Gotham Gazette

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Owning Our Homes, Owning Our Future: A Path to a Just Recovery

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Housing on the line (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor’s Office)

On the eve of the pandemic, I gathered with my neighbors outside their building in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx to sound an alarm. For those tenants, it wouldn’t be true to say that “crisis had hit home.” They had been steeped in crisis for some time.

For three decades, the landlord of 2201-2205 Davidson Avenue had racked up a $12.6 million debt in unpaid property taxes while the tenants lived with the unlivable: black mold that crept over lead-painted walls, rats that chewed through clothes and stoves, leaks that never stopped, elevators and hot water that hardly ran. Then, the investors that took over the building issued over a dozen eviction notices to tenants on rent strike.

At the press conference, tenants unfurled a banner from the fire escape that read: “We are ready to take control. NYC, are you ready?” It was February. By March, COVID-19 hit our city like a tsunami, plunging us deeper into housing, health, and economic crises. With winter upon us and COVID-19 cases on the rise again, tenants are bracing for our government to lift eviction bans come January.

My Bronx community in City Council District 14 is ground zero, with the highest rate of evictions in the city prior to the moratorium. We didn’t know it back in February, but the Davidson Avenue tenants’ message was pointing us towards what an equitable and just recovery requires: a path to community ownership to secure our future.

We know that the pandemic has shot unemployment rates to levels unseen since the Great Depression. When the Depression had reached its peak in the 1930s, landlords delivered hundreds of thousands of eviction notices to tenants unable to pay rent across the city. In response, Bronx residents mobilized for rent strikes and eviction blockades to prevent their neighbors from being thrown out on the streets. Similarly today, evictions are on the rise in the face of mass unemployment.

So I took to the streets with hundreds of tenants from across the city to end evictions and demand rent relief. Unwilling to stand idly by when millions of New Yorkers stand to lose our homes, in October we barricaded Broadway with furniture until police came to forcibly remove us. While we are clear in our demands of legislators to cancel rent and deliver a homes guarantee for our state, there are specific ways city officials must show leadership for a just recovery.

Now more than ever, we need short-term fixes, including an immediate extension of eviction moratorium and expansion of Right to Counsel in housing cases across the city, and long-term structural changes that democratize and decommodify housing.

We know this is possible during a crisis. We need only look to how our people commanded the government and banks to respond when our city nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s.

Planned shrinkage and racist redlining practices diverted investment and critical services away from poor and working class communities of color, and the Bronx was burning with landlord arson and abandonment. But our people organized to hold their landlords, government, and banks accountable and rebuilt our communities from the ground up. The city sold public land to our communities for cheap so they could launch cooperative and non-profit housing companies, and tenants passed legislation for rent stabilization to safeguard affordability.

I recently fought alongside a statewide coalition of tenant organizations to defend those laws and remove loopholes that landlords exploited to displace our people. When we won, we believed that it was our time to dream big again. Learning from history, now is the time to invest in real collective ownership over where we live — in transfer of land and supportive infrastructure to sustain it for the long haul.

Crisis brings into sharp focus inequities that were already present. It also presents an opportunity to come to new conclusions, to write new futures. We each have a choice to make about how we will show leadership in this moment. Our government could choose austerity and cutbacks that reinforce a system in service of wealth and power for the few. Or we can reach for solutions that put our people at the center and invest in long-term sustainability.

So what could real community ownership look like today in New York City? When Davidson Avenue tenants proclaimed to the world that they were ready to take control, they acknowledged that landlords, courts, banks, and their government had failed them. Instead, they would be prepared to own and govern the buildings they live in, collectively advancing a vision to steward land and stabilize our communities.

The City Council must support grassroots-led efforts for community ownership and social housing. Last month, as part of a city-wide movement, I joined Bronx residents at a town hall with Bronx Council members focused on resisting displacement, preserving long-term housing affordability, and establishing self-determination through transfering publicly-owned land to the Bronx Community Land Trust. Land in our city should not be a commodity. It is our urban commons — something we all need to share in order to survive and to live with dignity. We’re on the precipice of the biggest homelessness crisis that the city has seen in decades. But we can’t be evicted if we own where we live.

“How do we live like this?” a nine-year-old boy asked when he took the mic at that press conference. I felt his question in my bones. By age 12, my family had moved from one dilapidated building to the next, never finding the security we deserved, never able to afford better on my mother’s salary as a home health aide. It’s the kind of experience that will lead you to read a speech with shaking hands in the freezing cold before a row of cameras. It will fuel you to fight with your community so that no family ever has to feel that powerless. It will move you to run for public office to push these aspirations in the City Council.

By dropping that banner, my fellow Bronxites were issuing a call across the city to everyday people — poor and working class, Black and brown, immigrant and worker, queer and gender-nonconforming, elder and youth. Our people are calling for emergency actions and long-term solutions. It is time for our representatives to get on the same page. Instead of putting bandaids over deep-rooted inequities, let’s guarantee our people’s shelter, health and wellbeing. Let’s make sure we all have the freedom to thrive.

Adolfo Abreu is a candidate for New York City Council in District 14, in the Bronx. On Twitter @Adolfo4Council.

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Rebuild Hospital Capacity in Queens Before It's Too Late, Again

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Mayor de Blasio at Elmhurst Hospital (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

A study recently released by New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection had a grim finding: as the pandemic overwhelmed the city last spring, 30% of patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 ended up dying. The findings confirmed the images New Yorkers grew accustomed to seeing — mobile morgues and patients struggling to survive in hallways. 

The problem was particularly acute in my home borough of Queens, where there are only 1.8 hospital beds per 1,000 residents as compared to five beds for every 1,000 residents in Manhattan. Elmhurst Hospital and Northwell Forest Hills became national symbols of the seriousness of covid, with Elmhurst experiencing 13 deaths within a 24-hour period at the height of the pandemic while Northwell Forest Hills experienced 17 deaths within a 24-hour period. This is totally unacceptable.

Even in Manhattan, the situation became so dire that a field hospital in Central Park was erected. Dying New Yorkers were routed to tents to receive care during the cold evenings of early spring.

This temporary facility was built by anti-LGBTQ activist Rev. Franklin Graham. It added insult to injury for a city that was failing to take care of its own. And it was especially difficult to stomach for New Yorkers who lived through one of the city’s other major health crises, the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

For me, it was a horrifying and unexpected combination of my work as a Queens-based LGBTQ organizer and health-care activist. It made plain that it is impossible to separate the medical from the social and the scientific from the political. 

In fact, during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York, I watched a generation of friends and neighbors die because of the indifference of too many people in power. One of my closest friends who guided me through the difficult coming out process ultimately died from complications with AIDS.

We were unprepared for the breadth of the crisis then, just as we were for this pandemic. But just because covid wasn’t expected, that doesn’t mean New York had to lose well over 20,000 lives and counting. 

In Queens alone, ten hospitals have been shuttered over the past 20 years as a giveaway to the real estate industry. A similar dynamic unfolded in Manhattan with St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was one of the few facilities to treat individuals with HIV and AIDS with dignity. 

The thinking was that the city had excess capacity and more focus should be on preventing the root causes of hospitalizations. The hospital property could then be repurposed by real estate developers. This was a big mistake.

And while focusing on preventative medicine is laudable, the city also failed on that count. Black and Hispanic residents, as well as vulnerable older New Yorkers of all races and ethnicities, were the most impacted by this virus.

One of the main reasons I’m running for New York City Council is to pass legislation to add hospital capacity and implement health-care impact assessments for every zoning and land use proposal that needs Council approval. We need to understand how new development impacts health-care access before some large projects are built.

That work will also entail creating a Hospital Capacity Task Force to rebuild health-care facilities throughout our city, with a focus on central and southeast Queens. We must ensure that whatever capital allocations are made, that they are dedicated to building additional hospital beds in an expedited fashion so that all communities are safer in the future with nearby access to world-class emergency care.  

With covid cases on the rise and hospitals again facing a possible shortage of beds, we must use this moment to reflect on what we want the city’s health-care system to look like in the future. Hospital beds may not be something the average New Yorker thinks about on a daily basis, but with the inevitable future public health emergencies ahead, we can’t let our own policy decisions be our biggest impediment to recovery. For many of us, it is a matter of life and death.

Lynn Schulman is a Democratic candidate for the New York City Council in Queens’ District 29. On Twitter @schulman2021.

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We Must Take Steps Now to Help Domestic Violence Survivors

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Seeking an end to domestic violence and protecting survivors (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Three women tragically lost their lives in New York City over the course of one week due to domestic violence. Thousands of women and children remain in danger. Many are faced with the devastating choice of staying with an abuser or losing their home.  

Domestic violence was the leading driver of homelessness in New York prior to the pandemic, and it’s only become a greater threat since. One of the still-unfolding consequences of New York’s stay-at-home order in March is its dramatic impact on victims of domestic violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge that the very measures that are necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19 can contribute to a spike in domestic violence.  

Social distancing and shutdowns mean more time at home, and in New York City, that is likely to mean 24/7 contact with your abuser in a relatively small living space. When the victim is a child, school closures have made that violence harder to see.

The last eight months have taught us that we are unlikely to know the true toll of this pandemic for many years. But here are some things we know right now: Families with children make up over 70% of the city’s larger shelter system population and many more are at risk of losing their home in the year ahead. Despite this, only one in four victims of domestic violence can safely find space in a domestic violence shelter. The majority instead stay in the regular family shelters which in which they often fear for their safety.  

For the past eight months, those enduring domestic violence have faced the added barrier of considering whether or not going into shelter during a pandemic is more dangerous than the escalating abuse in the home.  

This pandemic has catapulted the conversation on housing as the front line of defense for health and safety. It has underscored how critical permanent, affordable housing is to keeping vulnerable families who have survived domestic violence from becoming homeless a second time in a crisis. These families are coping with trauma, rebuilding their financial security, may lack external supports and familial networks, and are typically headed by a single parent. 

When New York City went into lockdown last spring, Linda, a single mother of two and a survivor of domestic violence, lost her job as a cashier. Fortunately, her immediate fears about how to pay the next month’s rent were addressed by her case manager at New Destiny, a nonprofit that provides housing and services for survivors of domestic violence, who helped her maintain her housing by applying for unemployment benefits and arranging to have her rent subsidy level adjusted to cover the rent. Linda has this housing and support thanks to a federal subsidy. 

Unfortunately, most families with children who enter the shelter system are stuck in shelter for over a year before they find a suitable apartment. One of the reasons for this is that the primary rental subsidies availability to domestic violence survivors and other homeless families are at a rate significantly below market value and nearly $500 per month below what federal Section 8 pays, putting survivors at a significant disadvantage securing an apartment for their family. These programs also place arbitrary time limits on the subsidy that can force women and children to endure the trauma of losing a home and returning to a shelter for a second time. While it is illegal for landlords to discriminate based on the source of rental income, it remains a pervasive issue.  

proposal currently in committee at the New York City Council would level the playing field and set local housing subsidies for domestic violence survivors using the same fair market rents and length of time as federal Section 8 rental subsidies administered through the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). We must pass it.

On December 31, when the eviction moratorium ends, advocates for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness anticipate an unprecedented influx of families and single adults into the already overburdened shelter system. City officials must do everything they can to mitigate a tidal wave of family homelessness, and ensuring survivors have access to affordable, supportive housing is a key part of that process. 

With local officials sounding the alarm about rising coronavirus infection rates, policy-makers must act swiftly to provide a path to housing for victims of domestic violence. The lives and well-being of some of New York City’s most vulnerable women and children depend on it. 

New York City Council Member Stephen Levin represents parts of Brooklyn and is the chair of the Council’s general welfare committee. Nicole Branca is Executive Director of New Destiny Housing, one of New York City’s largest supportive housing providers for domestic violence survivors. On Twitter @StephenLevin33 & @nbranca13 of @newdestinyorg.

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New York Should Bring Full Casino Gaming Downstate to Create Good-Paying Jobs and Tax Revenue

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Full casino gaming downstate should be on the table, the author says (photo: governor's office)

Back in 2013, the Hotel Trades Council (HTC) — the union I lead that represents nearly 40,000 hotel, hospitality, and gaming industry workers across New York City and the surrounding suburbs — negotiated a landmark contract that nearly doubled workers’ wages, guaranteed free family health care, and provided retirement security to over three-quarters of employees at Resorts World, the city’s one and only casino. This was the beginning of the pathway out of poverty and into the middle class for thousands of New York families.

More recently, the union was able to negotiate the same agreement for Empire Casino workers in Yonkers after they chose HTC as their bargaining representative. Now, especially as we look into the uncertain future of a post-COVID-19 economy, we have a unique moment to double down on that economic opportunity. By converting to full casino gaming operations in the downstate area we can create thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and funding for our education programs at a time when the state faces an unprecedented economic crisis.

The contract between the union and Resorts World New York City raised the median hourly wage for workers from $11 in 2012 to nearly $35 in 2020, a 218% increase, giving our members a median annual salary of almost $73,000 today. It lifted an overwhelming 76% of workers off of government assistance for food and medical care, with enrollment in medical plans jumping 20% due to the union’s cost-free, premium health-care plan. And the large majority of workers — 70% — have said they have more supplemental income to cover bills, rather than living paycheck to paycheck. At Empire Casino, workers’ wages have more than doubled since HTC began representing them in 2019, and they now enjoy a host of additional benefits including real health and retirement benefits.

With 83% of these workers being people of color, there is no question that gaming industry jobs have had a transformative impact on marginalized communities. Nigel Ramsammy, a security guard at Resorts World for seven years, worked two jobs to afford his mortgage and to provide health care for his family before this contract was secured. When his son was diagnosed with cancer, the new union health benefits allowed his son to receive treatment at the best hospital in New York—and his family didn’t have to pay a cent.

Natalie Abreu, kitchen steward at Resorts World, was living in a homeless shelter with her three children. Because of the union deal, her salary more than tripled; she now makes over $33 an hour, lives in a 4-bedroom apartment with her family, and has reliable health-care and retirement benefits.

Thousands of families like Nigel’s and Natalie’s lead completely different lives thanks to these casino jobs. As the city and state continue to battle a deadly pandemic and the worst economic crisis in decades, allowing existing gaming operators to convert to full casino operations can protect thousands of jobs and add thousands more that all come with the best health care and wages in the gaming industry nationwide. Full gaming operations can help create tens of thousands of jobs, including good-paying union construction and gaming jobs, as well as billions of dollars in wages, tax revenue, and funding for state education.

These facilities’ critical roles as good employers have continued well into the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Resorts World and Empire Casino entered into safety protocol agreements with the union that commit them to strict measures intended to keep both workers and casino guests safe during the pandemic. Critically, they also extended health-care benefits for those who remained unemployed due to reduced operations and even gave workers additional income to supplement their unemployment benefits to keep them afloat.

Allowing for full casino licenses downstate will also generate critical revenue for the state as it grapples with covid-induced budget deficits. With a projected shortfall of $14.5 billion, state government may be forced to cut education funding by as much as 20% — a devastating blow to public school systems already facing existential obstacles from the pandemic. By converting existing casinos in Yonkers and Queens to full-fledged operations with live gaming and sports betting, the state would see an immediate and significant boost in licensing fees, new tax revenue, and funding to avoid deeper cuts to education, transportation, and health care.

Not only would full casino gaming  help bring us out of the immediate crises, but it would facilitate long-term employment opportunities and bring in a huge share of annual funding for education in hard-hit communities in the Bronx, Queens, Yonkers, and Mt. Vernon. These casinos would be huge benefactors to New York City public schools. Since its inception in 2011, Resorts World NYC has generated over $3 billion to state education, and is the largest taxpayer in the state. During the same period, Empire City Casino in Yonkers contributed $2.66 billion to state education.  These numbers could jump far higher.

As someone who has the honor of representing tens of thousands of hard-working hospitality and gaming industry workers who have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve seen firsthand how this industry that is so essential to New York’s economic recovery can be better leveraged to help our state and its people during this critical moment.

With full casino gaming in the downstate area , we have an opportunity to help revitalize the tourism sector while creating thousands of secure, high-paying jobs under the best labor contracts in the nation; fund our children’s future through higher tax revenues; and restore a path to the middle class for thousands of New Yorkers.

Richard Maroko is president of the New York Hotel Trades Council (HTC). On Twitter @NYHTC.

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What Happens in Williamsburg Doesn't Stay in Williamsburg

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The mayor in Williamsburg, Dec. 2019 (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

For years we at Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED) have raised awareness of the utter failure of many ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic yeshivas to comply with minimal secular education standards for non-public schools. Many legislators and voters considered it to be a niche issue, some believing it is a community that should be left to its own devices. However, the repeated pattern of disregard for COVID-19 public health guidance by leaders of these communities has shown again that what happens in these communities has real consequences for people across the city and state.

Since 1894, New York State has required non-public schools to provide an education that is “at least substantially equivalent” to that of public schools. This is such a common-sense law that for decades the state and local districts didn’t feel the need to actively enforce it. The notion that anyone would pay to send their children to schools that are inferior to the free-of-charge public school seems ridiculous.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in dozens of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic yeshivas in New York. Boys attending those schools receive an education that is severely lacking in, or completely omits, any secular education. According to our research, on average, Hasidic elementary and middle school boys receive just 90 minutes of secular education four days a week, consisting of basic English and arithmetic taught in an afterschool setting. No other subjects are taught. In high school, boys get completely cut off from any secular education, doing only Judaic studies.

As early as 2012, New York officials were made aware that dozens of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas don’t even come close to providing a “substantially equivalent” education, yet the city and state failed to take any action. In July 2015, the city finally announced an investigation, but it became one that was filled with delays and political horse-trading. The New York State Education Department, for its part, began working on revised guidelines to enforce the “substantial equivalency” laws in 2017.

One of the claims that yeshiva leaders have made, with some success, is that they are an independent and self-sufficient community, and therefore should be shielded from government scrutiny. In reality, yeshivas are heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars, and the majority of Hasidic yeshiva graduates depend on public benefits upon “graduating” because they haven’t been prepared for higher education or careers.

The truth is, all of our communities are connected and have an impact on one another. Nothing brings this into greater focus than COVID-19, an airborne virus. The air we breathe is shared among New Yorkers, regardless of the communities we are in. Hasidic leaders’ eschewing of guidance, with their flock following suit, has resulted in increased restrictions for all New Yorkers, especially living, working, and going to school in the temporary red and orange zones established by the state.

As the brazen violations by Hasidic leaders and their followers continue to emerge, it is important to understand that long after this virus is gone—let’s hope the vaccine becomes available soon—New Yorkers will still be dealing with the lack of secular education in ultra-Orthodox communities. Our children are our future. Without a quality education, we are robbing kids of opportunities and our society of the next generation of informed citizens and voters.

Whether it is a sub-par secular education or the disregard of public health guidance, the flouting of rules not only harms the Hasidic community, but the entire city and state. It is time for our elected officials to protect the good of all New Yorkers over the special interests whose choices have an impact far beyond their own neighborhoods.

Naftuli Moster is the founder and executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), a nonprofit focused on improving secular education in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. On Twitter @nmoster & @yaffedorg.

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Ranked-Choice Voting is Not 'Political Gentrification,' It’s Opportunity

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Voting in New York City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City, just like the nation, has been teetering at a crossroads. We’ve been utterly battered by the pandemic and ensuing economic depression. And much like the nation, we’ve been saddled with a do-nothing leader who has lionized the NYPD instead of holding them accountable. January 1, 2022 can’t come soon enough. Never has it been more important for every single voice to be heard.

Fortunately, New Yorkers will have a new way to vote next year which puts power back in the hands of the people, where it belongs. Ranked-choice voting (RCV) gives voters the option to rank their candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one. The system, which applies to special and party primary elections, has many positives, and was overwhelmingly approved by city voters in a 2019 referendum. In some instances, if your first choice is eliminated, the vote transfers to your second choice. Your vote matters more and candidates will need to appeal to more voters, just in time for the most consequential local election cycle in recent history.

However, before we’ve even had a chance to put the hellscape that was the 2020 election cycle to bed, some political leaders are trying to attack ranked-choice voting and delay, or even cancel, implementation. Attacks frame RCV as an act of “political gentrification.” It’s a popular rallying cry from the political establishment to use against anyone trying to address the extreme consolidation of power that exists in this city and state. It is an effective and particularly noxious term of art that accuses any political dissent or newcomer of being a gentrifier who strips power away from Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and their elected officials.

First things first. As a Black organizer, who participated with other BIPOC leaders to get RCV passed, I find this line of attack frustrating, but not surprising. It’s the same tactic used to discredit BIPOC organizers who pushed to defund the police in the city budget and better fund our communities, and also the coalition of groups pushing to hold the local Democratic Party accountable.

It erases BIPOC activists from their organizing work within marginalized communities who themselves are tired of inaction, and tired of political leadership intent on keeping our policies stuck in the past. All of which leaves working people behind and indebted to the same political leaders who have sold out their communities to get a seat at “their” table.

Second, this attack is actually not true. Ongoing research shows, as recently as 2020, that RCV has made it easier for BIPOC and women to run and win across the country, and in some cases, it has helped candidates of color running in majority white districts. The data is there. It’s why I’m not worried about running with other BIPOC candidates in a majority white district, nor am I fretting about vote splitting.

As a Black candidate in a predominately white district, I sometimes get told that “I don’t have a base,” as if my race dictates who will vote for me. I want to believe that a Black man in 2020, who has personally been a victim of police violence in his life, can run for office and win in this district. I want BIPOC candidates to feel they can run and win in a predominantly white district and not be told they don’t belong. I believe RCV helps make that possible.

In an ideal world, the local campaigns we run would involve trying to connect to many different communities within a district. In the 39th City Council District in Brooklyn, where I’m running in next year’s election, people assume the district only consists of owners of brownstone apartments. Living here, I know for a fact that there is a diverse community of working class folks, people struggling to make rent and stay above water as we all navigate multiple crises at once. With RCV, suddenly every conversation has more electoral value, and in turn, communities that are often overlooked have more direct impact and value to candidates. This can only be a good thing, pushing candidates to talk to as many voters as possible.

Do we need more city resources to educate folks about ranked-choice voting? Absolutely. But this should not cause us to delay or undermine a good reform that has been proven to work in other parts of this country and around the world. Community groups are already doing the work and ramping up now that the presidential election is mostly in the rear view. Instead of complaining, local electeds and political leaders should put their energy toward educating their constituents instead of defying the will of the voters.

In a country where we are still stuck with the Electoral College, and many formerly incarcerated folks are barred from voting because of a racist legacy of voter suppression, it’s taken an incredible amount of energy to pass really small reforms like early voting and ranked-choice voting. New York City has no excuse to not try and lead in bringing our elections into the modern era with a reform like RCV.

Like it or not ranked-choice voting is here to stay, and it’s time to get on board or get out of the way.

Brandon West is running for City Council in District 39 in Brooklyn. On Twitter @brandonwestnyc.

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Ranked-Choice Voting is Coming; NYC Must Immediately Fund a Public Education Campaign

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Voters at work (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The combination of early voting, vote-by-mail, and the desire to vote out Donald Trump made 2020 a huge year for voting in New York City. Despite long lines, when voters are given the right resources and awareness, we can raise the level of participation.  

As we turn towards 2021, the next chapter for voting in New York City will be the implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) for special and party primary elections for city government positions. If properly implemented, it will further improve our electoral process. But it’s an open question whether our government is up to the task of strong implementation, including extensive voter education, and the lack of effort and funding so far does not inspire confidence.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates based on their preferences, from choosing one up to five candidates in order. If a single candidate does not reach 50% of first-place votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices, with candidate elimination and vote reallocation continuing until a candidate hits 50%. 

When properly implemented, ranked-choice voting is good for our democracy and our city:

It is a more accurate representation of the electorate and a fairer process.

It empowers voters to make more candidate preferences heard.

It forces campaigns to build broad coalitions -- to focus on winning over a majority of voters in their districts.

It decreases negative campaigning.

Ranked-choice voting will be a major change in how city officials are elected, yet most voters are unaware of what’s coming or how RCV will work. City government, having adopted this new system through a charter revision commission and voter referendum, has a responsibility to educate voters or risk disenfranchising large swaths of voters who are confused by the process. With the first ranked-choice election scheduled for a special election that will culminate on February 2 in Queens’ City Council District 24, a seat recently vacated by Rory Lancman, we cannot allow any more delays in launching a major public education campaign to ensure all voters understand ranked-choice voting. 

After that special election, we will quickly have at least three more special City Council elections, followed by the June citywide primaries for Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough Presidents, and the entire City Council. With such a significant change in how voters will elect these officials, there is no time to waste.

Similar to the 2020 Census efforts, it is critical that the city immediately funds a public education campaign on ranked-choice voting. From sending mailings to voters, to partnering with local organizations and influencers to get the word out, to running television ads, to utilizing digital advertising, the city should be meeting voters where they are. Further, this outreach must be conducted in multiple languages so that voters for whom English is a second language are not left out of the civic process, as they too often are. We must be careful to include historically-disenfranchised communities of color in every part of our electoral process as we transition into ranked-choice elections.

Voting is the most sacred right in our country and a cornerstone of our democracy. With Republicans no longer able to block voting reforms in Albany, our laws are finally catching up with more progressive states and making voting easier. But failure to invest in civic education  following such a major change creates an obstacle to reform, unintentionally suppressing votes.  The implementation and funding of a ranked-choice voting education program is New York City’s opportunity to ensure the success of our new voting system, but only if we step up and take action right now.

Josué Pierre is a candidate for City Council in the 40th District, in Brooklyn. On Twitter @CitizenPierre.

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Rudy Giuliani Was Never Really ‘America’s Mayor’

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Rudy Giuliani at City Hall (photo: Kristen Artz/mayor's office)

As Rudy Giuliani melts down – at times literally – in his desperate crusade to steal the election for his soundly defeated First Client, there has been much speculation about how “America’s Mayor” could have deteriorated into this spectacle. 

Whatever may be going on with Rudy Giuliani personally, let’s be clear: while, for one brief moment in his career he served as a cheerleader for a devastated city and a shocked nation, the rest of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty was driven by a hostility to free expression, police brutality and violence, and an authoritarian disregard for democracy.

Let’s start with the First Amendment. The New York Civil Liberties Union was involved in 34 First Amendment lawsuits against the Giuliani administration – and prevailed in 26 of them. Those cases successfully challenged the firing of Police Officer Yvette Walton in retaliation for testifying before the City Council about racial profiling; the attempt to censor the Sensations exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; the ban on press conferences and demonstrations by Giuliani critics on the steps of City Hall; the ban on condom distribution as part of AIDS education in City Parks; police harassment of homeless people sleeping on the steps of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church; and singling out political demonstrators charged with minor offenses so that they could not get appearance tickets to return to court and often had to stay in jail overnight.  

In the seven-and-a-half years before 9/11, let there be no mistake: racial bias, fear-mongering, and police brutality were the hallmarks of Giuliani’s mayoralty. 

As mayor, Giuliani oversaw a policing regime repeatedly engaged in persecution and brutal assaults and killings of Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, using unlawful stop-and-frisk policies to jail Black and Hispanic New Yorkers in service of his ‘broken windows’ policing. Every time the NYPD killed a Black man, Rudy Giuliani was right there not only defending the police, but attacking the victim.

I will never forget his tirade against Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old Black security guard and father of two, after undercover police officers killed Dorismond after initiating a scuffle while on the job in Manhattan. Giuliani attacked Dorismond’s character and publicly revealed his legally-sealed juvenile record. It was Giuliani‘s notorious street crimes unit that killed Amadou Diallo in the lobby of his apartment building. 

And in his second of three runs for mayor, his virulent support for the police union in its opposition to an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) that would hold officers accountable for abuse, culminated in a speech at the union’s off-duty rally steps from City Hall that ended in what can only be described as an rampage by our “men – yes men—in blue” so egregious that it pushed the City Council to establish the city’s independent CCRB.

Perhaps one of Giuliani’s most telling pre-Trumpian moments was his campaign to put cops in charge of discipline in New York City public schools. While violence in schools was actually declining in 1998, Giuliani withheld crime data from the Board of Education and convinced its members to replace the Board school safety unit with the NYPD’s school safety division. This eventually mushroomed into its own police force of over 5,000 officers who arrested and beat kids up for offenses like being in the school hallway without a pass or refusing to close a book in class.

Giuliani brought broken windows policing from the streets of Black and Hispanic communities into the public schools attended by Black and Hispanic children, launching the policies and practices that came to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline. 

As the remnants of the World Trade Center smoldered, Giuliani, who was ineligible to run for another term, had been basking in the glow of public appreciation for his leadership. In that moment, in a troubling precursor to Trump’s threats to remain in office, he reportedly proposed that New York postpone the 2001 mayoral election and leave him in office, rather than allow New Yorkers to vote in the scheduled election and transition to a new mayor. Despite the fear and uncertainty that followed the horrific 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers weren’t fooled.  

To be fair, there were two areas where Giuliani, as mayor, brought New York closer to our democratic values: immigrant rights and access to abortion care. But the defender of Trump’s Muslim ban and other xenophobic and discriminatory policies seems now to limit his love for the American melting pot to only those who look like him. And while he once supported abortion rights that too seems to have dissolved as he sinks deeper into the right-wing fever swamp.

We are not witnessing the deterioration of “America’s Mayor.” Today’s Giuliani is simply an extension of the authoritarian leader that New Yorkers have known all along.

Donna Lieberman is the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties, the state affiliate of the ACLU. On Twitter @JustAskDonna of @NYCLU.

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COVID-19 Sheds New Light on Innovations Long Championed by People with Disabilities

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A pre-pandemic conference (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)

One of the great ironies of the new remote-working economy is that it is built on employment innovations that people with disabilities have long advocated. A second great irony is the speed with which those innovations – opposed by businesses for years – were adopted. These developments underscore, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, the importance of addressing the needs of people with disabilities and the potential for the broader public to benefit as a result.

COVID-19 taught the U.S. business community that it has a far greater ability to adapt to new ways of working than it realized. Within weeks of the pandemic’s arrival, the business community adjusted to numerous employment practices that were previously discouraged. With schools and offices closed, and parents working from home while trying to teach their children, companies faced a choice between adjusting or going out of business. Those that could adjust did. 

Suddenly Zoom meetings became standard. Having children interrupt them was no problem. Flexible work hours were to be expected. Shifting meetings to meet family needs was fine, too.

Necessity may be the mother of invention. But what should not be missed is that such accommodations were long championed by people with disabilities, only to have been met with resistance. COVID-19 proved that not only were these changes manageable, but they were also improvements with widespread benefits.

People with disabilities led the way because they understood the challenge of work-life balance. A parent with Multiple Sclerosis knows the time-crunch of getting children ready for school, while needing extra time herself to get dressed and out the door. A person who uses a scooter knows the ordeal of getting from work to a doctor’s appointment and back again at mid-day. They understand that life cannot always fit the traditional nine-to-five business schedule.

Now that the entire workforce is benefiting, it is hard to believe we will ever return completely to the old ways, even when COVID-19 is behind us. Employers now know that parents can work from home effectively. They now know that a Zoom call can be just as valuable as an in-person meeting. 

Telemedicine may be the best example of all. It had been available for years, yet government had constrained its growth by, among other things, not compensating health-care providers properly for its use. Now we are seeing telemedicine not only facilitate essential care effectively but bring that care to people who previously could not easily receive it.

Imagine the increased convenience, if you use a wheelchair, of having a medical check-up at home without going through the time, effort, and expense of getting to and from a doctor’s office, which may not even be wheelchair-accessible. The telemedicine check-up could save hours in connection with a 15-minute appointment. Now imagine having that same convenience if you live in a remote community – hours from the nearest medical facility.

It is vital to understand in this regard that “disability” is a social construct. A staircase makes someone in a wheelchair “disabled;” a ramp makes that person “abled.” 

We need to move beyond the idea that people with disabilities are lacking something and recognize that they are adding something. We need to appreciate that the knowledge, experience, and perspective of people with disabilities offer benefits for everyone.

A key recognition is that flexibility in the workplace is an asset and should be embraced. With flexible tools such as videoconferencing now commonplace, the access that they provide should be exploited, too. For example, remote vocational training for people with disabilities – as for all people – makes it theoretically possible to expand educational opportunities to broader geographies. Yet compensation for training – typically provided through states – is often limited geographically, with contracts specifying service to New York City, for instance, as distinct from other parts of New York. 

The U.S. workforce benefits when people with disabilities are included. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 2.5 times higher than the general population before COVID-19, and 70% were not in the workforce. It is time to make more adjustments to bring all people into the economic mainstream. It is time to recognize the contributions of people with disabilities to the newly adapted economic and cultural landscape and build on them to benefit everyone.

Susan Scheer is Chief Executive Officer of ICD - Institute for Career Development. On Twitter @sscheer5 and @ICD_NYC.

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Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen

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Voters would have less hassle registering under AVR (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Following the widespread problems in the execution of this year’s elections, it’s clear we need to transform New York’s voting systems from top to bottom. From restoring confidence in the Board of Elections to reducing long lines and wait times counting ballots, lawmakers must take action now to prevent another disaster the next time New Yorkers vote. Thankfully, there is one important fix that can be done immediately: enacting the Automatic Voter Registration legislation that passed the Legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

There’s no question that 2020 has been an extraordinary year for democracy – and the COVID-19 pandemic presented serious challenges for election administration across the country and here in New York. And while there were record shattering levels of enthusiasm among voters this year, our state continues to fall short. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, New York ranks 45th in the nation for registered voters as a percentage of the population. Indeed, there are up to 1 million New Yorkers who are eligible to vote, but remain unregistered.

The best way to ensure that we never have to let the burdens of the registration process lead to low turnout and other complications at the polls is to enact Automatic Voter Registration.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple, secure, and straightforward tool that will immediately increase New York’s abysmal registration rates. Through AVR, eligible voters become automatically registered when they engage with government agencies like the Department of Labor, Department of Motor Vehicles, or a Medicaid enrollment office, provided they do not opt out. The AVR system would then securely transmit the voter’s registration information from those agencies to the State Board of Elections. Had this policy been in effect in 2020, eligible unenrolled New Yorkers filing for jobless claims with the Department of Labor could have been added to the voter rolls automatically. 

New York’s democracy problems pre-date the coronavirus. In 2018, New York ranked 42nd in the nation in voter turnout, and experts believe that this one simple reform is a key to reversing our shockingly low level of electoral engagement. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed AVR, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont just across our borders. Many of these states tore down obstacles to voter participation with bipartisan legislative majorities or through ballot measures that decisively won with broad support from the public.

The lessons from Oregon are particularly instructive. Since it became the first state in the country to implement Automatic Voter Registration, Oregon’s voter registration rates quadrupled at DMV locations across the state. Indeed, over 90% of eligible voters are now registered. Not only are these newly-registered individuals on the voter rolls, they are actually voting as well. A report found that 44% of these previously unregistered individuals voted in the elections following AVR implementation. And in 2018, Oregon far exceeded the national turnout average with one of the highest rates in the country. 

Unquestionably, last year was a banner year for voting reforms in New York State. With full Democratic control of the Legislature in Albany, it was the first time in memory that laws were passed to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers. The bottlenecked backlog of reforms that included early voting, pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds, consolidation of primary dates, and flexibility to change party affiliation helped transform New York away from its status as a state with some of the most arcane and restrictive voting policies.

However, despite this progress, there is still unfinished business as the election made abundantly clear. And AVR is at the top of that list.

We have an opportunity to modernize our state’s broken election system with one of the most popular and common-sense reforms available, one that will enhance registration in particular for underrepresented populations that are too often missed. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer, it’s time for Governor Cuomo to sign Automatic Voter Registration into law now.

State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) are the lead sponsors of the Automatic Voter Registration bill. On Twitter @SenGianaris and @TheRealLatriceW.

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