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'There’s a real schism here': Developers, Electeds & Community Stakeholders Discuss Future of Harlem


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


Following years-long demographic shifts of Harlem — which has been the center of pressing concerns over race, resident displacement, and loss of historical black culture — developers are eager to jump on the new opportunities for residential and commercial development while residents are wary of how their neighborhoods will change. 

Elected officials, meanwhile, have emphasized different priorities for development, and, in many instances, expressed caution about growth. At a Thursday conference on “The Future of Harlem” that focused on development, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said more affordable housing must be built while State Assemblymember Inez Dickens stressed that the need to protect residential areas cannot come “to the detriment of business.”

Brewer and Dickens spoke at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem during a half-day event hosted by Bisnow — a commercial real estate news site — that was residential, commercial, and affordable housing-focused, with panels of developers discussing their projects in Harlem, how they will benefit current and new residents, and how they plan to incorporate community culture into their plans.

Much of the conference focused on what new development means for recently-rezoned East Harlem and how community engagement will be the “rallying cry for developers in Harlem’s historic neighborhoods,” as stated on the event’s webpage. There were three panels made up of representatives mostly from real-estate firms, a few based in Harlem, and focused on repercussions from the 2017 East Harlem rezoning passed by the de Blasio administration and City Council. Dickens opened the event, while Brewer closed it out.

“There really is one industry in New York City and it’s real estate, real estate, and real estate,” Brewer said.

The new development, some of which must include affordable housing units, include 20-story mixed-use rental buildings and condos offering Central Park views.

One conference panel concentrated on new development that has resulted from the new opportunities the rezoning created, and the other two looked at the residential and commercial sides of development in Harlem. Much of the conversation centered around growth, and opportunity for growth, in East Harlem.

Steve Kliegerman, the president of Halstead Development Marketing, said until now, East Harlem had not seen the same redevelopment that has occurred in the rest of Harlem. 

Community members were not included on the panels, but spoke during Q&A sessions at the end of the first panel to ask about how the developers planned to engage with the community as well as express concern that they had not yet been advised on some projects. (Tickets were $109, and Bisnow scheduled time for networking before and after speakers.)

“We’re making our first foray into East Harlem,” said Eric Brody, the chief operating officer at Wonder Works Construction, who spoke on a panel about new projects in the neighborhood. “We see it as drastically changing over the next few years.”

The 96-block East Harlem rezoning that in 2017 passed the City Council, working with the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, allowed higher densities and taller buildings, increased allowable residential and commercial development on certain blocks, and was intended to create economic development and affordable housing in an area that was seeing an influx of new residents and real estate speculation. The city expects the creation of about 1,200 affordable units, but some housing advocates have said the ones built so far have been more expensive than what East Harlem residents need. 

“The intent of the rezoning was to increase density and increase growth while also improving affordability,” said Nicole Assa, a development associate at Blumenfeld Development Group. “There has been a lot of that, however, unfortunately the recent rent regulations reform have really thrown a wrench into this whole rezoning.”

Another developer said state government’s recent changes to rent regulations “turn the winds against” building mixed-income affordable housing buildings, but said it is complicated and potential benefits or challenges are still unclear, though he did not go into specifics.

Considerably more tenant-friendly, the strengthened rent regulations out of Albany apply to roughly 1 million existing New York City apartments and make it harder for units to be taken out of regulation and the lower than market-rate rents typically involved.

“In our city and in our office we look for more affordable housing,” Brewer said. “And in East Harlem we absolutely have to find more.”

The potential for new development in East Harlem has added to resident concerns that it will follow the same path as the gentrification in Central Harlem, where local stores around 125th Street disappear and The Gap, H&M, and Whole Foods take their place. Central Harlem’s demographics have shifted over the last 20 years from predominantly black to a more diverse and whiter population. The white population increased in the area from 2 percent of the population in 2000 to 15 percent in 2017. In the same time period, the black population decreased from 77 percent of the population to 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile in East Harlem, which is historically Latino, from 1990 to 2016 the white population increased by 172 percent to make up 16 percent of the population, according to a state comptroller report from 2016.

As Gotham Gazette and other outlets reported, local advocates who strongly opposed the East Harlem rezoning believed it would cause more gentrification and displacement. Marco Lala, a real estate broker from the Bronx, said at the Bisnow conference that Whole Foods opened in 2017, many thought it was the “final nail in the coffin.”

Mayor de Blasio and then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represented East Harlem, argued that the neighborhood was seeing an initial wave of gentrification and that a city-led rezoning was necessary to help harness the forces of development to produce affordable housing and other community benefits (de Blasio's approach to neighborhood rezonings in communities of color has been criticized).

Community leaders in attendance Thursday morning expressed concern that some of the projects will not work for Harlem, in part due to a lack of outreach by developers, and will continue to transform the broader area in harmful ways. Stanley Gleaton, a member of Community Board 10 in Harlem, said in the audience during a Q&A portion of the panel the developers need to consult with Latino and African-American real-estate agencies.

“We’re here because we want to preserve our community,” Gleaton said. “[The developers] are here because you want to change. There’s a real schism here.”

A local small business owner said it has become increasingly difficult to change lease agreements and wanted to know how the developers plan to support the local boutiques and shops that have attracted people to Harlem.

Tell Metzger, a development director at L+M Development Partners, which focuses on affordable housing, said small businesses generally do not meet the criteria that developers are looking for in commercial tenants. He said the criteria “conspires” against small business owners.

“I have no idea how to bridge that gap,” Metzger said. “It’s a problem.”

Other developers and brokers at the conference said they try to be cognizant of Harlem’s history and incorporate the “Harlem brand” into their plans. Beatrice Sibblies, a managing partner of a Harlem-based real estate firm, said when she first came to Harlem she researched what the neighborhood is known for and used it as a “comparative advantage” for her business.

“A big part of the Harlem brand is a hospitality brand and a culinary brand and a cultural brand,” Sibblies said. “There is untapped potential in the Harlem brand.”

Kliegerman said many of their projects have worked with the community to get rid of gang and drug activity on the blocks near their developments, helping transform some from “block horrible to block beautiful.” He did not explain in detail.

He added that he believes the developers on the panel have tried to cooperate with the communities to make sure the new buildings both fit in with the neighborhood and make financial sense for the developers.

Brewer said the developers in the past who have made community engagement a top priority have had the better outcomes. She said in one case, representatives from the Janus Property Company spent a decade in West Harlem to develop their project. 

“That kind of work pays off,” Brewer said. “You don’t have people screaming and yelling.”

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bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

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Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done?


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Mayor de Blasio rides the bus (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Elected officials, advocates, and especially riders agree: the city’s bus system is broken.

That consensus was reached in recent years as bus speeds slowed to a crawl and the system hemorrhaged ridership. Various advocacy groups and elected officials have put forth studies and plans, and the entities with actual control -- the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Mayor’s Office -- have taken steps toward improving the situation, though many questions around commitment and implementation remain.

Even as the city boasts 2.5 times more bus riders than any of its counterparts across the country, its buses are the slowest in the United States, according to data from the mayor’s office. In the past four years, city bus ridership has decreased by 13 percent; from an annual total ridership of 677,569,432 in 2013 to 602,620,356 in 2017. Buses average a speed of just 8 miles per hour, with speeds at about the pace of a brisk walk in some of the city’s busiest corridors. The slowest city bus route, the M42, runs across Manhattan’s 42nd Street at an average speed of just 3.9 miles per hour, according to data from the city comptroller’s office.

Fixing the buses is a transit issue and a socioeconomic issue; 75 percent of bus riders are people of color, and 50 percent are immigrants, said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.

“Better bus service is really about uplifting the portions of our population that need it the most,” Pearlstein said.

Pearlstein said buses spend 20 percent of their time at bus stops, 20 percent of their time at red lights, and 60 percent in slow traffic.

Both the MTA, which has say over bus routes and personnel, and the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which controls the city Department of Transportation and use of the roadways, street designs, and more, have been criticized for doing little to attend to the buses as ridership plummeted. Asleep at the wheel, both have recently reacted to the bus crisis.

To try to fix the bus system and reverse the ridership trend, the MTA and the Mayor’s Office have implemented or announced, at times with partners, a series of plans and laws to improve bus speeds. They’ve recently been aided by legislation passed by the state Legislature to allow for mounted bus cameras that can ticket drivers parked in bus lanes.

According to experts, including advocates and elected and appointed government officials, the keys to speeding up city buses include: improving Select Bus Service, which is a form of express bus; increasing the number of buses with all-door boarding; eliminating inefficient bus stops; implementing transit signal priority (TSP) so buses can move through traffic lights more quickly; creating more bus-only lanes; and enforcing bus lanes. Much of this work has started or been promised, but results are few given that most responses to the crisis are recent.

MTA and the Bus Route Redesigns
This year, the MTA began a bus route redesign effort as part of a plan from Andy Byford, president of MTA New York City Transit, called Fast Forward, which aims to modernize New York City’s subways and buses. While the full go-ahead, including funding, for Fast Forward is still in limbo, moving ahead with bus route redesigns is among the lesser expensive overhauls. New bus routes are essential, Byford and many others agree, to react to changing residential, commuter, and traffic patterns.

The effort saw a complete redesign of the Staten Island bus network in 2018 and is now focusing on the Bronx. Following the redesign, bus speeds on Staten Island increased on average by 8.6 percent and trip reliability improved by 20 percent, according to data from Transit Center, a foundation that seeks to improve public transit. The bus routes in the remaining three boroughs will be redesigned over the next three years, according to Byford’s plans.

Upon completion of the Bronx plan, the MTA will have redesigned 27 of the 60 bus routes in the Bronx, and proposed frequency changes on an additional four routes. The plan will also implement 150 audio-capable “next-bus signs,” improving accessibility. Through expanding the use of queue jumps, which let buses bypass other traffic at intersections, and TSP, which holds green lights longer or turns lights green sooner for buses, the MTA aims to improve speeds significantly.

The MTA also expects to expand Select Bus Service, which allows riders to purchase a fare before boarding the bus to encourage all-door boarding and skips “local” stops in express fashion.

By modernizing fare payment, the MTA has committed to fully switching to all-door bus boarding by 2021, “but that process should be expedited to capitalize on the redesigns before congestion pricing comes into place,” Transit Center spokesperson Ashley Pryce said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to the upcoming 2021 institution of new tolls on driving cars and other private vehicles into Manhattan below 61st Street.

In addition to the MTA’s current plans, some buses could become faster by stopping every four or five blocks instead of every two, Pearlstein said.

Whether it’s redesigning bus routes or eliminating bus stops, the MTA will of course have local battles. The Bronx redesign plan has been met with some opposition from those who believe it will be too disruptive. In Co-op City, the redesign plan will eliminate certain routes and stops that have upset residents. The new system will require many of the neighborhood’s residents to transfer two or three times to get where they are going, said City Council Member Andy King, who represents Co-op City, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. King said that Byford and the MTA proposed a redesign without consulting Co-op City residents.

On June 27, King and Co-op City residents met with the MTA.

“Public feedback is a critical part of our efforts to reimagine the borough’s bus network,” an MTA spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We are currently in the process of reviewing the feedback we received before moving forward with any final decisions about the location of stops or changes to routes.”

The MTA declined to comment further on the number of bus routes that the plan would eliminate or the number of transfers it would require for trips in question.

“The transfer problem causes an issue. People in Co-op City would rather have convenience than timing. If I can get around Co-op City and it takes me 25 minutes, I will make sure I have enough time,” King said.

King and other community leaders met with Byford last week to discuss the problems they say the proposed redesign will cause for the neighborhood. Byford was receptive to King and the residents’ suggestions, King said.

“Any proposed bus plan for Co-op City must include conversation with the residents. If they’re not included in the conversation nothing will ever make sense. It might make sense for the MTA, but it won’t make sense for Co-op City,” King said, expressing fairly universal sentiments applicable around the city.

“If ridership in Co-op City has not dwindled that means you are still getting the same kind of fares in Co-op City. If numbers aren’t down, don’t punish them because you have low numbers somewhere else,” King said, taking issue with a “cookie-cutter” approach to redesigns.

However, some view slight inconvenience as necessary for the bus system to be more efficient.

“It may take time for some riders to adjust to new routes and bus stop patterns, but if the MTA and DOT implement their plans well, riders will get faster overall trips and a better experience waiting for the bus,” Pryce said. “While some riders may be asked to walk further to a stop, those remaining stops should be equipped with amenities like shelters and benches that can improve the experience for riders.”

Better Buses Action Plan
In April, Mayor BIll de Blasio and his Department of Transportation (DOT), which has a lot of control over the streets, bus lanes, and related decisions, released the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan aims to see bus speeds increase by 25 percent citywide by the end of 2020 -- a goal de Blasio first announced in his February State of the City speech.

The plan calls for the improvement (through painting lanes, adding all-door boarding, and other measures) of five miles of existing bus lanes each year, the installation of 10-15 miles of new bus lanes per year, and the piloting of physically separated bus lanes by the end of this year. From 2013 through early this year, the DOT has built 111 miles of bus lanes across the city, according to the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan also includes an additional 300 TSP intersections and the implementation of bus camera enforcement.

“Our buses have some of the highest ridership numbers in the country, yet we see that our buses are limited when it comes to their reliability and frequency,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, in a statement accompanying announcement of the Better Buses Advisory Group, convened by the mayor's office.

Bus lane cameras are currently limited to 16 of the city’s bus routes. They serve to enforce rules against parking in a bus lane, so as to take pressure off the police for finding violators and issuing tickets with fines for cars that park in or otherwise obstruct the bus lane. The program aims to improve bus speeds by making it clear to drivers not to block bus lanes.

At the end of the legislative session in Albany, lawmakers passed legislation to expand the number of automated cameras enforcing bus lanes. Owners of cars that block bus lanes will be fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second, $200 for third, and $250 for any additional offense.

In June, de Blasio announced the creation of the Better Buses Advisory Group, which will help implement the Better Buses Action Plan. The group includes the public advocate, state senators, Assembly members, City Council members, and representatives of advocacy groups.

“We are taking action to get New Yorkers moving and saving them time for the things that matter,” de Blasio said in a press release announcing the formation of the group. “With guidance from riders, our new Better Buses advisory group will come up with innovative solutions to get our bus routes up to speed,” he said.

2017 Stringer Report, De Blasio Announcement
The push to revamp the bus network got a shot in the arm in October 2017, following a report detailing the system’s ineffectiveness by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer advocated for “major upgrades to our bus system, like better integrated, enforced and designed bus lanes, more bus shelters, all-door boarding, and Transit Signal Priority at traffic lights,” he said in a 2017 press release accompanying the report.

Also in October 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to introduce 21 new Select Bus Service routes across the city. As of that time, according to the city, SBS accounted for 12 percent of the city’s bus ridership, but de Blasio said he expected that number to go up to 30 percent, according to comments during a press conference announcing the plan. Select bus routes average speeds 27 percent higher than local routes.

If the buses are faster, “more and more people will use them. If they are easier to use, more and more people will get out of their cars. But if they’re not moving fast enough, it doesn’t encourage anyone to come and take the bus,” de Blasio said.

From 2013 to 2017, the number of SBS routes increased from six to 13. De Blasio expects increased select buses to improve service to areas that currently do not have regular bus service.

“The bottom line is we have to reach every single neighborhood. No neighborhood should be neglected. No one should have a problem getting around because of the ZIP code they live in. Select Bus Service is a difference maker,” de Blasio said in the announcement.

Car Culture and the Buses
Calls to improve bus service are coming in conjunction with broader efforts to improve pedestrian safety, reduce congestion, and decrease the city’s reliance on and deference to cars. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently introduced his “master plan for city streets” legislation, which includes a sweeping set of planks to “break car culture” by adding many more bus and bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas.

“A progressive city must do better for bus drivers and must deliver for bus riders,” Pearlstein said at the June City Council hearing on the bill. “This is powerful legislation to look forward to while we’re still unfortunately stuck on the bus.”

Johnson’s plan goes further than de Blasio’s Better Buses Action Plan, calling for 30 miles of new bus lanes each year along with TSP, compared to 5-10 miles under de Blasio’s plan.

“We need much better bus and commuter rail service,” Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute fellow, told Gotham Gazette. “We need a better bus network to take pressure off the subway as we decrease reliance on cars.”

Other major global cities have bus networks that are bigger and faster than New York’s. In 2010, London boasted a higher bus ridership than New York’s subway ridership.

If New York does not improve its bus system and regain riders, bus service will have to be cut, Pearlstein said, reflecting MTA Board discussions. “If we allow bus service to further deteriorate ridership will continue to fall and service will be cut. There is no leaving it the same,” Pearlstein said. “If you leave it the same it will get worse.”

“There do need to be faster trips, and more service, and they need to meet those lofty goals,” Pearlstein said of the MTA’s redesign efforts. “Otherwise it looks like a service cut.”

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Police Reform Movement is Focused on Officer Accountability


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(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


July 10, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: the Police Reform Movement is Focused on NYPD Officer Accountability

anthonine pierre bmc wbai 150Anthonine Pierre of Brooklyn Movement Center and Communities United for Police Reform joined the show to discuss what police reformers are focused on right now, Mayor de Blasio's record on police reform, and what legislation in Albany they were disappointed to not see passed in the recently-concluded legislative session.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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It Pays to be Comptroller: Scott Stringer's Mayoral Platform Takes Shape


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Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has made no secret of his plans to run for mayor in 2021, when both he and Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of their current positions. And the outline of his mayoral policy platform is already hiding in plain sight.

After briefly entering the 2013 mayoral campaign before shifting to a first successful run for comptroller, Stringer has spent a long time laying the groundwork for a full mayoral bid, so much so that many expected him to challenge de Blasio in the Democratic primary in 2017 had the mayor faced any consequences from dual ethics investigations into his fundraising activities. But the mayor faced no charges and both officials instead sailed to reelection.

One of three citywide elected officials, besides the mayor and public advocate, the comptroller is the city’s top fiscal officer, charged with overseeing the mayoral administration’s spending, auditing city agencies for waste, approving city contracts, and acting as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds (with assets worth nearly $200 billion). Though they have next to no official policy-making power, those who’ve held the office also tend to issue policy reports and make recommendations for policies the city should implement.

In about five-and-a-half years as comptroller, Stringer has released numerous sweeping proposals to tackle everything from the cost of child care to building more affordable housing to abortion funding, improving city bus performance, and hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Stringer fought against term limits for community board members, a ballot measure overwhelmingly passed by voters last year, and he’s pushed for this year’s city charter revision commission to propose creation of a citywide Chief Diversity Officer, building on his focus on city contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses. And, he’s helped lead the effort to divest city pension funds from fossil fuel companies.

As a citywide official, he’s weighed in with statements on many issues that don’t directly relate to functions of his job, and he’s taken on certain mantras, like the need for more “community-based planning,” that also indicate the initial building blocks for his all-but-official run for mayor.

Stringer’s work in the comptroller’s office has been a continuation of similar efforts he made as Manhattan borough president, unveiling various plans that would have a citywide effect.   

“Comptroller Stringer has spent his career in public service standing up for working families. From his time as a housing organizer, to his work as Manhattan Borough President, to his leadership as the City Comptroller, he’s proven progressive government isn’t just something he talks about – it’s what he delivers on each and every day,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, Stringer’s press secretary, in a lengthy statement responding to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry about Stringer’s various policy proposals.

“He’s used his office to change the face of corporate America and open doors of opportunity to women and people of color; he’s changed the conversation and shined a light on the touchstone progressive issues of our time, including housing and child care; and in every challenge impacting working New Yorkers, Comptroller Stringer sees a progressive solution worth fighting for,” Crampton-Hays continued. “With two and half years left in his term, he will continue the fights that have been at the heart of his entire career -- for equity, affordability, and fairness for all New Yorkers.”

When Stringer declares his candidacy for mayor in earnest, he’ll have a lengthy, detailed campaign platform on day one, thanks to all of the reports and audits out of his office. It’s a smart and appropriate use of the comptroller’s office, said veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “The New York City comptroller can do whatever the New York City comptroller wants. The office has broad authority under the city charter,” he said.

The issues Stringer has examined, Sheinkopf noted, cut across a swath of constituencies in a citywide electorate and have garnered significant attention. “He’s very able to get appropriate coverage for whatever he does. He also knows – because politics has been his life – how to take those issues and turn them into relationship-builders with particular interest groups,” Sheinkopf said. “He will be a highly competitive candidate for mayor, should he choose to run.”

Along with his policy proposals, Stringer’s near ubiquitous presence across the city should help him, Sheinkopf added. “No matter what choice New Yorkers will make, anyone who’s paid attention to the news will be able to say, for whatever reason, whether they can identify the issue or not, that somehow Stringer spoke to them about something,” he said. “And that’s a pretty good place to be and what he spoke to them about goes beyond color lines or race lines or ethnic lines or gender lines. He has made himself into the person whose words and even actions have become relevant to people beyond and outside of his social grouping, religion, race, class, and residence, which is not easy for someone who’s a west-sider from Manhattan.”

Stringer is expected to compete in a Democratic mayoral primary with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and anyone else who throws their hat in the ring ahead of the June 2021 vote. Each has also been in the process of staking out their policy positions and possible major mayoral platform areas, though none has led the size of operation or had the citywide vantage point, at least for as long, as Stringer in the comptroller’s office.

Political consultant George Arzt, who previously served as a campaign spokesperson for Stringer, echoed Sheinkopf. “The comptroller can put out anything on a platform just as the mayor or public advocate would put out anything on their platform,” Arzt said. “Perhaps increasingly so during an election year. But every elected official does it.”

Below are a sampling of the ideas that Stringer has proposed over the years, some of which are likely to form the basis for his mayoral campaign platform:

Child Care
In May, Stringer proposed a plan dubbed “NYC Under 3” aimed at drastically reducing child care expenses for 70,000 families. The plan, paid for with a payroll tax, would purportedly expand child care assistance to families with a combined income of up to $100,000 a year for a family of four, and triple the number of children enrolled in city-funded child care programs. The proposal was broadly praised by advocates, unions, and educators.

“New York City should drive a child care revolution, put working families first and establish a model for the nation to follow,” Stringer said in a statement at the release of the plan. “NYC Under 3 is a down payment on future generations and would benefit children, parents, and the local economy by increasing job stability and economic security.”

Since releasing it, Stringer has done a media and local event blitz to talk it up, including a “roundtable discussion” Monday evening with members of advocacy group Community Voices Heard in East Harlem.

Affordable Housing
Stringer has repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s affordable housing program, saying it has not created or preserved enough affordable units for low-income New Yorkers and that it has failed to stem the city’s homelessness crisis. In November, he released a proposal that would reimagine the city’s housing plan to target the 580,000 households that are in most need.

Stringer’s plan would put $375 million in the capital budget annually and repurpose the roughly 85,000 units left to be built under the mayor’s 300,000-unit plan towards extremely low-income households (which earn less than $28,170 annually) or very low-income households (which earn less than $46,950 annually). An additional $125 million would go to operating subsidies to ensure apartments remain affordable. He also proposed increasing the set aside for housing for the homeless by nearly three times to 15%.

The plan would be paid for by eliminating the Mortgage Recording Tax and implementing a Real Property Transfer Tax on all home purchases based on price. These measures would raise roughly $400 million each year, Stringer estimated. He also reiterated his call for a New York City Land Bank/Land Trust, which he first proposed in February 2016, to build housing on vacant lots.

Teacher Residency
In June this year, Stringer released a plan to reduce teacher turnover in city schools, after an analysis by his office showed that 41% of teachers hired in the 2012-13 school year had left their jobs within five years. 

Stringer proposed a paid, year-long residency program to train 1,000 new teachers annually, partnering them with mentors for classroom training and providing them with stipends for living costs.

On other education fronts, Stringer’s efforts more closely linked to his core job responsibilities have already shown results. After a May 2015 report on inadequate physical education at schools across the city, the de Blasio administration added $100 million to hire physical education teachers in the five boroughs. And following an April 2014 report on broad disparities in arts education, the city allocated $24 million in new city funding to hire more than 100 arts teachers in neighborhoods with the highest needs. 

Abortion Funding
Ahead of the passage of the city budget this year, Stringer rallied with reproductive health rights activists to push the city to allocate $250,000 to the New York Abortion Access Fund, a nonprofit service provider. The push was successful, with the City Council and de Blasio deciding to earmark funding, reportedly making New York the first city in the country to directly fund abortion services.

Insurance for Pregnancy
In March 2015, the comptroller released a report on pre-natal care coverage for pregnant women enrolled in insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The ACA did not recognize pregnancy as a “qualifying event” for immediate coverage. Following Stringer’s report, State Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Aravella Simotas introduced and passed legislation to allow for that coverage in New York, making it the first state to do so.

Puerto Rico Recovery
In October 2017, after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, Stringer released a six-point plan based on an analysis of federal programs to help the island recover from the hurricane’s devastation. New York City is home to the largest community of Puerto Ricans outside of the island, many of whom continue to have ties to family living there, and the city was one of the main destinations for residents fleeing the island after the hurricane.

Stringer proposed federal loan guarantees for the construction of public infrastructure to help the debt-ridden island, called on Congress to authorize Disaster Recovery Private Activity Bonds (which were utilized after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks to rebuild Downtown Manhattan), and an expansion of federal safety net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit for residents of Puerto Rico. He also pushed for measures to help displaced Puerto Ricans, including additional education funding for displaced and homeless students, and for higher education institutions where Puerto Ricans are enrolled.

Chief Diversity Officer
Stringer has used his position as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds to push for greater board diversity at companies where the pension fund invests its money. At the same time, he has pushed for more diversity at city agencies, more city contract spending with MWBEs, and has called for the creation of a Chief Diversity Officer at City Hall (Stringer has appointed his own chief diversity officer). He pushed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to include the idea among its ballot proposals but was unsuccessful, though the commission is moving ahead with a proposal to enshrine responsibility for the city’s MWBE program at City Hall.

Immigrant Services
In March 2015, Stringer released an “Immigrant Rights and Services Manual” – initially translated into Chinese, Korean, Russian and Spanish – to help immigrants navigate local, state and federal services.

In February 2016, he also released a report on citizenship application fees, with recommendations for federal and local action. He urged the city to provide more citizenship assistance programs, to add funding for English and civics classes, and to expand free legal services, among other proposals.

Commuter Rail & Bus Reliability
In October 2018, Stringer released a proposal to expand access to Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, by reducing fares for in-city trips to the cost of a single MetroCard swipe. He called on the MTA to ensure commuter trains take more local stops, that buses provide enhanced service to commuter rail stations, and that those stations be made ADA accessible. His plan, which would entail providing commuter rail service at 38 stations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, would cost about $50 million each year, he estimated.

In 2017, Stringer released a major report on the city's struggling buses, which have lost ridership at a dangerous clip, with an agenda for how to improve the system.

Security Deposits & Credit Score Benefits
In July 2018, Stringer released an analysis of security deposits in the New York City rental housing market, finding that renters paid about $507 million into security deposits in 2016. He called for legislation to cap security deposits as well as additional regulation regarding payments and refunds. The state Legislature this year put new rent regulations into effect that implement some of those reforms.

And in October 2017, Stringer launched pilot projects to help renters in roughly 3,000 apartment units to report their rent payment to increase their credit scores. The program was expanded a year later.

Playgrounds
In April, Stringer launched the “Pavement to Playgrounds” campaign, pointing to a dearth of playgrounds across the city and substandard conditions at hundreds of city playgrounds. Stringer pushed the city to build 200 new playgrounds over five years through partnership between the city’s Parks Department, the Department of Transportation, nonprofits and community boards.

BQE Reconstruction
In March, Stringer proposed his own vision for how the city should rehab the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, including by converting the triple cantilever and Cobble Hill trench into a truck-only thruway and building a new two-mile park on the remaining space. A panel assembled by de Blasio is working on coming up with recommendations for a new plan after the city’s original idea received a great deal of pushback and appears to have been scrapped.

Marijuana Legalization
Before de Blasio released his administration’s plan embracing the legalization of recreational adult use of marijuana in December, Stringer had already explored the possible ramifications of creating a legal market in the city and proposed measures to ensure that the city creates an equitable industry.

Stringer pushed for investing tax revenue from sales into communities most adversely affected by marijuana enforcement, called for equity provisions in state legislation (particularly by making people with marijuana-related convictions eligible for licenses to sell legal marijuana) and proposed a citywide equity program to provide assistance to individuals and businesses seeking to enter the industry. 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Experts Discuss Diversion and Decarceration for People with Serious Mental Illness


first lady chirlane mccray host convo across

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Five leaders in criminal justice and mental health discussed wide-ranging options to keep seriously mentally ill people out of the prison system during a panel discussion held by the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice last week at Baruch College. Two out-of-state panelists, from Arizona and Florida, elaborated on initiatives in their states that have not made it to New York.

The discussion took place just a week after the New York City Council held an oversight hearing on recidivism for those with serious mental illness and what to do about it, and not long ager the New York State Assembly and State Senate unanimously passed legislation to create a commission to explore further state investment in underfunded mental health housing programs.

The panel, moderated by Greenburger Center Executive Director Cheryl Roberts, consisted of: Arizona State Representative Nancy Barto, Florida Circuit Judge Steve Leifman, Judge Matthew D’Emic of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab Vincent Schiraldi, and DJ Jaffe, Executive Director of the Mental Illness Policy Group (Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clarke was slated to participate but was replaced on the agenda the day before).

Each panelist was invited to speak on one particular specialty or accomplishment in their career related to diversion or redirection from prison for those with mental illness. The panel was part of a series called “After Rikers,” which the Greenburger Center is organizing to discuss how those with serious mental illness will fare once the jails on Rikers Island eventually close.

Jaffe discussed a way, assisted outpatient treatment, in which the courts can order someone with a serious mental illness to participate in community-based mental health care services before they become violent. AOT, otherwise known as Kendra’s Law in New York, was pioneered by New York in 1999, an effort in which Jaffe was instrumental (Roberts introduced Jaffe as the “Father of Kendra’s Law”).

“Kendra’s Law is simply the single most effective program that the city has or the state has for the seriously mentally ill,” said Jaffe. Serious mental illnesses, which plague an estimated 239,000 New Yorkers and 4% of the U.S. population, are advanced diagnoses, typically schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder.

AOT is utilized for those who have rejected treatment or shown violent tendencies in the past but whose loved ones or psychiatrists can petition for a court-ordered treatment program. In essence, Kendra’s Law is aimed at preventing people suffering from serious mental illness from committing violent crime, in the vein of the namesake incident whereby Kendra Webdale died in 1999 after being shoved in front of a New York City subway by a man untreated for his schizophrenia.

The population of people eligible for assisted outpatient treatment is relatively small – currently fewer than 1,400 people are under court-ordered treatment programs, although Jaffe estimates that number should be closer to 4,000 if New York provided more resources and was more appropriately aggressive in the use of Kendra’s Law to keep dangerous people in treatment.

Barto, of Arizona, discussed her recent legislation to create a secure community residential program that provides long-term housing placements for those who have resisted help and failed traditional housing programs.

“The goal is to enable a person to not walk away from treatment due to their illness, which is happening in an unsecure setting so often,” said Barto. The facility will be “secure” as in the patient will be unable to leave the gated facility until his or her program terminates.

Barto agreed with Roberts’ assessment that the facility is “a civil commitment to a community-based locked facility or house rather than an institution.”

Nationwide, the mental health field has shifted away from inpatient care (i.e. psychiatric hospitals or “insane asylums”) and towards community-based outpatient methods.

Currently, New York offers some supportive housing options similar to Barto’s legislation. Both New York City and State have programs to build thousands of additional units of supportive housing in the coming years, allowing more individuals to receive mental health care and other social and medical services where they live.

Leifman, of Florida, discussed two major initiatives: the implementation of Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and the creation of a $42.1 million “one-stop shop” mental health facility. The facility -- full of programming, short-term residential beds, crisis intervention teams, and tattoo removal services -- is designed for those with mental illness who may not recognize the severity of their sickness and go through the treatment system many times.

Through the CIT training program, Miami-Dade trained 6,700 police officers representing each department in how to handle an emotionally disturbed person during a crisis. A similar training has been slow to take hold in New York City, where as THE CITY reported, just 11,970 of the NYPD’s 36,753 uniformed cops have been trained to handle EDP calls as those calls have jumped to 180,000 last year.

Furthermore, Miami-Dade recently created CIT 3.0 as a result of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. The program, called a threat management unit, has detectives daily go through every call to the CIT program and look for indicators for threats of violence which leads to an officer checking in on the caller.

D’Emic, of Brooklyn, deals with mentally ill individuals after they have committed a crime. His court, started in 2002, is referred mentally ill offenders and he decides if they go through a mental health program instead of jail or prison. It’s this type of alternative to incarceration that many believe should be the model, but must be matched with good mental health care and careful oversight.

Schiraldi spoke about what to do with people after they leave prison. He worked closely on the recently failed bill in Albany entitled the “Less is More Act,” which would prohibit New Yorkers on parole from being re-incarcerated for smaller technical violations of parole such as being late for curfew.

A former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, Schiraldi took a largely critical stance on the entire probation system, saying: “there is not a lot of strong evidence that probation and parole has an impact on public safety or rehabilitation. If this was a medicine, doctors would stop prescribing it.”

“The major reason it will exist tomorrow is because it existed yesterday,” he said.

There was one point of disagreement during the panel: Jaffe was much more bearish on the impact of peer groups on mental health than the rest of the panelists. A question from guest moderator Valentina Morales of The Fedcap Group asked how involved people with lived experience should be in the planning of mental health programs. Each panelist took the chance to praise people with mental illness who’ve completed mental health programs and work with ongoing patients, while Jaffe mentioned how that can at times lead to a closed feedback loop.

[READ: City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness]

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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Corey Johnson Wants to ‘Break the Car Culture’ in New York City. What Does That Mean?


city council cojo work train

Speaker Johnson on the train (photo: City Council's office)


Imagine a New York where cars no longer rule the road, and pedestrians and cyclists reclaim dominance of the city’s public space. While a New York where cars don’t dominate the streets may seem like a fantasy, to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, it is the future.

In recent months, Johnson -- a Manhattan Democrat in his second year leading the 51-member City Council -- has gone full bore touting the idea of “breaking car culture,” or prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit in public policy rather than private automobiles. But what, exactly, would that look like?

Johnson, who says he’s never owned a car and rides the subway all the time, has become a darling of transit advocates and experts, from his focus on the health of the subway system (and call for municipal control of it) to his pushes for congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” Metrocard program to help low-income New Yorkers.

He’s been seen as a polar opposite to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has shown much more of a “windshield perspective” as a former everyday driver who now gets chauffeured around the city, opposed Fair Fares until Johnson prevailed in city budget negotiations, and has had reluctant overall interest in the subways and buses, not to mention biking.

Mainly, de Blasio’s vision for changing the city streetscape has been aspects of his Vision Zero program to redesign intersections, reduce speed limits, and protect people from traffic crashes. While the program has been successful, helping to continue a reduction in fatalities, the mayor has not shown an interest in creative uses of the city’s public space or the type of more radical thinking Johnson has professed.

Breaking the car culture is at the center of Johnson’s proposed “master plan for city streets,” new legislation that would require the city Department of Transportation (DOT) to improve pedestrian and cyclist access and safety by establishing benchmarks and, in five-year increments, aggressively building out a network of bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian plazas that transform the city.

By 2024, the master plan would institute a connected bike network across the city, install many miles of protected bus lanes, install accessible pedestrian signals at all intersections with a pedestrian signal, redesign all intersections with a pedestrian signal according to a checklist of street design elements designed to enhance safety, and complete all these improvements within the standards for accessible design held by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The CIty Council held a hearing on the bill recently, its fate is unknown at this time.

But beyond the elements in Johnson’s legislation and the policy-making lens it represents, the speaker and others looking to break the car culture in the city also point to changing the decision-making process to give DOT authority over community boards when it comes to specifics of implementation, like getting rid of parking spots and installing bike lanes.

Others advocate for expanding the subway, bus and bicycle networks, building more pedestrian plazas and parks, pedestrianizing certain streets and neighborhoods, rethinking car-focused bridges, aggressively fighting parking placard abuse, and more.

Johnson’s bill comes as the city has seen an increase in traffic fatalities this year over last, despite Vision Zero and its progress over several years. During the first five months of the year, fatalities of pedestrians, bikers, and those in cars were up 21 percent over the first five months of last year.

The number of cyclist fatalities is up 66 percent over the same period, and this year has already surpassed last year’s 12-month total in terms of the number of cyclists killed.

Since its launch in 2014, Vision Zero has helped decrease the number of traffic deaths in every subsequent year, but this year is on pace for an alarming regression, adding to the calls for a much more ambitious approach to street safety and undoing deference to cars.

De Blasio and his administration have been reluctant to support Johnson’s “master plan,” citing the improvements already made and in the works, and what it would require in terms of DOT workload and budget. But Johnson is not satisfied with the pace or scope of the city’s efforts. He wants to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders, ultimately reducing a reliance on cars in the city -- in large part by making the alternatives more attractive.

From 2005 to 2017, the number of cars in the city increased by 15%, or 250,283 cars, to a total of 1,923,041, according to the summary of Johnson’s bill.

Meanwhile, in 2017 the subways had an average weekday ridership of 5,580,845 people a day, while average weekday bus ridership that year was 1,923,993, according to MTA statistics. Bus ridership has declined every year since 2012 and subway ridership hit a four-year low in 2017, as both public transportation systems have been mired in failure. However, there have been recent attempts to reinvent the bus system and fix the subways, and the work on both is ongoing.

“Breaking the car culture means not prioritizing public policy as it relates to private automobile use and doing what we can to reprioritize pedestrians and cyclists and buses and mass transit users,” Johnson told Gotham Gazette just after the Council’s first hearing on his master plan legislation, held on June 12.

The City Council hearing featured testimony from DOT and advocacy groups. Johnson again touted the importance of breaking “car culture,” and questioned DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg for nearly an hour on what the DOT could do to better manage the city’s streets. Johnson lauded the DOT for the improvements it has made, but said that it could do more, especially on bike lanes, improved bus service, and accessibility.

“What this bill is about is shifting away from car culture, breaking the car culture, prioritizing people not in cars, prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit,” Johnson said at the hearing.

He was critical of DOT for not putting enough effort into doing the same.

However, Trottenberg maintained that DOT has been prioritizing those not in cars and is moving ahead on bike lanes and bus improvements at a solid rate.

“In our designs we have tried to change that priority,” Trottenberg said at the hearing. Through increasing the amount of resources dedicated to public transport, bicycles, and other alternatives, “we absolutely could accommodate people by getting rid of cars.”

According to Rosalie Singerman Ray, a PhD student at Columbia University studying institutions in transportation planning, breaking car culture has two components. First, politicians and activists must name cars as the problem and come up with feasible solutions to make people less dependent on cars. Second is increasing the capacity of local agencies to enforce the new solutions, such as improving public transport and getting rid of parking spaces, among other proposals.

“That's where we're struggling,” Ray said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Unenforced, unplanned streets don't work well for anyone,” she said.

Breaking the car culture in the city would not be an easy task even if it was the stated goal. Johnson’s bill outlines concrete steps to make people less reliant on cars, and he tasks DOT with many of the improvements necessary to do so. While DOT is eager to continue to make improvements, it does not currently have the resources to accomplish all the initiatives in the bill, Trottenberg said. DOT is “aggressively growing,” but it would need to “aggressively grow some more” to make all the changes in the bill, she said.

“I think we are a piece of it, but I don’t think it's fair to say that DOT is the sole entity that is going to break the car culture in New York. To break the car culture in New York you need an incredibly robust functioning and expanding mass transit system, you need to build political consensus with players above and beyond this agency,” Trottenberg said.

In an interview earlier this year on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, Trottenberg said that the MTA, a state-run authority that controls the subways and buses with city representatives on its board, should be in the subway-building game, expanding the network like other cities are doing around the globe.

Many of the initiatives in Johnson’s bill must be implemented by DOT in conjunction with the MTA and community boards, creating bureaucratic speed bumps in the bill’s feasibility.

To implement a bike corral, or curbside bike storage, a private business or individual must petition DOT, which in turn must file an application before the community board, before the corral is voted on. Often these bike corrals will take the place of a parking spot.

“My feeling is that DOT regulates the curb and they should have the ability to say that parking spot for one car is going to be changed now,” activist Doug Gordon said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Gordon is a co-host of The War on Cars podcast, examining transit issues. Eliminating the process by which the city litigates every single parking spot could make the DOT more efficient and encourage biking, Gordon said.

Gordon, like many transit advocates, including Speaker Johnson, is active on Twitter and posts a lot about mobility around the city. He recently celebrated a new protected bike lane painted along 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. However, building protected bike lanes can be difficult, because they require the approval of a community board, which often boosts the voices of local residents who drive, Gordon said.

Last year, DOT constructed 21.9 miles of new protected bike lanes, falling short of its goal of 30. Johnson’s plan would require the construction of 50 miles of new protected bike lanes a year. The DOT defines protected bike lanes as a lane separated from traffic by vertical delineations or a physical barrier, including parked cars.

Increasing the number of protected bike lanes can have the potential to increase ridership. According to a 2014 report by City Lab, protected bike lanes increase ridership 21 to 171 percent, with about ten percent of new rides drawn from other modes of transportation.

To build so many miles of protected bike lanes, many of the city’s free public parking spots would have to be removed. For example, in its resolution to build a protected bike lane on the east side of Central Park West, Manhattan’s community board 7 eliminated parking on the east side of the avenue, and with it 400 parking spots. The community pushed for the protected bike lane following the death of a 23-year-old cyclist in the current bike lane, which is unprotected.

The DOT estimates that there are 3 million free public parking spots in the city. “We have too much free parking in New York City,” Trottenberg said at the Council hearing. She also agreed with Johnson that there are “too many” cars in the city.

Three million free parking spots is “an astronomical number,” Johnson said. “If you tried to calculate the amount of cubic square footage that is and the amount of people and bike lanes and bus lanes that could fit in that area, you could potentially have a transformative effect on New York City if you started prioritizing breaking the car culture,” he said.

De Blasio has demonstrated a reluctance to remove parking spaces, though he has backed the expansion of CitiBike bike-share, the docks for which often take away a few spots.

“There is a little bit of fear that pervades the development of these plans because there is the sense that if parking is taken there will be community pushback,” Gordon said.

“We all as New Yorkers understand how to maximize the least amount of space for the most amount of good,” Gordon said. “I think we need to extend that very New York point of view to the curbside,” he said.

When the city repurposes parking spots, DOT considers the parking needs of the neighborhood and tries to redesign streets in a way that works for everyone, DOT official Sean Quinn said at the hearing.

Gordon and others want not only parking spaces turned over to other public uses, but also some of the land currently used for driving, such as a lane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which could be given to cyclists, thus alleviating some of the at-times dangerous overcrowding that happens on the pedestrian and bike pathway across the bridge. Gordon and others have also called for pedestrianizing Broadway from Union Square to Times Square, if not beyond, as well as much of downtown Manhattan.

“Making provisions for individuals to be allowed to drive and park wherever and whenever they want makes pretty much everything harder in New York,” Ray of Columbia said in an email to Gotham Gazette.

In London and Paris, both cities that have been cited by Johnson as examples of how to break car culture, the push against car dominance began with parking and public transit investment. Both cities cleared street parking off of major avenues.

London instituted congestion pricing in February 2003, built bus lanes and invested in its bus network, and its bus system boasted a higher ridership than New York’s subway system in 2010. Paris built tramways and bus lanes, putting them on the street to take the place of cars. Paris has since raised the cost of parking on the street, with parking fees higher outside of one’s home neighborhood.

At the same time, both London and Paris kept costs relatively low while they implemented alternatives.

New Yorkers “don't actually know what it looks like to break car culture wallet-first,” Ray said, meaning that New York’s infrastructure costs are often astronomical, and the state is set to institute congestion pricing while investments in the subway and bus systems have not been clearly planned and funded, much less implemented -- though some investments have been made through the emergency Subway Action Plan and initial re-signaling of the 7-line. Still, the MTA must soon perform an authority reorganization while also designing a new five-year capital plan to outline roughly $30-60 billion in planned investments.

Part of Johnson’s master plan includes getting people to rely on cars less by improving the mass transit system, especially buses.

“If the subways and buses are more reliable, if the buses are faster, if there are dedicated bus lanes, if there are more pedestrian spaces, I’m going to rely on something that is cheaper, that is more reliable, that is better for the environment, that is more affordable,” Johnson told Gotham Gazette just after the hearing. There are indeed elements of public transit and space that the city has a great deal of control over, including establishment and enforcement of bus and bike lanes.

Johnson’s plan calls for 30 miles of new bus lanes each year and the implementation of transit signal priority, a method used to coordinate vehicles and traffic signals to reduce the time buses are stopped at traffic lights along a corridor and therefore improve bus travel times, according to DOT.

“We need much better bus and commuter rail service,” Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute fellow, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “We need a better bus network to take pressure off the subway as we decrease reliance on cars.”

Improvements to the bus system would come at a time of decreasing ridership, as more and more New Yorkers get around in for-hire vehicle services, like Uber and Lyft. In January 2016, taxis and for-hire vehicles combined to provide 680,000 rides, according to statistics released by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and DOT. Today, they combine to provide over one million daily rides. From 2012 to 2017, bus ridership decreased by 12.75 percent.

To break car culture, the city would have to address the increasing number of New Yorkers who are reliant on taxis and app-based for-hire vehicles. The city recently announced a plan to extend the existing cap on fire-hire vehicle licenses another year and introduced another regulation to limit the amount of time drivers cruise, or drive without a passenger. The state also recently passed a congestion pricing program, which will begin in 2021 and charge a fee for entering Manhattan’s central business district, which will add a cost on top of the other new fee recently assessed to for-hire vehicles.

Johnson said that congestion pricing is another part of breaking the car culture. Congestion pricing “will at least below 60th street reduce the number of cars that come in every day,” he said.

Congestion pricing may also eliminate some effects of pollution, which could have environmental and public health benefits. Breaking the car culture could be beneficial to the health of New Yorkers and the globe. High density of cars has been linked to noise and air pollution problems, so creating an environment with fewer cars would make the area less polluted, Ray said.

“Congestion pricing in NYC can do more than address congestion—it can open the city’s streets to better transportation choices and new economic prospects,” former DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan wrote on Twitter. “Cities need people-friendly mobility options that reclaim streets from the damage caused by cars. Sadik-Khan spearheaded the Times Square pedestrian plaza, and under her leadership in the Bloomberg administration, the city began implementing CitiBike terminals and the transformation of approximately 180 acres of road space into pedestrian and cyclist zones.

Some advocates have called for even more pedestrian plazas and spaces in the city, such as the idea of turning Broadway into a pedestrian-only park between the Times Square pedestrian plaza and Union Square.

Breaking car culture will also require the city to become more accessible, Johnson said. The plan calls for the introduction of accessible pedestrian signals (APS), or devices fixed to pedestrian signal poles to assist the blind or low vision pedestrians crossing the street. The devices emit a sound that tells the pedestrian when to cross.

“Cities that have broken their car culture have more public space to talk and play and eat and breathe, and paradoxically, roads that work better for more people,” Ray said.

Johnson noted that there are some parts of New York City that are “transit deserts,” and people who live in those areas will not give up their cars unless the city provides them with an alternative. Eastern Queens and South Brooklyn both lack significant transit options, for example.

“You’re never going to eradicate cars in New York City. That’s just not possible. But it’s about reprioritizing, giving people better options, making significant investments in things that don’t relate to private automobile use,” Johnson said.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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ThriveNYC to Implement New Performance Tracking System Focused on Outcomes


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Chirlane McCray (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Following repeated criticism about spending hundreds of millions of dollars with unclear outcomes, ThriveNYC, First Lady Chirlane McCray’s signature mental health initiative, is now publishing nearly 100 metrics to track the performance of dozens of programs that have been launched in the last three years.

The metrics, provided to Gotham Gazette just before their public launch, will show outcomes of programs, not just their reach or the city’s investment into them as has been the case since the inception of ThriveNYC.

Over the last few months, ThriveNYC partnered with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and various city agencies to create 94 performance indicators across the board, and will begin to publish that data on its website starting this fall, with varying timelines depending on individual initiatives.

ThriveNYC will publicly post a detailed description of each initiative, the agency handling the program, and the indicators associated with it. For instance, for NYC Well, the mental health phone helpline run by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, ThriveNYC will measure the percentage of callers who say they are satisfied by its services. To measure the Mental Health First Aid training program, the office will look at the percentage of people that say they shared or used the training they received. 

“Now that the programs are implemented and even the ones that are about to launch, we’re putting up the metrics that we’re going to be looking at to see what kind of effect they’re having,” said Susan Herman, ThriveNYC’s director since February, in a phone interview on Thursday. 

Inaugurated in 2015, ThriveNYC was meant as a paradigm shift in how the city handles mental health issues, seeking to tear down stigma around getting mental health care, targeting services at New Yorkers who cannot afford the cost of care or have been long underserved, and ensuring that people of all backgrounds are more attuned to their own mental health needs, as well as those of their friends, family, and colleagues.

With $850 million pledged over four years, the overarching initiative, called a mental health “roadmap,” sought to bring together a range of services, with more than 50 programs (including some that were already running) across a dozen-odd city agencies. McCray has been the face of the program, touting its gospel across the city and in appearances, both with and without Mayor Bill de Blasio, across the country.

But while many have praised the program’s goals, the accountability involved has been vague. In April 2018, McCray said in an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits that Thrive would begin a “resetting” phase, including by bringing on its first executive director and tracking more metrics for the various programs. Gotham Gazette reported soon after that many of the ThriveNYC goals were difficult to track and that the budget was opaque.

By February of this year, a second reset began. ThriveNYC became a standalone office housed under the mayor’s office and Susan Herman, a former NYPD deputy commissioner, was named its director and senior advisor to the mayor, with the task of better organizing the effort and ensuring that it had the right structures in place. But several news reports, first in Politico New York and then The New York Times, further pointed out that ThriveNYC was struggling to track and show results despite having spent nearly $600 million.

In March, the New York City Council convened an oversight hearing where they tried to hold McCray and Herman’s feet to the fire, demanding to know if the city was getting the bang for its buck. 

Those answers are now forthcoming, the city says. 

Herman’s first task when she took over ThriveNYC, she said in the interview, was to clarify to the public the scope of ThriveNYC and the services provided under its umbrella. She denied that the metrics were created in response to the criticism the program faced, saying that they couldn’t be established earlier since there was no data to assess and that the various initiatives had to first be up and running.

“First of all we’re measuring the right things at the right time. This is when you start measuring outcomes, when you are fully implemented,” she said. “And I think most researchers would tell you, ‘Yeah this is just exactly when you should be doing exactly what you’re doing.’ And secondly, it’s very important to know that we are also engaged in formal evaluations, many of which are up and running and have been up and running, some of them for over a year, some of them two years, some of them just launched, some of them still to come but we have worked with outside researchers for years to do formal evaluations of Thrive programs and we’ll continue to do that.” 

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, echoed Herman in a separate interview. “In this kind of work there are generally two kinds of measures for programs and program success: there’s outputs and outcomes,” he said. “Outputs tend to be process-y, like how many meetings did you do, how many contacts, and those are really useful for management. In the end, whether you’re the government or general public, it’s the outcomes that matter. And they’re both more important and usually the trickier thing to measure.”

While McCray and de Blasio have talked extensively about the importance and impact of ThriveNYC, the measures have almost all been outputs, as Jacobson put it, with McCray admitting at the recent Council oversight hearing that limited systems were in place to even try, difficult as it may be, to track outcomes for individuals serviced by Thrive programs.

With the next fiscal year, FY 2020, beginning on Monday, ThriveNYC will also launch new programs, with plans to spend nearly $243 million overall through the course of the year. These programs are expected to have metrics attached, with reports issued quarterly, semi-annually, and annually, depending on the data gathered.

Some are already evident and showing impact. For instance, according to ThriveNYC, 48% of young children receiving mental health treatment for early childhood trauma at seven clinics run by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have shown signs of improvement. At 25 Department for the Aging senior centers with on-site mental health clinicians, 56% of seniors receiving treatment have shown improvement in depression symptoms and 65% have shown improvement in anxiety symptoms.

Even the host of new metrics are an “interim” phase, Herman said, which will eventually be followed by broader evaluations of programmatic effects on specific populations -- school students, for example -- and then a holistic review of ThriveNYC’s effect on the entire city. 

Herman couldn’t explain why the city had failed to measure the impact of many of the programs involved that had existed before ThriveNYC, though she said these had not been repackaged but instead enhanced under the de Blasio administration.

“Some of these programs, could some of them have had outcome measures earlier? Perhaps,” she said, “but this is a way of looking at Thrive in total...It’s an important distinction. Because really what people are asking is what’s the impact of Thrive? And at this point what we should be looking at is the impact of each of the initiatives. It’s only later still that we can look at the impact of Thrive on larger populations and eventually on New York as a whole.” 

Jacobson said, “You can start to think about this for any program but you can’t do it until you get some historical data...It couldn’t have been on day one.” 

Part of the failure to show qualitative and quantitative results, Herman said, is because of the nature of ThriveNYC. Akin to other long-term public health programs, it’s hard to gauge in the span of a mayoralty.

“It’s comparable frankly to universal pre-K where you can see the immediate result, you can see that kids are in school, families are happier but, like Headstart, you won’t know the impact on those children’s lives for many years to come,” she said. “And then you see it and it’s very clear. Just like smoking bans, just like trans fats bans, just like universal pre-k. You’re gonna have an impact that you won’t see for years.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'We're Moving Now': City Pursues School Desegregation Measures, with Major Looming Test


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


Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced on June 10 that the city will adopt 62 recommendations focused on diversity and integration in public schools, focusing on middle and elementary schools, from the Department of Education’s School Diversity Advisory Group, a new step toward school desegregation as many students, families, educators, and others have waited years for the city to make progress.

A 2014 UCLA report said New York public schools were the most segregated in the country, but stressed that they didn’t have to be. The report said a combination of demographic transformations and a lack of diversity-focused policies led to “problematic segregation patterns.” 

Adding metrics to an annual report to track numbers related to diversity and integration, defining a city goal to aim to have “all schools to look like the city,” and investing in programs to provide more opportunities in high poverty schools are some of the recommendations that some say are the most significant. Also part of the picture is city grants to school districts that want to design their own integration plans, as a few districts have already done.

The adoption of the recommendations come after “a long period of frustration,” according to City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who has been one of the leaders in pushing school desegregation efforts in the city. Lander added that Carranza’s leadership has been significant in moving the advisory group and broader conversation along. The city accepted all but five of the group’s 67 recommendations, with two rejected and three are still under review.

While many say the initial slate of recommendations is a positive step, some have criticized the plan for lack of timelines for implementation and not being aggressive enough to make fast progress on school integration. Members of the group have said this report is just a start, and a second set of recommendations in July will address some of those concerns, including taking on the tough subject of high school admissions. 

Some have also said the two recommendations the de Blasio administration did not select — the creation of a Chief Integration Officer position and analyzing the possibility of moving the supervision of School Safety Agents from the NYPD to the Department of Education — could have spurred more progress. 

The three of the 67 from the first report that are still under review would make resources available to any district making diversity plans if the DOE receives more applications than the $2 million it already set aside can support and establish a separate set of funds for districts that have not started integration discussions yet. The third suggests developing and investing in enrichment programs in elementary schools.

Since Carranza took over as chancellor in April 2018, he has taken a much more aggressive approach to school desegregation than his predecessors, the apparent result of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new willingness to address an area of significant criticism during his first five years in office, though the mayor is still facing heat for his tepid approach to what is a civil rights and education issue with major socioeconomic and racial implications.

Carranza has implemented mandatory implicit bias trainings for all teachers, lobbied state lawmakers to drop the single entrance exam for the city’s specialized high schools where few black and Hispanic students are enrolled, and eliminated the use of “limited unscreened” enrollment policies in high schools, which gave priority to applicants who attended admissions fairs to show interest and were thought to favor students with more engaged and wealthier parents. 

Mayor de Blasio in 2017 had created a modest diversity plan and established the School Diversity Advisory Group, which came up with the recently-released recommendations. But, de Blasio’s agenda had lacked plans on school integration until recent years. Council members as well as student and teacher advocates increasingly pressured the mayor in the years after the UCLA report. Then he appointed Carranza, who has been outspoken, at times ruffling feathers de Blasio had been loathe to disrupt, to push conversation and action around school integration.

“The chancellor’s coming and embracing that advocacy and working together to build it...has been essential,” said Lander, who co-sponsored a package of legislation passed in 2015 that intended to bring attention to segregation in public schools, “because we had all that organizing going on, but we did not yet have much progress.” 

Preliminary Movement: 62 Recommendations
The 2014 UCLA report found that of the city’s 32 school districts, 19 included 10 percent or fewer white students. Additionally, it said the combination of “double segregation” by both race and socioeconomic status created more inequalities. 

An updated 2019 report found that while some progress had been made, the city’s schools remained largely segregated. From 2001 to 2015, the number of “intensely segregated” elementary schools in gentrifying areas declined by about 10 percent (from 91 percent in 2001 to 83 percent in 2015), those in non-gentrifying areas increased by 15 percent. Intensely segregated schools are defined as 90 to 100 percent non-white. 

Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio and now senior vice president for social justice at the New School and a co-chair of the School Diversity Advisory Group, said in an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC that school integration benefits all students. She said dropout rates go down while graduate rates go up, and students do better in college.

Wiley said that the recommendation adding diversity metrics is a “game changer.” She said having numbers on diversity and providing the public with the reports will help keep the city accountable. 

She added that one of the recommendations, creating diversity targets in middle school admissions, is an expansion on the mayor’s 2017 Diversity in Admissions program that planned for 50,000 more students to attend racially representative schools. Because some researchers noted that the goal could be met by demographic shifts alone, Wiley said the SDAG wanted to be more aggressive. 

“In the short term we said schools, meaning zero to three years, schools should look like their districts. Then over five years they should look like the borough. In 10 years they should look like the city,” Wiley said on WNYC. “The link to the metrics is how do you know if you’re getting that done if you’re not reporting?”

Two-thirds of the students in the city’s school system are black and Hispanic, 15 percent are white, and 16 percent are Asian, according to DOE data. In the city overall, 33 percent are white, 26 percent are black, 24 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are Asian.

Clara Hemphill, the director of education policy and editor at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs’ project InsideSchools, said the recommendations serve as a guide for how the city can move forward with integration on the district level.

The recommendations encourage districts to develop their own diversity plans similar to the one in Brooklyn’s District 15, part of Lander’s Council district, which eliminated the use of screens in middle school admissions and committed 52 percent of seats to students who are low-income, learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The city announced that five districts will receive $200,000 in grants to increase their schools’ diversity, and one recommendation from the advisory group encourages nine more districts to develop integration plans. Another recommendation outlines that the DOE will “support and encourage” districts to examine new middle school admissions policies, while another urges districts to be transparent about their integration processes to ensure progress.

However, Hemphill said for a borough like the Bronx, whose population is largely black and Latino, there is not going to be integration of different races and income levels at most schools in those districts. She added, though, that the recommendations do layout an answer to help those schools: providing more and encouraging the recruitment of diverse faculty create ways to improve the schools’ quality.

“At neighborhoods where you can’t have racial integration of students, you can still make schools that have plenty of resources and represent the kids,” Hemphill said.

The mayor’s approach to school desegregation so far has been to encourage districts to pursue their own integration plans with assistance from the DOE, which has happened with success through parent-led efforts in Districts 15 and 3. De Blasio regularly says he believes it must be a bottom-up, not top-down effort to integrate city schools.

City Council Member Daneek Miller said at a June 19 press conference that there is a consensus from the members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus as well as the Progressive Caucus that the recommendations are necessary to address school segregation problems. He added, though, that “these 62 points don’t necessarily address everything.”

Perceived Shortcomings
Critics have said the recommendations lack specific timelines for implementation and fail to address greater issues of enrollment screens and district segregation.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, said because the recommendations focus on district plans rather than a city-wide plan, not much progress can be made on desegregating schools. The district lines are ethnically and racially drawn, so desegregation efforts need to happen across districts rather than within districts, he said.

Bloomfield added that one of the rejected recommendations, the creation of a Chief Integration Officer, was a “major mistake” because someone in that position could have focused on the city as a whole rather than the individual districts.

“[A city-wide plan] does require imagination and professional staff,” Bloomfield said. “That seems to be lacking in how the mayor sees desegregation efforts. In some ways it’s a plan for a plan, and it’s too late to be going so slow.”

Carranza has said that in his role as chancellor, he is the Chief Integration Officer.

Of the other of two recommendations the city did not adopt, that of moving the supervision of the School Safety Agents to the DOE from the NYPD, would have been beneficial in decreasing police presence in schools and students getting caught up in the criminal justice system as opposed to having more issues handled at their schools. Not long after the de Blasio administration announced it was accepting the 62 of 67 recommendations from the advisory group, it announced a new school discipline code and new agreement between the NYPD and DOE to lighten how students are policed in schools — the first update to that memorandum of understanding in about 20 years.

Given the lack of timelines for implementation, the advisory group recommendations form a “roadmap” for what the city wants to do rather than a plan with deadlines, Hemphill said. 

The recommendations also did not take on high schools and screened admissions policies.

Lander said while some of the recommendations are significant and are an overall positive step, they tackle the “lower hanging fruit.” He said there is room for the city to make changes in the admissions processes of high schools that use academic screens, which does not require changes in state law and is a “more thoughtful” approach to integration. 

The student advocacy group Teens Take Charge, which held a rally at the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, home to the DOE, calling for a high school integration plan four days before de Blasio announced the adoption of the recommendations, echoed Lander’s sentiment.

Soknadiarra Ndiaye, the chief operations officer of Teens Take Charge, said the group hopes the next set of recommendations due next month will deal with enrollment processes and high schools. The group set a June 26 deadline, the last day of school, for de Blasio to announce a comprehensive high school integration plan, and held a sit-in at City Hall when no such plan was announced. 

The Teens Take Charge campaign calls for the city to promote academic, racial, and socioeconomic integration at high schools by setting diversity thresholds in the admissions process that all high schools would have to meet. 

“When it comes to high school, one of the reasons why our high school system is so segregated is because of enrollment,” Ndiaye said. “So we’re hoping that [the city] will either adopt our policy or something similar to it.” 

City Council Member Mark Treyger, the chair of the Council’s education committee, said making changes to admissions processes is one way for the Department of Education to take steps forward on school integration without needing state lawmakers to change state law, which is necessary for tackling issues related to the three (of the eight) marquee specialized high schools and the SHSAT used for admissions (the state legislative session just ended with no movement on reforming the specialized schools’ admissions).

De Blasio has said he does not think it is wise to change the process at the five specialized high schools the city controls, pushing for state law changes to scrap the test in favor of multiple measures and criteria that would diversify the schools, home to high percentages of white and Asian students.

Treyger said he is “pleased” that the recommendations signal the city is moving forward on the issue, but added that “time is of the essence.”

“Every school year delayed is justice delayed and these are precious years that our students can never get back,” Treyger said. “There needs to be a real effort underway, not just to simply form another working group or have another study, but to really find ways to implement strategies right now that we know work.” 

Matt Gonzales, school diversity director at the nonprofit New York Appleseed and also a member of the city’s SDAG, said SDAG is writing the second report, which he said will take on high school policy and enrollment issues. He added that the group did not design the first set of recommendations to be the only plan they propose.

“I guess there’s a distrust that the advisory group isn’t going to follow through,” Gonzales said. “There was never an intention just to lay out this first report and wipe our hands.” 

The City’s Slow Progression
School integration was not on de Blasio’s platform when he ran for mayor in 2013, nor was it included in his “Equity and Excellence” education speech in 2015, though he discussed a number of education initiatives. Those programs, like Algebra for All and Computer Science for All and AP for All, are virtually all aimed at enhancing schools as they are currently constituted, while ignoring racial segregation, an approach some have called de Blasio’s version of ‘separate but equal.’

Pushed on not moving to desegregate city schools, de Blasio repeatedly said he had put a great deal in motion to improve schools. He also pointed to the historical constructs and sources of segregated schools and neighborhoods, and to the fact that many New Yorkers had made major life decisions, like buying homes, with the current school districts in mind. Those comments received significant criticism. 

Bloomfield said de Blaiso started to tackle the issue after years of increasing pressure from the public, advocates, and other city leaders. He added that the timing of the city moving forward also coincides with the arrival of Carranza, who prioritized the issue, as well as de Blasio’s reelection.

“He felt that he could risk some political capital on this initiative,” Bloomfield said of the Democratic mayor, now in his second and final term (and running for president).

The City Council, however, began to address school segregation issues in 2014, just after the UCLA report. In October of that year, Council Members Lander, Ritchie Torres, and Inez Barron introduced a package of legislation to draw attention to the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. The Council has no power to change admissions processes or school district lines, policies that are set by the mayoral-controlled Department of Education, technically a state entity, local parent education councils, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which is mostly run by mayoral appointees.

Lander’s portion of the legislation included requiring the Department of Education to publicly report diversity metrics. Torres and Barron both introduced nonbinding resolutions that sought to officially declare diversity one of the Department of Education’s goals and to rewrite the law requiring the city’s specialized high schools to admit students based on an entrance exam. 

The Council passed the legislation, and in 2015 passed the School Diversity Accountability Act, which requires the Department of Education to annually report on steps they are taking to address school segregation. The Council has also held several hearings on the issue, including one in May. 

“We have been pushing for integration efforts for quite some time,” Treyger said. “And the City Council is limited in terms of its legislative authority in terms of DOE policies, but we do have oversight power. We’ve used it and we’ll use it again to hold the DOE accountable.”

Districts themselves have also implemented their own integration plans, with District 15 in Brooklyn and District 3 in Manhattan both enacting more inclusive admissions practices in their middle schools. 

No action was taken to further school integration by either the Department of Education or the mayor’s office until 2017, when de Blasio established the SDAG and set goals for more diverse schools. 

The 2017 diversity plan outlined diversity as a priority for the Department of Education and included short-term goals such as decreasing the number of economically stratified schools by 10 percent and increasing the number of schools that serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities. 

“It was very weak tea,” Lander said. “I mean, it was better than nothing, but the goals were very modest. And there was no reason to believe that the School Diversity Advisory Group would be real, would be meaningful would be independent with recommendations.” 

Lander said Carranza was key in giving the SDAG confidence to be bolder and move forward with proposing the recommendations in February 2019. 

Treyger said after some months had passed, he wanted to hold a hearing to find out where the administration stood on the recommendations. He said he, Speaker Corey Johnson, and other Council members were “frustrated” that the city was not ready to publicly weigh in yet. 

At the hearing held in May, Carranza testified that he needed to further discuss the recommendations with the SDAG before making a public announcement on which ones the DOE would adopt. A month later, the city announced the adoption of most of the recommendations.

Lander emphasized that this action comes after years of waiting, but the recommendations signal an intention that there will be more progress on the issue. 

“I’m glad we’re moving now,” Lander said. “I wish we started earlier.” 

Bloomfield said after the second report comes out in July, there could be months of waiting for the mayor to decide which portions of the proposal he wants to adopt. Though he said the progress that has been made now will make it more difficult for the city to stop the movement. 

“The significance is that it’s now squarely part of the city’s agenda,” Bloomfield said. “A new mayor will have a harder time putting the genie back in the bottle.”

‘A Witch Hunt’
Carranza has come under fire from some parents and City Council members following a lawsuit filed by three white veteran Department of Education administrators who claimed they were demoted because of their race, as well as anti-bias trainings that have become the subject of ire from some officials, the New York Post, and others.

A Post columnist, Bob McManus, wrote that Carranza’s agenda is all about “racial division” and that the anti-bias trainings are “white-bashing” sessions that have inflamed rather than eased race relations.” The Post editorial board has written several pieces critical of Carranza in recent months.

In a letter dated June 15, seven City Council members and two state Assembly members sent a letter to de Blasio saying if Carranza continues to “divide the city” then the mayor should replace him. Eight of the nine signers were white, and Council Member Robert Holden of Queens spearheaded the action. The other signator, Council Member Peter Koo, is Asian, and representative of a community that has taken issue with Carranza and de Blasio seeking to overhaul admissions to the specialized high schools, where Asian students are far overrepresented compared to their population in the city or larger school system.

For Council Member Daniel Dromm, a former teacher and former chair of the Council’s education committee, the situation was “almost predictable.”

“As soon as you start to talk about implicit bias or culturally responsive education, you could’ve put money on it that you’re going to get this kind of backlash,” Dromm said during a June 19 press conference held by both the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus and its Progressive Caucus. “Which is why no other chancellor would go near the issue to begin with.” 

In response to the letter, the Mayor de Blasio has said the chancellor is not going anywhere. He said on NY1’s Inside City Hall that the Council members “should have known better.” 

“[Carranza] is doing a great job,” de Blasio said. “I think a lot of people in this city really look up to him and are depending on him.” 

Several other Council members also released statements of support for Carranza. Lander said the New York Post is leading a “witch hunt” against the chancellor. 

Others have echoed Dromm’s sentiment that much of the backlash Carranza has received is a nature of his progressive agenda. Gonzales said the New York Post is trying to “discredit” the chancellor as he pushes a progressive agenda.

“Everything that’s been happening in response, I don’t think now that any of this was a response to any particular one thing,” Gonzales said. ‘It’s just a response to who he is, and how bold he has been about identity, how that informs the work he does, and the prioritization of a racial justice agenda.” 

Carranza, who is of Mexican descent, said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on June 11 that the letter is “just a distraction.” He said he will continue to work on making sure all students have access to the same opportunities, a goal outlined in the 62 recommendations the city accepted.

“It’s always often kind of rich when there are inequities happening in a system and the minute you start pointing out those inequities and actually working to change those inequities it becomes divisive,” Carranza said on the show. “I’ve never seen how you can improve a system without identifying what the issues are in the system, and you can’t fix the inequities without talking about them.”

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bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Adjusts Its Digital Footprint


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CM Espinal, center, with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


When Corey Johnson took over as Speaker of the New York City Council last year, he quickly took steps to shake up the way the legislative body does business. He created new issue-focused committees and leadership positions, including naming Council Member Rafael Espinal the new Deputy Leader for Digital Communication.

The position was intended to create a more coherent public face for the Council, easing communication with constituents, modernizing the Council’s digital operations, and spreading the gospel of legislative progress to all New Yorkers.

Espinal and Johnson quickly set about overhauling the Council’s digital communications, bringing in a new digital director and consolidating a separate public tech team -- created by the prior Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and reporting directly to her -- into the communications umbrella. In an interview earlier this year, Espinal boasted of the progress made in the first year, though it appears he’s no longer overseeing those efforts.

Over the course of a few weeks early in 2018, Johnson changed the structure and personnel of the Council’s communications team, bringing his own people in, and putting the imprint of his hyperkinetic style across the board.

Johnson and his team, headed by communications director Jennifer Fermino, took an active interest in cultivating the Council’s online presence, through social media, digital campaigns, and data analysis projects aimed at improving how New Yorkers access and interact with the City Council. They flooded the market with Johnson’s busy activities and outgoing personality.

Despite Espinal’s title, which doesn’t appear on his Council member page, he seems to have effectively ceded the role to Fermino, who oversees all aspects of the Council’s central communications. (Fermino was hired after Espinal was named to the position.)

In the 18 months since Johnson took the helm, the Council’s Instagram account has nearly doubled its followers to more than 5,200, the Council gained 13,000 new followers on Twitter, and the speaker’s own newly-created account has almost 18,000 followers. “The Council is proud of the work it has done to digitally reach New Yorkers and educate the public on what we are doing,” Fermino said in an email.

Early on, Johnson faced criticism when he fired several staffers from the Council’s public tech division, created by Mark-Viverito and headed by Erica Gonzalez, a Latina emblematic of Mark-Viverito’s efforts to make the Council more representative of and able to communicate with New Yorkers. The unit led communication efforts directed at communities of color, spreading the first Latina speaker’s message and Council’s work to a broader audience.

In April 2015, Mark-Viverito launched her own precursor effort to improve digital engagement, under a plan called Council 2.0. The Council partnered with Civic Hall, a civic tech business and venue, and redesigned its website, launched a new legislative tracking portal, and an initiative called ‘Council Labs’ meant to test new ideas. “The council must grow into a digitally agile institution that can easily adapt to emerging technology while remaining grounded in our communities," Mark-Viverito said at the time.

During his tenure, Johnson has moved that work along, launching new interactive tools, including maps, and surveys.

A few months into his term, Johnson displayed an ability to use social media to help get things done, launching an online campaign to push for funding the Fair Fares program, which provides half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. Johnson and his fellow Council members hit the streets to talk to commuters outside subway stations, shooting videos and straight-to-camera testimonials to post to the Council’s Twitter account. Mayor Bill de Blasio, initially hesitant to pony up the funds for the program, eventually relented, giving Johnson an early legacy-making victory.  

The Council also took a data-analytic approach to its website, looking at the pages that New Yorkers tend to visit the most and highlighting them on the homepage, including links to city budget documents, hearing schedules and livestreams, and Council members’ individual pages. The Council central staff has also trained Council members to use Facebook, particularly those who don’t have staff running social media.

In an interview earlier this year, Espinal said he had pushed to create the digital communications position, working with Digital Director Kevin Groh to focus on the entire City Council membership rather than just the Speaker. (Somewhat ironically, Espinal also introduced a bill last year that would limit employers’ digital communications with employees after work hours).

“It was a new position that I wanted to create because I think now more than ever, it’s important for New Yorkers to be able to connect with local government,” Espinal said, citing his own proclivity for social media. 

In line with that effort, the Council’s communications team made tweaks and enhancements to all digital outreach. Every video posted to social media is now captioned and images are posted with alt-text, to make them more accessible to people with disabilities. 

“Now members feel as if they’re a part of the City Council digital communications outreach team,” Espinal said. “There have been more videos made of Council members in specific districts, videos focused on legislation that they’re working on or passing.”

Council members’ work is now highlighted on the Council’s website, linking to albums on the Council’s Flickr account. 

But the digital efforts go beyond fun and interesting photos, they’re used to inform policy, help people understand its effects, and move New Yorkers to get involved, as in the Fair Fares campaign. When tech giant Amazon was attempting to locate a major campus in the city, the Council wanted to know more about its plans and how it would affect the communities in Long Island City, Queens, and beyond.

Prior to holding hearings where Amazon executives testified, the Council solicited questions from the public through the hashtag #AmazonAnswersNYC on Twitter. Johnson posed some of those questions at the hearings, which were particularly tense, and later used Twitter to highlight key testimony. “Real New Yorkers are tweeting questions using #AmazonAnswersNYC and top Amazon executives are answering those questions right now at the @NYCCouncil. That’s accessible and modern government,” Groh tweeted at the first hearing in December.

There’s also a new Data Operations Unit, housed under the legislative division, which creates graphics and charts to make policy proposals more interesting and accessible, and which explores issues empirically to craft bills. A central dashboard of data, for instance, allows New Yorkers to delve into the number and type of 311 call requests made in each Council district. 

The Council has also used data to map out the misuse of city-issued parking placards, complete with 311 complaints, responses, and the bills under consideration to tackle it. They compiled data on lead paint in homes across the city, mapping violations and listing litigation and legislation related to it. When considering a bill to give the Parks Department authority over Hart Island, the potter’s field where the city’s indigent are buried, the data unit laid out its background, the age and location of death of people buried there since 1977, and, of course, the legislative package under discussion.

One can also find data and charts on city schools, school bus delays, physical education in schools, immigrant resources, and the Council’s participatory budgeting program.

“The overall aim and goal here was to make our social media presence a lot easier to digest, to access,” Espinal said, “and also to highlight Council members and make sure that members’ work is being recognized by New Yorkers but also folks like you in the press.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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20 Things Tiffany Cabán Promised To Do As Queens District Attorney


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Tiffany Cabán and supporters (photo: Working Families Party)


Public defender Tiffany Cabán, a self-described “31-year-old queer Latina” originally from Richmond Hill, appeared to pull off a stunning upset victory on Tuesday in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. If the counting of a few thousand absentee and other final ballots stays true to her roughly 1.5% margin over apparent second-place finisher Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Cabán will be the heavy favorite to win the general election and take over as District Attorney in January, the first newly-elected Queens DA in almost 30 years.

Cabán declared victory Tuesday night, while Katz declined to concede and said every vote must be counted. In her remarks to a packed and jubilant crowd -- chanting “Tiffany,” “Black Lives Matter,” “No new jails,” “AOC,” “DSA” and more -- at La Boom in Woodside, Cabán reiterated key planks of her insurgent campaign, in which she promised nothing short of a complete overhaul of the Queens District Attorney office and how criminal justice is meted out in the borough of more than 2 million people.

“We can’t have people sitting on Rikers simply because they cannot afford their bail, while the wealthy continue to be provided their constitutional right to the presumption of innocence,” she said Tuesday night. "We built a campaign to reduce recidivism, to decriminalize poverty, to end mass incarceration, to protect our immigrant communities and keep people rooted in their communities through access to services and support."

"We will need to build bridges with communities that have understandably been distrustful of the District Attorney’s office," Cabán said,  while also promising to be a DA for those who did not vote for her.

"I want to be very clear: nothing, nothing is more important to me than the safety of all people who call this borough home,” she said toward the end of her remarks. “We are going to center community solutions, and invest in healing and stabilizing lives. The changes that we are fighting for will be a fairer, more equitable, more efficient criminal justice system. And that doesn’t come at the cost of our safety, that is the source of safety."

But what exactly did Cabán promise throughout her campaign? What were the planks of her platform that energized thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of voters?

“For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” Cabán said in a February interview with Gotham Gazette. Below are 20 more specific things she promised to do if elected Queens District Attorney:

1. Decline to prosecute many non-violent crimes.
-“Decline to prosecute cases that pose little or no threat to public safety” and “Decline to prosecute crimes of poverty and instead go after wage theft and bad landlords,” according to her campaign website, and force bad landlords to provide decent housing.
-“Not only decline to prosecute individuals who engage in sex work, but...partner with sex workers to push for legislative reform,” according to her Jim Owles Club survey.
-“Decline [to prosecute] transit offenses, trespasses, gravity knives,” she said at a May 3 Players Coalition forum.

Her full decline-to-prosecute list of offenses, per her survey for an Accountability coalition including 5Boro Defenders, Vocal New York, and others : marijuana, theft of services, unlicensed massage parlors, airport taxi (1220B), unlicensed driving and other minor driving offenses, turnstile jumping, petit larceny/shoplifting for amounts under $250, trespassing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest,“bump up” burglary in the third degree felonies (would charge them as petit larceny misdemeanors), possession of gravity knives, “bump up” felony gravity knife cases, loitering, drug possession, welfare fraud, prostitution.

2. For misdemeanors, raise charge standard from “probable cause” to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to her campaign website. And analyze racial, economic, and immigration impacts of charges filed, according to her campaign website and debate appearances.

3. Hold police officers accountable for breaking the law, including for lying under oath. She told the Queens Daily Eagle she would publish the DA office's list of officers who have credibility and misconduct problems, and may be liabilities if put on the stand in a case.

4. Decriminalize drug use “that does not pose a threat to others,” including but not limited to marijuana. “We’re going to decriminalize marijuana and invest in services for substance use disorder, not fight a failed war on drugs,” she said in a June 19 tweet.”

5. Support the creation of supervised injection sites, according to her Jim Owles Club survey. Provide naloxone, overdose training, and outreach to reduce overdose deaths, according to her campaign website, and bring companies that deliberately overprescribe drugs to court.

6.Bail reform.
-End cash bail for all offenses. “Cash bail is wrong—period. We can’t have two systems of justice: one for the poor and one for the wealthy,” she tweeted. And implement prompt automatic bail reviews.
-Cease use of risk score algorithms which are “based in...racist and classist ideas,” as she said in a May 3 candidate forum. 

7. Fight for open file discovery – “it speeds up cases, it’s what’s fair, it provides closure for survivors and victims of crime much earlier, ” she said in a tweet from February.

8. Pursue shorter felony sentences and never pursue life without parole.
-Advocate for legislation to review sentences of those over 55 who have been incarcerated for over 15 years – a “top priority in my office,” according to her survey for the Jim Owles Club, which endorsed her. “The goal should be on rehabilitation and safety – not on punitive, overly-lengthy sentences that do little to safeguard community stability,” she wrote.
-Presume shortest possible sentence, exceptions are to raise length of sentence – not the other way around, she said at a May 3 Players Coalition forum.

9. End civil asset forfeiture, and refuse to profit from prosecution decisions. In February, she called civil asset forfeiture “a terrible practice where money is seized from people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime.”

10. Consider defendant’s ability to pay in imposing fees and fines, according to her campaign website.

11. Give money obtained from legal proceedings to housing, job, and education services, which “evidence shows actually reduce crime,” according to her campaign website.

12. Create a Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases. “Part of what [it] will do is not just look at the quote on quote typical innocent cases but looking at cases that involved officers who have histories of misconduct, looking at cases that involve prosecutorial misconduct, looking at cases that relied on bad science to get convictions,” she said in a June interview with PIX11.

13. Create a Retroactive Release Unit “so that we are making sure that we are not unnecessarily keeping people incarcerated for offenses that we recognize really should be treated with treatment or supportive services,” she said in a June interview with PIX11.

14. Create a Record Review Unit to clear the record of those in prison for no-longer-prosecuted offenses, according to her campaign website.

15. Create a Reentry Services Unit to help the recently-released and reduce recidivism, according to her campaign website, “because 97 to 98 percent of people who are removed from their community reenter their communities no better than what they were, [and] in fact oftentimes worse,” as she said in an interview with New York Magazine.

16. Create units for corporate crime, consumer protection, wage theft, and antitrust investigations, according to her campaign website.

17. Prosecute ICE agents who engage in abusive conduct, according to her campaign website, and “Ban ICE from our courtrooms, not let them terrorize our neighbors,” she tweeted on June 19.

18. Help close Rikers Island jails, “faster than the proposed timeline,” with no new jails built in its place. “Every time new jails are built throughout this country's history, they are filled, she’s said. She promised to fight instead for “significantly smaller, better equipped community based jails next to court houses,” according to her Accountability survey.

19. Hold quarterly town halls, per her Accountability survey, and create a Community Advisory Board, according to her website. 

20. Exit the District Attorney Association of New York. “I will exit DAASNY & work instead with DAs who share our values,” she said, due to DAASNY’s opposition to open discovery. “These associations tend to have regressive, racist, and classist “tough on crime” mentalities,” she wrote in an Accountability survey.

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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