Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Keeping the Lights On, and Saving Billions, While Addressing Climate Change

indian point gov600

Indian Point (photo: the governor's office)

New York’s recently-passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act has been described as the boldest climate legislation in the nation. It sets demanding milestones for reducing carbon emissions, starting with the 2030 goal that New York state should, by then, derive 70% of its electricity from renewable sources (solar, wind, and waterpower). By 2040, it should derive all of its electricity from “clean” sources, and it should be carbon-neutral in all its uses of energy by 2050. 

These goals pose daunting challenges, but within two years the challenge will become even greater when the Indian Point nuclear plant, 36 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, is scheduled to shut down. Governor Cuomo agreed to its closure, even though it is functioning safely and economically, because of fears of a nuclear accident raised by the community around the site. When he agreed to the closure, he made a commitment it would not result in any new carbon emissions. Nevertheless, the operator of New York’s electric grid has made clear that three natural gas-powered generating plants will be fired up to replace the carbon-free electricity flowing from Indian Point. These replacement plants will release 7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases for each year thereafter. The increased greenhouse gas emissions will undermine the new climate law before it even gets started, and the smaller capacity of the gas plants may well lead to shortages of electric power in the coming years. 

We have shown elsewhere that attempting to meet the new law’s 2030 goal with only renewable sources would cost more than $100 billion and is completely impractical. However, the language of the new climate law ignores the contribution that nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide, can make toward a carbon-free future. Indeed, if Indian Point and other nuclear plants, which already provide nearly a third of New York’s electricity, are kept running, and the governor’s planned expansion of offshore wind takes place, a 2030 goal of 70% carbon-free electricity will be met without any further expenditure. 

There is no need to shut down Indian Point. This facility, which produces a quarter of the New York City Metro region’s electricity, is safe and reliable and can keep going for decades more. The current closure agreement does allow the plant, if necessary, to continue operating through 2024 and 2025. While the current operator, the Entergy Corp., is giving up control of the plant, the New York Power Authority could take it over and continue operating it, as it did safely and efficiently for many years before Entergy came into the picture. In fact, Indian Point should remain operational until such time as new, carbon-free resources can replace it. That way, it can continue to help meet the state’s emission reduction goals. 

We recognize that including nuclear energy, along with carbon-free renewable energy sources, in meeting our climate goals will require a major re-evaluation of risk by groups deeply invested in opposing nuclear power. These groups, some of which campaigned for the closure of Indian Point, are concerned that nuclear reactors will suffer accidents that could have catastrophic consequences. In fact, as one of us has explained in a brief guide, this is not possible. Nuclear reactor accidents have led to very few deaths – 28 plant workers and firefighters perished at Chernobyl, along with an estimated 60 deaths from thyroid cancer worldwide -- and there were zero fatalities from the Three Mile Island and Fukushima events. Hundreds of thousands have already suffered from the effects of climate change, and millions more are likely to suffer if climate change proceeds as it is on course now. 

Keeping Indian Point and other nuclear plants operating while the state builds new, even safer nuclear facilities and installs modest amounts of renewable resources offers the most practical, achievable path for New York to meet its emission goals and offer our children and grandchildren a realistic chance for a carbon-free, stable future.

Leonard Rodberg is a physicist who taught climate change and public policy at Queens College/CUNY until his retirement in 2017. Herschel Specter is an engineer who focused on nuclear safety issues in many positions, including at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Letter to the Editor: Toy Companies in New York and Across America Put Child Safety First

fair toy lte

(photo: @TheToyAssociation)

To the Editor,

As the not-for-profit association representing businesses that create and deliver toys to kids, The Toy Association counts 126 companies in New York State among its membership of more than 1,100 toymakers and retailers. Every single one of these companies prioritizes keeping children safe at play, above all else.

I’d like to set the record straight regarding the mistruths and inaccuracies in Christine Appah’s opinion piece, “The Governor’s Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys” (Oct. 11).

Appah states that “there are many toys and products on the market today that do indeed contain chemicals that are hazardous to children’s health,” and that the Child Safe Products Act, if signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, could “prevent further unnecessary harm to children on his watch.”

In fact, U.S. toy safety requirements are among the strictest in the world. By law, all toys sold in the United States must comply with more than 100 rigorous safety tests and standards, including the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Among other protections, these regulations make it illegal to sell toys or children’s products containing substances harmful to children and to which they might be exposed.

There is a narrative circulating regarding the Child Safe Products Act that’s not based on any scientific studies related to children’s products and oversimplifies a complex issue by saying it will protect kids. In actuality, this bill in no way assesses the safety of the products concerned, and therefore any claims that this would make products safer is simply inaccurate. Disclosure of substances under this legislation is triggered based on their presence and not on any health or safety-based values, and completely ignores whether exposure to the substances is likely or even possible.

What we do know is that the bill will limit consumer choices, as beloved, safe toys that are available elsewhere in the country and internationally will be taken off local store shelves; drive up costs; and threaten 21,000 jobs in New York State.

This legislation fails to consider the numerous federal safety and environmental regulations that all toys sold in the U.S. must comply with. These statutes and ensuing regulations administered by the CPSC already ensure that any children's products that present any hazardous exposure to a child cannot be legally sold in the United States.

Toys are consistently ranked among the safest consumer product categories found in the home.  This legislation is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

Rest assured that America’s and New York’s toymakers are committed to keeping children safe.

Matthew Lenz, Director of State Government Affairs, The Toy Association

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Candidate That Wins Should Get At Least Half The Votes

attends cojo patbudexpoatguild

(photo: City Council)

Suppose eight candidates are running for Mayor or a City Council seat or another New York City office. On election night, the results are extremely close: The top candidate gets 29% of the vote, and the second 28%. Even though 70% of voters picked someone else, a candidate with less than one-third of the votes will become the elected representative of 100% of the office’s jurisdiction. 

This situation may seem unlikely, but it’s precisely what happened in a 2013 special election for New York City Council, when Donovan Richards defeated special election opponent Pesach Osina by only 79 votes. The district is mostly African-American, and except for Osina, the candidates were African-American. However, because the vote was split among six African-American candidates, Osina almost became the district’s nominee with only 28% of the vote. This election was not that unusual: In 2013, 14 of the 21 New York City Council primaries for open seats were won with less than 50% of the vote.

Ideally, in a democracy, candidates supported by a majority of voters get elected. We can make that happen in New York City. Starting with early voting, October 26-November 3, and on Election Day, November 5, New Yorkers can ensure candidates supported by a true majority of voters are elected by voting “yes” on ballot question one, which would adopt ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections starting in 2021.

Under the ranked-choice voting method proposed by question one, rather than voting for a single candidate, voters rank candidates by order of preference from 1 to 5. If a candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate wins, election over. But if no one hits 50%, the winner is the candidate with a majority of 1st- and 2nd-choice votes (and 3rd-, 4th-, or 5th-choice, if necessary to hit 50%). If the candidate you ranked first receives the fewest first-choice votes, that candidate has lost, and your vote is transferred to the candidate you ranked second. That would be the case for all the voters who chose that last-place candidate. This process is then repeated until a candidate hits 50%.

Ranked-choice voting has already had a major impact in places like Oakland, California. In a ten-way race for the city’s mayor in 2010, candidate Don Perata was in the lead after the first round tally, with 34% of votes, compared to 24% for second-place Jean Quan. However, after the eight other candidates were eliminated and votes were transferred, Quan pulled ahead and won with 51% of the vote to Perata’s 49%. Quan was the preferred candidate of those who hadn’t put her or Perata as their first choice, and by voters overall.

If question one passes this fall and New York City is home to ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections, candidates will be forced to reach the largest possible number of voters while campaigning. Conceivably, the system could encourage more positive campaigns, as under ranked-choice voting, candidates sometimes cross-endorse in an effort to build support, and candidates generally want even people they may not be able to convince to put them first to choose them second.

It may increase voter turnout – it helps when people know their vote counts – and the initiative will save New York City millions of dollars by ending runoff elections (which occur for citywide races when no candidate receives 40% of the vote).

Ranked-choice voting will also arrive at a time when more Americans are running for office than ever. Now that candidates for office in New York City can have 89% of their campaign funds come from the city’s campaign finance system, the number of New Yorkers campaigning may hit all-time highs. With more than 30 City Council seats open, as well as two citywide seats and at least four borough presidencies, the New York City Campaign Finance Board projects that up to 500 New Yorkers will run for office in the 2021 elections alone. With so many options to choose from, it’s crucial that the results reflect the will of the majority. Ranked-choice voting ensures that the majority is heard.

At a time when many state and local governments are moving to take power from voters, we need initiatives like ranked-choice voting that give power to voters. This fall – starting with early voting October 26-November 3 and on Election Day, November 5 – New Yorkers can make their city a leader in electoral reform and help restore democracy’s greatest promise: People matter.

Tom Speaker is a policy analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Mass Incarceration and Remorse

govandcouomo consumer awa

(photo: the governor's office)

Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger faced up to 99 years for killing her neighbor, Botham Jean, in his own home. According to most observers, the forgiveness offered by Mr. Jean’s 18-year-old brother in his victim impact statement, capped by his request to hug Ms. Guyger, was the key reason why the jury settled on 10 years, a far lower number than even the 28 years urged by the prosecutor.

However important a role forgiveness played in the jury’s decision to spare Guyger decades behind bars, according to interviews with some of the jurors an even greater factor was Guyger’s expression of remorse during her trial testimony: “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life...I wish he was the one with the gun that killed me.”  

The role of remorse in sentencing and punishment was a central theme of the recent Parole Summit organized by the Lifers and Longtermers Organization at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York.

In years past, the Summit focused on the parole process itself -- the parole interview, the parole decision, and appeals from parole denials -- and yielded suggestions for reforming an unforgiving system. But this year, the lifers decided to look inward, and bring to the forefront conceptions of restorative justice, victim centered awareness, and individual transformation.

The overarching emphasis on healing led inexorably to exhortations for offenders to gain insight into what led them to their crimes; to reflect on the motivations for their behavior. Many of the day’s speakers stressed that the lifers had to accept responsibility for the harm they caused, and to develop and express authentic contrition in order to promote healing for themselves as well as for their victims.  

Criminal legal systems place a premium on remorse. Studies here and abroad have shown that remorse is the most commonly named mitigating factor for a reduced sentence, and perceived lack of remorse often leads to an enhanced sentence. Remorse is specifically and instrumentally relevant to the Parole Summit – most states allow parole boards to consider a person’s insight and remorse when deciding whether to grant parole, and parole boards typically probe those areas in depth at parole interviews. Many lifers have been denied parole based on a perceived lack of genuine or sufficient remorse.  

Many rationales explain the outsize role remorse plays in sentencing and punishment. Sincere remorse as a sign of moral improvement suggests that the person has been rehabilitated and no longer poses a danger. Expressions of remorse also have a confessional aspect and are preconditions to receiving understanding or forgiveness. Remorse also serves as an apology to the victims and restores a measure of dignity that the crime violated.  

But remorse is an emotion. Can anyone accurately evaluate whether a statement of remorse is genuine or self-serving? Typically, determinations of the authenticity of remorse are made by judges and members of parole boards who lack any training or special competence in assessing the complexities of human emotions. How do these evaluators distinguish remorse from guilt or from shame, or just generally decide whether a person is being sincere? Some people are better able to verbalize their feelings than are others, and cultural differences surely influence evaluations of remorse. How is remorse gauged when a person professes their innocence?  

Studies show judges disagree about indicators of remorse – behavior that indicated remorse to some suggested remorselessness to others. Research has debunked the notion that remorse can be evaluated by words used, non-verbal cues, attitudes, and demeanor.    

The many lifers denied parole for alleged inadequate contrition recognize that their words are necessary but not sufficient. It is too easy for words to be dismissed as uttered only in the hope of obtaining freedom. Instead, lifers want their remorse to be judged by their actions and deeds as well as by their words; by the affirmative steps they have taken while incarcerated to try to make amends for the harm they caused.  

The reality of the enduring impact of remorse revealed a fundamental irony as the lifers listened patiently and attentively to remarks from prosecutors, members of the parole board, elected officials and others. While all the speakers talked about their reforms and self-defined progressive policies, something was missing.

Seated silently next to me was a man serving 50 years to life as a high-ranking prosecutor from the office that prosecuted him talked about all his office is doing in progressive criminal justice. Another man at my table who has been denied parole six times listened stoically as a parole board member talked about the virtue of accepting responsibility and expressing concern for victims – something the man has done to no avail at every one of his six parole appearances

By now, most people agree that prosecutors and those connected with law enforcement were the primary architects of mass incarceration. Yet what was sorely lacking from the speakers extolling the righteousness of victim-centeredness and offender accountability was any acknowledgement and acceptance of their individual, or their office’s, responsibility for the blight of mass incarceration. There was nothing said that remotely resembled insight, remorse, or apology.  

And while words matter, in the end, just as lifers beg not to be judged solely by the words they utter in a brief and nerve-wracking parole interview but by their actions over the past many decades -- the things they have accomplished in prison and the men and women they have become -- law enforcement actors should be similarly judged.

Words matter, they are necessary if there is to be any reconciliation for past harms, but ultimately actions speak louder than words. If those who caused the crisis of mass incarceration and resultant decimation of families and communities cannot bring themselves to publicly accept responsibility and offer contrition to the tens of thousands of men and women serving life and massive long-term sentences, they can at the very least show their genuine and authentic remorse by taking every necessary step to secure their release.

Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

State Health Department Must Reject Unneeded, Burdensome Luxury Hospital Expansion

northwell lenox hill expansion plan 2

rendering of proposed Leonx Hill Hospital expansion

Northwell Health is proposing an unprecedented, $2.5 billion expansion of Lenox Hill Hospital that includes construction and sale of a 490-foot condo tower to help finance a new 520-foot hospital tower and other massive new structures. This pitch has already generated much controversy, as residents of the Lenox Hill neighborhood and surrounding communities are speaking out forcefully against Northwell’s plan.

While it is widely understood that this development plan must go through the city’s land use approval process (known as ULURP) because of zoning changes Northwell is seeking, many New Yorkers are unaware that Northwell also needs approval from the State Department of Health before it can proceed with any expansion of Lenox Hill Hospital.

The crucial point here is that Northwell must apply to the State DOH to receive a “certificate of need” for its expansion plan. But the facts show that there truly is no need for this proposed expansion on the Upper East Side – and that is why the State DOH must reject the plan and send Northwell back to the drawing board.

This is a matter of common sense. In order to be granted a certificate of need, an institution should be able to demonstrate that its proposal promises to deliver something that is actually needed by the community. When it comes to Northwell’s plan for Lenox Hill Hospital, that is not the case.

We can all agree that Lenox Hill Hospital must offer high-quality, state-of-the-art medical care in a well-maintained facility. And if a straightforward modernization plan were all that Northwell were proposing, it would be worthy of support. In fact, it appears that Northwell has already begun financing its own upgrades at Lenox Hill Hospital, with a recent news story noting that officials have “hired a Michelin Star Chef” and made numerous other cosmetic improvements to provide a “luxury hotel experience.”

But the idea of building a monstrous luxury condo tower in the midst of a historic residential district to finance single-occupancy hospital rooms and destination medical facilities in one of the city’s most affluent and well-served areas is grandiose and insulting to community residents. Simply put, we do not need more hospital beds and significantly larger hospital facilities on the Upper East Side – and our community is not asking for them.

Let’s be clear: there are already more than 10,000 hospital beds in Manhattan, at least 3,000 of which are located throughout the Upper East Side. Our communities have access to healthcare facilities and specialty medical care that are the envy of our other-borough neighbors, many of whom have demanded better access to quality medical care.

Want to talk about healthcare needs? Look at the South Bronx, where low-income residents suffer from the state’s highest asthma rates. Look at Central Brooklyn, where national experts have called that community’s hospitals some of the worst in the entire nation.

If Northwell were truly interested in developing an expansion plan worthy of a “certificate of need,” it would seek out ways to bring more of its high-quality healthcare resources to communities like these. Instead, it is advancing a lucrative real estate development pitch that will create the tallest hospital in New York City and serve primarily to reap profits for its grandiose vision and satisfy the egos of its senior executives. All of this will take place at the expense of the local neighborhood, which will be forced to endure 10 years of hazardous construction and a massive condo tower that will destroy the fabric of a historic community.

The bottom line here is that if the State Department of Health follows its mandate to serve the healthcare needs of all New Yorkers and takes a thoughtful approach to evaluating these types of proposals, it has no choice but to reject Northwell’s plan and compel the institution to rethink its approach.

Andy Soussloff is a Lenox Hill resident and a member of the non-profit Committee to Protect Our Lenox Hill Neighborhood, Inc.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

PBMs Advocate for New York Consumers to Reduce Prescription Drug Costs

rural hel pro

(photo: @albertarpap)

As the debate over prescription drug costs continues, it’s important to understand the role pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) play in our health care system. Simply put, PBMs are the companies that are driving down prescription drug costs for New Yorkers and consumers nationwide. 

PBMs are widely recognized for reducing prescription drug costs, but PBMs should also be recognized for improving clinical outcomes for patients. For example, PBMs perform a sophisticated evaluation of clinical evidence to construct prescription drug formularies that best fit the needs of patients. These prescription drug formularies lead to improved adherence for consumers and better health outcomes overall.

From a pure cost perspective, without PBMs consumers would pay on average $941 more per year per person, according to a 2016 Visante report. In addition, the report showed that over a 10-year period, PBMs will save New York’s consumers and health care programs nearly $40 billion.

PBMs achieve these savings by negotiating directly with drug manufacturers, who alone set and raise prices. The savings achieved by PBMs are used to lower premiums for all consumers in a health plan, or to reduce costs that consumers pay at the pharmacy counter.

Furthermore, any charge that PBMs are opposed to transparency is inaccurate. The fact is PBMs support transparency that leads to better health care outcomes. PBMs provide real-time benefit tools, so patients and their doctors understand which drugs are available and most affordable. In addition, PBMs provide information to clients on contracting terms, including how PBMs are paid for their services.

While it’s clear PBMs are reducing prescription drug costs, we understand that for too many people the costs are simply too high. For that reason, we encourage Governor Cuomo to look closely at whether recently passed legislation (S.6531) will lower health care costs for New Yorkers. In its current form, the bill eliminates many of the cost-saving tools PBMs employ to help keep consumer costs down and improve care.

The legislation puts consumer safety at risk by removing specialty pharmacy accreditation standards, and limits access to cost-effective drugs in favor of more expensive prescriptions. An analysis by Visante shows the bill would lead to $28 billion in additional prescription drug spending in New York over the next 10 years.

PBMs’ core mission is to advocate for consumers in the fight to reduce prescription drug costs. Increasing competition in the market and expanding PBMs’ cost-reducing tools is the best way to address the problem of high drug costs. Where there is sufficient competition, PBMs have a proven track record of success of lowering drug prices.

We’re committed to working with Governor Cuomo and members of the Legislature to address the prescription drug affordability problem where it exists and bring down drug costs and increase access for all New Yorkers.

JC Scott is President and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association. On Twitter @pcmanet.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Making the Democratic State Committee More Democratic and New York's DNC Delegation More Representative

a more demo state com

(photo: New York Democratic Party)

With 2020 approaching and a contentious Democratic presidential primary underway, all eyes are the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and its shepherding of the Demcoratic Party apparatus. Far fewer eyes are the Democratic State Committees, constituted in each state, which select the rarefied membership of the National Committee every four years.

In many states, State Committees are a big deal. They are the primary strategic planner for their party’s political efforts, and a key conduit for funding to candidates and local organizations. In New York, not so much. This is largely a function of the State Party’s leadership, and that attitude is well reflected in the State Committee’s picks for New York State’s DNC representatives.

In the DNC, each state is awarded representation through the state party’s Chair and Vice Chair, as well as members apportioned by a formula that accounts for population, Democratic Party enrollment, and votes cast for the Demcoratic candidate in the most recent presidential election. As a large, Democratic state, New York has a large voice on the DNC. The state’s influence is also felt in the fact that two of the DNC’s Vice Chairs, elected by the DNC members, are New Yorkers, further boosting its vote total.

As an influential, ethnically diverse state with a population almost evenly split between urban and non-urban residents, New York is uniquely positioned to champion a Democratic message that appeals to a broad swath of Americans. It’s hard to believe it does this, though, given the chosen composition of the state’s DNC delegation.

Of New York’s 11 elected members of the Democratic National Committee: zero are under 50 years old, though such New Yorkers are about 60% the state population; zero are from upstate, home to about 40% of New York’s population; zero are Hispanic, though about 20% of New York’s population is Hispanic; and zero are Asian, about 10% of New York’s population.

New York’s dismal failure in representation is meaningful, but it would be hard to know it. The DNC makes it extremely difficult for people to acquire the voting records of DNC decisions. An attempt to uncover how New York’s delegation voted on holding a climate debate and issue-based forums in the current presidential primary ran into an initial dead end with the New York State Committee, which says it doesn’t ask members how they vote, and the DNC, which says it only tells DNC members the voting results. This all seems odd for a body whose members are theoretically elected by, and responsible to, State Committees.

Ultimately, I obtained the rolls and they reveal that of New York’s 15 members (including those not elected by the State Committee), only two voted in favor of the holding a climate debate. Perhaps more shockingly, only eight of those who cast votes were there in person (it cannot be determined if the six New Yorkers who didn’t cast votes were present, though it seems likely they were both absent and without a proxy since they were not counted as abstentions). Regardless of how one feels about the climate debate, it seems likely that a different composition of the DNC delegation -- one more diverse, younger and engaged -- could have changed the vote total as well as the number of delegates that attended the meeting.

Last year, one of New York’s DNC seats was left vacant by the passing of Assemblymember Denny Farrell. On October 15, at their fall meeting, the State Committee selected his replacement. In the end, three candidates from Upstate New York ran: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, State Committeewoman Kelleigh McKenzie, and State Committeewoman Elisa Sumner. Brown, who also served as Governor Cuomo’s heavy-handed Chair of the State Committee until he was ousted after the 2018 scandal involving a mailer falsely smearing Cuomo’s primary opponent, won with over 60% of the vote.

While the election of an African-American man from Upstate is a step in the right direction, it remains palpably insufficient. African-Americans are the only minority group adequately represented in the DNC delegation while a single upstate member shortchanges nearly half the state’s population -- particularly the part most experienced in winning elections against Republicans.

Brown’s election also represents a continuation of the political status quo. As a long-term ally of Governor Cuomo and a State Chair who often ignored the democratic process, Brown’s ascension to the DNC is likely to maintain New York’s support for business as usual.

If people feel detached from the mechanics of the Democratic Party, they needn’t. In 2020 voters will have a chance to elect their State Committee members -- one male and one female per Assembly District. Those members will then immediately meet to select New York’s DNC members. In the past, the State Committee has rubber-stamped a slate chosen by the Democratic Party elite composed mainly of elected officials and power-brokers. Next time, it looks like there could be a contest for DNC membership and a push for a Democratic Party that represents New York’s Democrats.

Ben Yee is a civic educator and organizer in New York City. He is a Democratic State Committeeman for New York’s 66th Assembly District. On Twitter at @yben.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

To End the Homelessness Crisis It’s Time to Refocus the City’s Housing Plan - Here’s How

homelessness rally

The authors and others at a rally (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

More than 61,000 men, women, and children will sleep in New York City shelters tonight, and this historic homelessness crisis will continue to devastate the lives of even more people unless Mayor de Blasio embraces the common sense plans that we have put forward from a City Council office and the Coalition for the Homeless, respectively.

The record number of homeless New Yorkers will continue to reach new highs every year, according to the latest report from the Coalition. In stark contrast to Mayor de Blasio’s predicted decrease in the shelter census of a mere 2,500 people by 2022, the Coalition’s analysis shows that the number of city residents living in shelters will increase by 5,000 people in that time period.

While the mayor often touts the work his administration has done to prevent homelessness and protect tenants, his failure to meaningfully reduce the shelter census is a direct result of the lack of truly affordable apartments created specifically to house homeless New Yorkers. This is why the House Our Future NY Campaign, with the support of the majority of the New York City Council, has spent more than a year and a half calling on Mayor de Blasio to make his Housing New York 2.0 plan -- badly in need of a third iteration -- address the true scale of the homelessness crisis.

Of the 300,000 apartments the Housing New York 2.0 plan will create or preserve by 2026, only 15,000 apartments will be set aside for homeless New Yorkers – and just 6,000 of those will be created through new construction. The remaining 9,000 of those apartments in the mayor’s plan will be set aside for homeless New Yorkers through the preservation of already-occupied units, which will remain unavailable to homeless New Yorkers for many years.

To address the housing needs of our homeless neighbors, the House Our Future NY Campaign, formed by the Coalition and 66 partner organizations, urges Mayor de Blasio to create 24,000 apartments through new construction (about 20 percent of all planned new construction in Housing New York 2.0) and preserve at least 6,000 more units for a total of 30,000 apartments for homeless New Yorkers.

In the Bronx, we have seen how the issue of homelessness impacts people firsthand. Many hurtful and false narratives have been spread about people in the shelter system, primarily that individuals are unemployed or are looking for handouts. To the contrary, many in the system have full-time jobs or are living on fixed-incomes and turn to the shelter system as a last resort because of rising rents in their communities. Once in the system, people face a lengthy wait to be placed in permanent housing due to a lack of truly affordable housing.

To address this issue and the staggering number of individuals and families in the shelter system, we introduced legislation, Intro. 1211, which requires all new housing developments that receive city financial assistance to set aside at least 15 percent of new apartments for homeless households.

Working together to raise awareness on this proposal, Intro. 1211 has secured a veto-proof majority of Council members signed on as co-sponsors, as well as the support of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. While an overwhelming number of homeless advocates came out in support of the bill at a public hearing held in December 2018, the de Blasio administration declared its opposition to the bill, citing financial concerns. But we have demonstrated that more affordable housing can be built for homeless New Yorkers than is conceptualized in the mayor’s plan.

Starting in April 2018 while drafting the language for Intro. 1211, we began requiring developers who were looking to build housing in Council District 17 in the Bronx to set aside a minimum of 15 percent of developed units for homeless individuals and families. Despite the administration’s insistence that the financing would not work, we were able to secure a 15 percent homeless set-aside in every new construction project that required our Council approval.

In total, our Council office approved 121 new set-aside units over eight projects. While this number of units is a drop in the bucket of the overall need for our homeless population, it shows the impact this legislation could have in changing the tide on homelessness if implemented across New York City.

We are pleased that Intro. 1211 is already having a positive effect on the movement to build more housing for homeless people. Many Council colleagues have begun requiring a 15 percent set-aside minimum in projects in their own districts. With a citywide policy to substantially increase new housing built for homeless New Yorkers, we would be able to move more people out of city shelters and achieve the goal of reaching the 24,000 new units the House Our Future NY Campaign is advocating for.

We cannot continue to accept mass homelessness in our city as a fact of life. We have the means to alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers by building more deeply subsidized affordable housing to match the scale of the need. In addition to being the moral thing to do, the New York City Council has demonstrated through its support of the House Our Future NY Campaign and Intro. 1211 that it is entirely feasible. Now it is time for Mayor de Blasio to finally address the ongoing homelessness crisis with the best tool available: building new affordable apartments for homeless New Yorkers.

City Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. represents parts of the Bronx. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @Salamancajr80 & @Giselle_Ashley.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Right Side of Rikers History

mmv red cross

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the author (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

For decades, Rikers Island has served as a clear illustration of our nation’s willingness to turn a blind eye in the face of injustice. Home to decades of violence, corruption, and cruelty, the continued operation of Rikers Island jails has been a striking reminder that our justice system is anything but just. 

Activists, grassroots organizers, impacted individuals, elected officials, and many other New Yorkers have been demanding the closure of Rikers jails for decades, but their pleas have often fallen on deaf ears. Now, the New York City Council is on the verge of casting a vote that could get us one big step closer to ending the injustice of Rikers once and for all. 

As activists and advocates, it has been a long, treacherous process getting to this point. But we have now reluctantly handed over the torch to our elected officials and urge them to understand that they too have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to close down Rikers. Our hard work and our fight has gotten us this far, but we need our representatives to stand with us and get us one step closer to eliminating a system that has deprived people of their dignity, respect, and basic human rights. 

When I initiated the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (The Lippman Commission), I tasked its members with determining if and how Rikers could be closed. The commission was made up of policymakers, researchers, system actors, and directly impacted individuals like Julio Medina, the Executive Director of Exodus Transitional Community, a preventative, reentry, and advocacy organization located in East Harlem. 

Like Julio, many survivors of Rikers and their loved ones exposed the jails’ horrendous conditions and inhumane treatment. Survivors recounted not just the horrors they lived while in Rikers, but the devastating life-long impact their experience had on them and their families.

Stories like that of Kalief Browder, an African-American man from the Bronx who was unjustly arrested and held at Rikers for three years – two of them spent in solitary confinement – have been told in many variations over and over again. By sharing narratives, those closest to the problem became instrumental in devising solutions to overhaul and reinvent a deeply broken system. 

The Commission’s report, alongside the momentum, leadership, and advocacy of those who have been directly impacted, forced Mayor de Blasio to put forth the current plan under consideration, calling for the closure of the Rikers jails and the reduction of jails in New York City from twelve to four.

The Lippman Commission has been committed to transparency in its process, allowing for planning and advocacy to happen in full view of an initially-skeptical public. In 2016, there were dozens of public meetings in all five boroughs, each inviting people from across the city to provide input. The #CLOSErikers campaign, led by directly impacted individuals, created a collaborative community process that produced a robust set of transformative demands, known as the #buildCOMMUNITIES platform. The public was also given the opportunity to critique and demand amendments to the borough-based jails plan through local Neighborhood Advisory Councils, town hall meetings, and the rigorous public review process of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

To hear opposition forces now claiming that too few opportunities for public input have been offered is downright wrong, and an affront to the openness and outwardly engaging process that has taken place.

The reason for advocates’ high standard is obvious: they know that we only have one chance to get this right — not just because it has taken decades to get here, but also because failure is fatal. Faltering now in the face of the opposition's NIMBY-ism, racism, and false representations would mean that Rikers will probably remain open for generations to come, creating immeasurable cost.

Today, I proudly stand with Julio Medina and many, many others as we urge City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and all New York City Council members to approve this plan. We are closer to our goal than ever before. Let this be the Council that can say that they stood on the right side of history by voting to close down the Rikers Island jails and create a stronger, safer, and better New York City. 

Melissa Mark-Viverito is a former Speaker of the City Council and currently a candidate for Congress in New York’s 15th Congressional District. On Twitter @MMViverito.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Counting Votes So They Really Count

op ed rankchoice

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

I am usually in agreement with the analysis and opinions of Bruce Gyory, a prolific pundit and consultant who writes on New York City and State government and political affairs. 

But I must disagree with his op-ed in the Daily News last week, urging New York City voters to reject city charter revision proposal #1 on the fall ballot, which would create a ranked-choice voting process for party primary elections for City Council, borough president, and citywide positions.

The shortcomings of the current primary election system cry out for correction. Bruce doesn’t deny these inadequacies but he doesn’t present an alternative proposal. The unintended consequences that Bruce predicts are speculative. I believe ranked-choice voting will be an improvement, and it should be adopted by voters as they cast their ballots through the early voting period (October 26-November 3) or on Election Day, November 5.

According to our current city election law, we have two methods for choosing the winners of party primaries, one for citywide positions and one for borough-wide and City Council seats. For citywide positions, if no candidate wins more than 40% of the vote in a primary the two candidates with the most votes then participate in a separate run-off election. In other races, whomever gets the most votes wins, even if it is a crowded field, as Democratic primaries often are in New York City, and no one hits even 40%.  

With ranked-choice voting, there would be no separate run-off elections because voters would select not only who they want to win, but also their second, third, fourth, and fifth choices at the time of the initial primary. If no one wins 50% or more outright, the votes for the candidate with the lowest first-place vote total would be reallocated to those voters’ second choices, and so on until someone gathers enough votes to exceed 50% of the updated vote total.

Bruce states that RCV is untested. In fact, it has been in use in San Francisco and Minneapolis/St. Paul for years and was recently adopted in Maine, so the software needed to adopt it is readily available and we’ve seen some positive initial results. He worries that some voters’ voices will be stifled, particularly those of people of color. On the contrary, ranked-choice voting will empower more voters to express their preferences and ensure that the winner of a primary – which in New York City is often tantamount to the entire election – is preferred by a majority of those who come out to vote. 

Sadly most registered voters don’t vote in primaries and far fewer take the trouble to come out to vote in runoffs. In the runoff for public advocate in 2013 only 7% of eligible voters, or a little more than 200,000 people, voted and in effect chose the public advocate. In a city where 2.8 million Democrats were registered to vote, having 200,000 decide the outcome is not representative democracy. While not ideal, the original primary at least saw about 530,000 votes cast for public advocate candidates.

Bruce worries that polls will become too important because people will make choices based on which candidates seem most viable. Even if that turns out to be true (do most voters really pay attention to polls?) it would still be better than having only a tiny number of the most organized and motivated voters select elected leaders for the rest of us. There are also typically no or next to no polls for every office other than mayor. With ranked-choice voting everyone who votes in the primary can be assured that their vote will help determine the winner and I predict that it will lead to higher turnouts: people now unmotivated to vote because they prefer a candidate they think is unlikely to win can make their stand by voting for their candidate as a first choice, and then selecting others as alternatives. Ranked-choice voting is also likely to push candidates to campaign in front of more voters in hopes of appealing to as many as possible to be their first or second choice.

Of course, given my background as a fiscal watchdog, it is no surprise that part of my discontent with the current system is that it is expensive and wasteful. The 2013 public advocate runoff cost taxpayers $10.4 million to deploy voting machines and poll workers that were used by only 200,000 voters citywide. This means taxpayers spent $51.00 per vote, and that doesn’t include campaign expenditures by the candidates, partially covered by our public campaign finance dollars. Not to mention that the cost far surpasses the annual budget for the office of public advocate. I am sure each of the readers of this column can think of a more useful and cost effective way to spend $10 million in city revenue.

Ranked-choice voting is not the solution to all the problems with administration of our elections and we need further reforms at the state level, e.g. same-day and/or automatic registration and combined federal and state primaries. But city-level ranked-choice voting is a common sense, cost-saving reform that will make candidate selection in primaries more participatory and democratic, and I urge all registered voters to come out on November 5 (or sooner, via early voting that starts October 26) and vote yes for ballot proposal #1.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Why I’m Voting Yes to Close Rikers and Build Humane New Jails

costas consta attends

Council Member Costa Constantinides, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

Nothing in New York City’s or our country’s history says we’re good at running jails. 

For hundreds of years, we have cast detainees away to far-flung islands. Out of sight, out of mind. Mostly black and brown men. Overwhelmingly, without having even been convicted of a crime. 

So, the recent skepticism to build a jail in the heart of my beloved Queens is justifiable. After countless meetings with criminal justice advocates, many among them previously jailed in Rikers Island’s houses of horrors, it’s clear the borough-based plan now before the City Council is the best option New York has.

A decision like this isn’t arrived at easily. I am ultimately voting “yes” this week because the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good while thousands of people are stripped of their human rights, confined in decrepit, asbestos-riddled jails far from their attorneys, families, and communities. 

The alternative would be to walk away now with no plan to close the Rikers Island jails. 

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to shut down the jails for good, in as little as five years, would vanish. The rare consensus among academics, the legal community, and victims of this broken system, which ensures people paying their debt to society are rehabilitated and prepared to re-enter civil society, will have been in vain. As a legislator, as a New Yorker, and as a human being, I cannot let this happen. The Lippman Commission rightly called the 80-plus years of jailing people on Rikers a stain on our city’s history. 

The stories from Rikers remind us why the jails there must close and why we must do better in the future. Sadly, it took Kalief Browder’s suicide after three maddening years in solitary confinement, a punishment that was hideously disproportional to the crime for which he was accused, for many of us to listen. 

Now, we’ve heard from Vidal Guzman, who recently pointed out that “Just because someone has left Rikers, doesn’t mean that Rikers has left them.” Kandra Clark, who spent four months in the infamous women’s facility, has spoken about the emotional torture of “the male correctional officers who would watch me go to the bathroom through the window in my cell door each night.” Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services, recently went public about the toxic culture within the jails as well as what this physical and mental abuse looked like up close.

A “no” vote punts this to the next City Council, guaranteeing this inhumane status quo lives on for the time being. Instead, the City Council vote on Thursday can pave the way for more humane facilities. Is incarcerating any person the ideal? No. But, as former detainee Marco Barrios said earlier this year, the borough-based facilities “will not fix all the problems by themselves, but they can provide important progress.” 

This week, the Council will vote to build smaller, safer detention centers for violent-crime suspects and anyone else who spends any time in jail in New York City; to make it easier for the loved ones and attorneys of all those detained to visit them; and to create a system focused on rehabilitation of those swept up in the system.

New York City will invest in programs within the detention centers to break people free from this vicious cycle. And, our state government in Albany has been chipping away at the system that essentially makes being too poor to afford bail a crime. Previous reforms have already put us on a strong pace to shrink the city’s jail population from the current 7,000 to the necessary 4,000 that guarantees the permanent closure of the Rikers jails. 

Life is full of grey areas. The harsh reality is that some people commit heinous crimes and must be kept from the public. We, as a society, owe that to every child who’s had to hide under a bed, taking low, quiet breaths while an abusive parent bangs on the locked apartment door. Rape victims deserve to walk the streets without fear their attacker is out in public. 

But no longer will New York City’s jails function like a factory that takes in teenagers on a marijuana possession charge and pumps out hardened repeat offenders.

The rest is on us as policy-makers. I believe the city should invest in elements of the #CloseRikers coalition’s #BuildCommunities platform. This money must go into black and brown neighborhoods that traditionally have seen few city investments beyond more police cruisers.

The coalition has common sense asks: supportive housing, job training, access to physical and mental healthcare, educational investment, partnerships with community groups, as well as neighborhood conflict de-escalation and alternatives to incarceration. These investments should not be a one-shot either, and I will continue to fight for these things well beyond my tenure in the City Council.  

Community leaders, criminal justice advocates, and former Rikers detainees believe the plan the Council votes on this week will work. I trust them. And I trust my colleagues in the City Council and elsewhere in city government to follow through on the promises we’re making. I will be among those making sure that we do.

Tomorrow, the next day, and every day after this vote we have to break the stigmas around the formerly incarcerated. Remember the Bryan Stevenson mantra: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” The City of New York must apply this same logic to itself. The mistakes of our predecessors shouldn’t prevent us from making the right decision for the future. 

Rikers Island can be part of that future if the city uses the vacated land to get dirty infrastructure out of the same communities broken apart by the criminal justice system. These are the power plants, sewage facilities, and garbage stations that give people asthma, make them miss school, and saw their opportunity ladder in half. Voting to close Rikers today means we can give our kids a healthier tomorrow. 

City Council Member Costa Constantinides represents District 22, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, including Rikers Island. He is the chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection. On Twitter @Costa4NY.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: 50 Questions for New York Politics in 202050 Questions for New York Politics in 2020 Gotham Gazette: The Challenges Facing Dermot Shea The Challenges Facing Dermot Shea Gotham Gazette: NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage Gotham Gazette: The Max & Murphy Podcast The Max & Murphy Podcast