellor to choose his or her own team and set a course outside the political calculus of City Hall.

If Chancellor Carranza has the courage to step up or see that he has brought us to where we are but can go no further.

If we, under new leadership, can reclaim our sense of hope and confidence instead of fear and confusion about this traditional time of renewal, the new school year.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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Eradicating Visible and Invisible Racism in Housing


(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” declared Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1963. This racist trope pandered to white voters and could not have been clearer, just as recent remarks by President Donald Trump were to white suburban voters.

Trump contends that implementing an Obama-era federal housing department rule designed to assist all communities (not just suburbs) to meet their legal obligation under the 1968 Fair Housing Act to “affirmatively further fair housing” (AFFH) will “totally destroy the beautiful suburbs.” The president asserts that the AFFH rule would force communities to accept low-income housing which, in turn, would rapidly increase crime and lower property values. As numerous studies have shown, this is patently untrue. But to people who utter such racist nonsense, facts rarely matter.

We should not be surprised that a president whose business was prosecuted for alleged racial discrimination in housing in the 1970s does not believe fair housing laws should be enforced. Apparently, this self-described “law and order” president cherry picks the laws he wants enforced and our nation’s civil rights laws are not even on his list. 

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson has also opposed the AFFH rule, stating that addressing the inequalities resulting from structural and historical racism would be a “waste of time” and dismissed the rule as “social engineering.” Ironically, he appears oblivious to the fact that it was a massive, intentional, coordinated, and costly social engineering effort over more than half-a-century by the real estate industry and government at all levels that constructed the architecture of residential racial segregation that remains so durable and visible in our metropolitan regions.

This legacy of discrimination, which explicitly preserved and protected white neighborhoods and white economic interests to the disadvantage and exclusion of African-American people, was responsible for creating the racial wealth gap that persists to this day. Congress included the duty to affirmatively further fair housing in the Fair Housing Act to ensure that, going forward, the federal government and recipients of federal funds would take meaningful steps to ensure that housing and community development policies and programs reduced residential racial segregation and repaired the harm caused by past government action. This administration’s action to set aside this rule and eviscerate a key provision of the Fair Housing Act must not be allowed to stand.       

As a nation, we also need to eliminate less visible forms of systemic racism in housing that persist to this day. The late civil rights leader James Farmer Jr. stated, “Institutional practices, it seems, perpetuate themselves mostly by their invisibility.”

In November 2019, Newsday released the results of the largest journalistic testing investigation into real estate practices conducted in the nation. Newsday documented racial steering and found that, nearly half of the time (49%), African-American home-buyers experienced racial discrimination when searching for a home to purchase on Long Island. In July 2020, Suffolk University Law School reported on the results of an undercover testing investigation completed in the Boston area that found Black renters encountered less favorable treatment than their white counterparts 71% of the time. Decades of testing investigations conducted by fair housing organizations provide compelling evidence that systemic racism remains a persistent and pervasive characteristic in our metropolitan housing markets.  But the subtle nature of contemporary housing discrimination makes it virtually impossible for ordinary consumers to detect.    

Government enforcement of fair housing laws has been largely passive and uneven over the past 52 years. Past Republican and Democratic administrations can be roundly criticized for treating fair housing with abject neglect. But the Trump administration has mounted an overtly racist attack on fair housing by advancing two destructive regulations, one that provides an utterly fatuous redefinition of what it means to affirmatively further fair housing and another that makes it virtually impossible to use the well-established legal theory of disparate impact to enforce fair housing laws. Repairing the damage this administration has done to our fair housing laws will require that the next administration rescind these vile regulations as part of a larger racial justice agenda.     

In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar powerfully wrote, "Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air."

As a nation, we must shine a bright light on discriminatory housing policies and practices and work to cleanse our housing markets of pernicious systemic racism. This will mean devoting significant resources to vigorously enforce and fully implement fair housing laws. If this is going to happen, our first cleaning project should be the White House.    

Fred Freiberg is Executive Director of the New York City-based Fair Housing Justice Center.

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Statements Aren’t Enough; We Must Center Racial Equity in the City Planning Process Now

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

This is a pivotal moment in our city. As the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and the vital urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement make clear, New York City government needs a fundamental course correction, one centered on racial equity and undoing the damage of decades and centuries of injustice. Though the need for reform stretches across all our institutions, those that decide our built-environment play an especially crucial role. These agencies must reckon with a legacy of practices that have perpetuated systemic racism, hurt quality of life, and denied opportunities to communities of color.

City planning and the land-use process serve as a reflection of our city’s values and priorities. If racial equity is truly a priority for our city then a cultural shift in planning is needed, beyond a single institution or the ULURP process, to address a stubborn developer-centric approach that privileges capital over community. At the heart of this culture shift is rebuilding trust with New Yorkers that have been hardest hit. City government cannot simply repackage its current approach of rezoning low-income communities of color in the name of equity. At this crucial moment in our city and country, we need to do better.  

Centering racial equity in the planning process would mean ensuring an equitable distribution of resources and development city-wide. Decisions would be based on needs like infrastructure and challenges like climate change and the risks of displacement, instead of a transactional approach based on a community’s political power. It would mean moving away from an approach that sees adding units as the sole indicator of a successful housing policy, without taking into account displacement, community wealth building, or racial equity. It would mean supporting and approving community plans that address both local and city-wide goals, and learning to build trust in that process. 

Taking a color blind approach to planning, as many of our agencies do today, is not enough. We may not be using the same explicitly racist tools of the past, but for many communities, the outcomes are the same. In the absence of explicit racial-equity priorities, white residents and white communities with more resources and connection to power will always benefit the most. As the primary drivers of planning in the city, both the New York City Department of City Planning and Economic Development Corporation acknowledged the importance of addressing these challenges. While the statements are a necessary first step, they are not enough on their own. 

The good news is that some of our institutions are already taking initiative to actively address historical injustices. For example, the City Parks Department developed the Community Parks Initiative. Centered on equity, this process helped the agency identify historically underserved parks in poorer neighborhoods - using dedicated funding to build new parks, improve programming, and increase operations to bring meaningful changes to open space and surrounding communities. Similarly, the City Health Department launched its Race to Justice effort several years ago to examine how structural racism impacts its work, helping it to develop staff knowledge and skills, new policies, and to collaborate with communities through an anti-racist lens.

The City Department of Housing Preservation and Development has shown what a good community planning process can look like, by working collaboratively with the Edgemere community after Hurricane Sandy to develop a community plan with 60 recommended projects, many of which have been funded. And in 2017, two local laws (60 and 64) were passed requiring the city to develop an environmental justice plan, which when complete will advise agencies and city leaders on the steps needed to address the environmental burdens low-income communities of color across the city have had to face, including strategies to improve health equity and deliver opportunities to expand the green economy. These examples show that New York City government is already working to undo a history of racist planning policies, although in a piecemeal way. We need to build on this.  

When low-income communities of color push back on city-led plans, they must be listened to, not dismissed as being anti-change. When neighborhoods come together to craft a community plan that centers their values, while still addressing city-wide goals, city government should help realize their plans. And on the flip side, wealthier and whiter neighborhoods must no longer be off-limits for the types of increased density and development the city has prioritized in low-income communities.

We can make this shift by implementing a comprehensive planning approach that centers racial equity. One that commits not just words, but scarce money, time, and technical resources to ensure our institutions work in collaboration with each other and the communities they serve to lessen and reverse the impacts of historical and structural racism. Let’s get to work. 

Maulin Mehta is Senior Associate of State Programs and Advocacy at Regional Plan Association. Christopher Walters is Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator at Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Both organizations are members of the Thriving Communities Coalition.

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Save Our School Children: Give Them Philosophy

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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The question of how to resume our children’s education safely has understandably preoccupied parents, educators, and elected officials. And because the difference between the various models being proposed (‘blended’ vs fully remote) may well be the difference between life and death for a fellow human being, we need to rely on the best available science. 

Yet the question of ‘how’ to restart school for the city’s 1.1 million public school students is not the only one we need to be asking. Two others that demand our attention are what they will learn and why. And because answers to these questions are essential to determining how well our children’s lives are to be lived, we need to turn to philosophy.  

What students need to learn is how to think. That may sound obvious but what most students learn in school is not how to think but what to think. Instead of exercising their minds by exploring the many possible ways to be human, they quickly learn the value of knowing what is expected of them, what to repeat back, and what they need to do to pass the next test.

Rather than finding school to be a safe space for young minds to try out big ideas, too many students come to see school as a purgatory they must pass through before they take their pre-assigned role in a rigged game where success is measured by material gain. To allow such cynicism to take root is not to educate young souls but to impoverish them. 

Learning how to think begins with the realization that the most interesting and important questions in life are not black and white but grey, not resolved with a google search or by asking Siri but are necessarily open-ended. That means not only that they can be answered in several, often incompatible ways, but that those various answers reliably raise a multitude of new questions of their own.

These include so-called ‘big questions’ such as “What is fair?,” “Do we have free will?,” and ‘What is truth?,” but quickly extend to what appear to be more pointed questions, such as “When is government coercion justified?,” “Is adequate housing a right?,” and “What is the purpose of an education?”   

These are philosophical questions and they are the kind of questions that humans have been asking in one form or another for ages. The different answers that have been given at various times and places have shaped our history and have helped define our cultural identities. The answers we settle on give meaning to our lives by framing the choices we make concerning ourselves, our families, and our communities. The answers we try to live by determine how we deal with our failures and how we face our deaths. It is by learning how to think through these fundamental questions that humans learn how to live.

As every parent knows, philosophical questions come naturally to children. Still new to the world, the young can’t help but wonder who they are and who they might yet become. They are desperate to know what is possible, what is not, and why.

We need to encourage them in their quest to understand the human condition. Besides being intrinsically enjoyable, their philosophical investigations will improve their critical thinking, deepen their emotional intelligence, and lead them to be respectfully open-minded about diverse viewpoints. Making time for philosophy will also increase their understanding in math and reading

Given the value and benefit of providing young minds the time and space to grow, we ought to be placing a philosopher-in-residence in every school to facilitate student’s intellectual journeys. We should be allowing them to ask if animals have rights, if robots can be persons, and whether prisons should be abolished. We should be encouraging them to articulate answers that make sense to them and to attentively listen to their classmates who do not agree.

But rather than make such discussions central to our children’s education, we too often dismiss their big questions as irrelevant and a distraction to the lessons we unreflectively think they need to learn. Little wonder that as children grow older they ask these important questions less and less.  

And this points to the most important reason why we need philosophy in our schools, to ensure that when our children grow up they will be less like ourselves. Most people only encounter philosophy in college, if it all, which helps explain why so many adults don’t know how to think either. If we did, perhaps we would be leading happier, more fulfilling lives than we currently do.

If we learned to contemplate different alternatives and perspectives about how to live, then perhaps we would be able to converse respectfully with each other about matters on which we disagree. If as children we had been encouraged to think deeply about the difference between wants and needs, then perhaps New York City and its school system for which we are now responsible wouldn’t be as inequitable and painfully unjust as they are. 

Our young people, certainly those of middle- and high-school age, are not so self-absorbed that they fail to realize that the way things have been is not only unacceptable, but that it is falling away. The arrival of the coronavirus and the tragic disruption that it has caused, coupled with a summer of social upheaval sparked by the killing of George Floyd and fueled by centuries of suffering and oppression, has forever altered the perspectives of this current generation of students. They want something better, something more just and more hopeful than the city and the lives they currently stand to inherit. We need to give them the tools to conceive what that something better might be, as well as the confidence to go forth and create it. Their lives depend on it. 

Joseph S. Biehl, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Gotham Philosophical Society and Young Philosophers of New York. On Twitter @jsbiehl.

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Homelessness, Housing, and the Upper West Side

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(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

I spent a good portion of my childhood and adolescence around the intersection of West 79th and Amsterdam, whether it was with my parents or friends’ parents at Bagels & Co., or picking up snacks at the Duane Reade or Insomnia, or covertly eating non-kosher at Island Burgers. So it has been deeply saddening for me to see such a cornerstone of my neighborhood be turned into a rallying cry for reactionary hatred. The temporary sheltering of a few hundred homeless people in the Lucerne, the Belleclaire, and the Belnord is the least that the Upper West Side, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere, can do. Especially when the alternative is overcrowded, understaffed city shelters where COVID-19 could spread easily.

That’s the reality that seems to be lost on groups like Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, a Facebook page whose members have called for, among other things, smearing excrement on city benches to keep away homeless people and using fireworks to clear out homeless encampments: that we are living in extraordinary times. Just this weekend, America passed 5 million covid cases and 150,000 covid deaths. If otherwise-empty hotels can be used to help reduce covid vulnerability of existing shelters, then it should be done. With shelters recording a 60% higher rate of infection over the city, as Pablo Zevallos wrote last week, “social a life-or-death matter for the homeless.”

Admittedly, plenty of my neighbors do understand this. They instead argue that they are being forced by the city to sacrifice their community for the sake of health. And to these people I have to ask: what sacrifice? According to NYPD data, crime on the Upper West Side is either flat or down year-over-year across all categories. By any metric, the Upper West Side remains the safest neighborhood in Manhattan. Just this weekend I passed by two Guardian Angels on the corner of my block, a block on which I have never, in my entire life, been witness to a crime. Contrary to the apparent beliefs of many members of the Safer Streets Facebook group, not every person of color you don’t recognize is homeless, nor are they committing a crime.

There is a growing sentiment among my neighbors, though, that being homeless is in-and-of-itself a crime. Whether people realize it or not, this is the sentiment behind worrying about, for example, public urination (real quick, give me the location of a 24-hour public restroom on the Upper West Side). My point here is not that public urination is a desirable outcome - of course it isn’t. It is, however, the natural consequence of having a very large population of homeless people and few public restrooms. Bear in mind, too, that New York is the only city in the country with a right-to-shelter law, which stipulates exactly what the name suggests: the city is required by law to house everyone. COVID-19 aside, there have never been enough shelters to fulfill this requirement, so the city has turned to hotels. Again - housing homeless people in hotels is not a desirable outcome, but it is the natural consequence of not having built enough housing.

And this is an area where our neighborhood has clearly failed. I’ve always found it funny that Mayor de Blasio is blamed for everything bad that happens on the Upper West Side when his housing policy has left our neighborhood virtually untouched. Since 2014, the city has constructed just one affordable building north of 62nd Street. This is not because of the high cost of housing on the Upper West Side. Aaron Carr, founder of the Housing Rights Initiative, pointed out that the city’s own report on affordable housing found that expensive markets are actually better for affordable housing construction. This way, private developers can more easily defray the cost of affordable units with more expensive, market-rate units. So why, then, has the city built so much affordable housing in lower-income neighborhoods like East Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and nothing in higher-income neighborhoods like the Upper West Side? The Lucerne is the answer. As Carr put it: “The backlash against the hotels is part of a broader pattern of exclusion.” Upper West Siders do not want new housing, so no new housing has been built.

But there is no other way to resolve this crisis. Shelter is, quite literally, the most basic human need, and there is no other way to help homeless New Yorkers get their lives back on track. It is high time that neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, wealthy even by the standards of the richest city in America, contribute to ending our housing crisis. That’s why I’m an active member of Open New York, a group fighting to bring more housing to wealthy neighborhoods so that more people can afford to live in New York City.

We’re currently working to upzone SoHo, but the same arguments apply equally well to the Upper West Side. More housing in the wealthiest neighborhoods will create more funding for affordable housing, increase integration, and take displacement pressures off vulnerable, less-privileged areas of the city. We live in a neighborhood that millions of Americans can only dream of: good schools, safe streets, and beautiful parks, right in the heart of the economic engine of the world. Instead of building walls around what we are fortunate enough to have, we should open our doors and give others the chance to share in it.

Jonathan Lindenbaum is a lifelong Upper West Side resident and member of Open New York. On Twitter @urbaneurban.

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Should New York City Cut School Bus Service?

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A school bus in the city (Wikimedia Commons)

Challenged by reduced bus capacity due to social distancing and strained budgets, school districts face difficult decisions about school busing this fall. How can districts allocate scarce busing resources to best support students? Some districts, like Dayton, Ohio, are considering eliminating bus service for charter schools. Others would go farther, proposing to limit bus service to students for whom it is legally mandated -- those with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and those living in temporary housing -- leaving other students to walk, use public transit or private transportation.

Our work suggests that the impact of such cuts would fall disproportionately on low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, and reduce educational opportunity for students living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Although cutting school bus service may seem like an “easy” way to save money, educators and policymakers should wield the budget knife carefully. 

Buses are Important
While many downplay the importance of school buses in cities with high density and robust public transportation systems, our work in New York City highlights the significant role school buses play in urban districts. School buses transport students with disabilities to appropriate schools, help children living in temporary housing avoid the disruption of transitory school changes, transport students who live far from their neighborhood school, and enable low-income children in disadvantaged neighborhoods to access higher quality schools (including charters). 

All Kinds of Students Take the Bus
According to 2017 ridership data, more than 115,000 K-8 public school children take a school bus in New York City.  Nearly half have bus service mandated as part of their IEP or under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which requires districts to provide homeless students with transportation to their origin school. Eliminating bus service for these students is neither legal nor desirable. 

The remaining 60,000-plus students who take the bus are eligible for service because they live outside their school’s “walk zone” – a half mile for students in grades K-2, a mile for students in grades 3-6, and 1.5 miles for grades 7-8. These students are also offered the option of a Metrocard, which allows free use of public transit, but choose to ride the school bus instead. They include a racially diverse mix of students from all five boroughs, and a majority are from low-income households.

Roughly 60 percent of school bus-riding students attend a charter or magnet school or another neighborhood’s zoned school that offers a preferred program. Among these “choice school” students, those who ride the bus are significantly more likely to attend a ‘better’ school (with higher performing students) outside of their neighborhood than students attending choice schools close to home. These students are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, suggesting the school bus serves to reduce racial/ethnic disparities in access to good schools.

Where to Find Savings?
Let More Kids Walk
New York City can expand current walk zones to match those used by other large urban districts. In Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia, for example, even the youngest students must live more than a mile from school to receive bus service and older students more than 1.5 miles.  If New York City followed suit, expanding the walk zones to one mile for K-2 students and 1.5 miles for grades 3-6, the number of school bus riders would drop by roughly 35 percent.  

Let Older Students Rely on Public Transit
Most students living outside the middle school walk zone are only offered Metrocards and not school bus service, with options often determined by the school principal. Accordingly, roughly four out of five middle school students who live outside the walk zone already use public transit.  Eliminating the bus for middle school students would decrease bus ridership by approximately 10,000 students.

Eliminate Busing to Charter Schools
Students attending charter schools currently receive the same bus service as students attending traditional public schools and are subject to the same eligibility rules. Expanding walk zones would reduce the number of charter school students taking the bus, but a sizable number would still live far enough away to be eligible for bus service. Eliminating bus service to charter schools entirely – as Dayton is considering – would reduce bus ridership by about 20 percent, roughly 90 percent of which would be Black or Hispanic students.   

Assessing the Costs and Benefits
While the direct financial consequences of reducing school bus service may be clear, there will also be a set of unintended benefits and, inevitably, costs. As for benefits, reducing bus service  may encourage more students to walk or use “active transportation,” such as biking or skateboarding, with positive effects on physical activity, time spent outdoors, and reductions in obesity.

As for costs, reducing bus service may increase reliance on public transit, which could expose students (or other riders) to an increased risk of COVID-19. In another vein, whether students walk or use transit, the lack of supervision on the commute may pose additional safety risks. Finally, families faced with difficult commutes to a choice school may be compelled to move their child to a school close to home, causing educational disruption and, potentially, a less appropriate educational setting for their child. These losses are likely to be particularly large in low-income Black and Hispanic communities already hard hit by COVID-19.

Weighing the benefits and costs is difficult because of so much uncertainty around transmission and the modality of instruction in the fall. Our take is that, on balance, eliminating all service to charters would entail substantially higher educational costs than expanding the walk zone. Reducing the availability of school buses to middle schools is also appealing, particularly because larger walk zones would significantly reduce the number of students who would even be eligible. Of course, exceptions will have to be made to accommodate unusual individual circumstances, such as hazardous walking routes. For many students, however, getting off the bus would be neither onerous nor detrimental to their education. It may even do them some good. 

by Amy Ellen Schwartz, Sarah Cordes, Jeffrey Zabel & Christopher Rick.

Schwartz is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair in Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Professor of Economics and Public Administration and Director of Transportation Research at the IES funded REACH Center.

Cordes is an Assistant Professor of Policy, Organizational, and Leadership Studies at Temple University and a Research Partner with the IES funded REACH center.

Zabel is a Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the MS Program in Data Analytics at Tufts University. He is the Co-Editor of the Journal of Housing Economics.

Rick is a doctoral student in public administration at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University.

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Mayor Must Bridge Budget Gap Without Borrowing or Mass Layoffs

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

Despite a full-court press from cities and states across the country, Congress left for August recess without passing joint legislation to provide them with federal financial assistance. This aid is desperately needed by localities, both red and blue, that have suffered dramatic revenue losses due to the shutdown of much of their economies during the pandemic. There is still hope that some amount of aid will eventually be forthcoming, but not in time or in sufficient amount to address the dire needs of New York City and State.

While the current fiscal year budget for the city is technically balanced, it includes some big risks, such as large police overtime reductions that are often attempted but never achieved and a $1 billion target for labor savings with no details or signs that any real discussion is taking place. The projected deficit for next fiscal year is $4.2 billion. So the likelihood is that the combined two-year deficit is close to $6 billion, maybe more. 

But Mayor de Blasio has delayed taking action to address the gap until October, hoping that federal funding would come through in the meantime. As that prospect looks more and more unlikely, he has taken to warning that 22,000 layoffs will be necessary unless the city is given permission by the state to borrow money to cover the shortfall; to make the threat more real and compelling to legislators, notices of the number and savings value of possible layoffs by agency are scheduled to be released on August 31 and there have been leaked reports of dire consequences such as layoffs of hundreds of EMTs and thousands of teachers.

The mayor bristles at comparisons of the current situation to the 1970s when the city relied so heavily on financing its expenditures that it got to the point when no one would loan it any more money. Yes, the reason for the revenue shortfall now is different. Then, it was a problem of spending persistently exceeding resources; now it is a dramatic and sudden loss of revenue caused by an unanticipated health calamity. But the result is the same: the city is not generating enough tax revenue (or state and federal aid) to pay for all its costs. And while we can and should be bullish about the city’s resiliency, there is reason to believe that its economic recovery will take several years at best; and the size and nature of the economy may be quite different than what it was before everything changed in March. 

Borrowing for the next two years will not solve the problem, but only exacerbate it, because if there is insufficient revenue to cover expenses, more borrowing will be required and so on. Taxpayers of tomorrow will be paying hundreds of millions of dollars of debt service for bad decisions of today. It took until 2008 for the debt incurred to save New York City from bankruptcy in the ‘70s to be finally retired. The mayor has said that to keep debt service payments manageable he would cut capital spending (the only valid purpose for financing), a decision that could curtail high-priority infrastructure investments that are important to the city’s revitalization.

Unlike in the ‘70s, the state is not in a position to backstop the city by stepping in to take over its debt as it did then by creating the Municipal Assistance Corporation. Indeed, New York State is in even worse financial straits than the city, with skyrocketing Medicaid and unemployment insurance costs, not to mention the MTA on the brink of disaster. 

What is needed are thoughtful, strategic spending reductions, not the across-the-board layoffs the mayor is threatening. The Citizens Budget Commission and other experts have come up with a number of valid suggestions including reductions in the cost of fringe benefits and productivity improvements. Public employee unions can be especially helpful in agreeing to compensation and work-rule and staffing changes so that all savings do not result in reductions to services to residents. No ideas should be shelved out of the belief that union opposition would be insurmountable; now is the time for doing what conventional wisdom would say is impossible. A serious, good faith effort by the de Blasio administration, the City Council, and public employee unions, working together to use a scalpel, not a hatchet, can significantly reduce costs and minimize the amount, if any, of borrowing required.

Let us be clear: our opposition to borrowing to pay operating expenses is not driven by a small government ideology. Rather it arises from a commitment to strong, secure, well-managed government and a desire to avoid even worse austerity measures that will come if we don’t make politically difficult but necessary decisions now. 

Both the City and State Comptrollers, as members of the New York State Financial Control Board and as fiscal watchdogs, have an obligation to state clearly and unequivocally that borrowing our way out of the current crisis with no conditions or requirements for spending discipline (i.e. a reinstatement of the oversight and control powers of the Control Board) is not viable and should not be permitted. If they and legislative leaders Speaker Carl Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins cave to pressure from public employee unions and others who don’t want to take responsibility for managing through the crisis, they will be complicit in kicking the can down the road and will bear the responsibility for the even more draconian actions that will need to be taken under the next mayor.  

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018. Norman Steisel was a First Deputy Mayor of New York City, Sanitation Commissioner, and First Deputy Budget Director, all between 1974 and 1994.

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