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Citizens Union
 

Opinion

My Vision for the Role of Public Advocate: David Eisenbach


david eisenbach 5a web

(photo: Eisenbach for Public Advocate Campaign)


Right now, as communities across the city are organizing against displacement, we need a New York City Public Advocate who unifies and advocates for them in the struggle to save their homes and small businesses. I am not a politician who serves real estate developers and makes deals with corporations like Amazon that displace hard-working New Yorkers. I teach American history at Columbia University and running for Public Advocate on the platform to Fight Big Real Estate and Save Our Small Businesses.

I will be a real Public Advocate, and I hope to have your vote on February 26.

I have a long record of fighting for communities against Mayor-of-the-1% Bill de Blasio and the big developers he represents, like the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). In Chinatown and the Lower East Side, I joined the fight to keep the residents of 83-85 Bowery in their homes. I pledged to stop the mega-towers in the Lower East Side waterfront. I have joined the battle to save Elizabeth Street Garden from being turned into a tower.

In Inwood and East Harlem, I fought against de Blasio’s pro-developer rezoning plans. In Queens, I support organizations opposing the Amazon deal in Long Island City and bike lanes on Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside. In Brooklyn, I am working with Crown Heights community groups to stop the rezoning to build towers that could cast shadows over the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I marched with working people, tenants, small business owners and grassroots organizations from the Lower East Side to City Hall, demanding de Blasio:

1. Stop city agencies from evicting tenants on behalf of landlords to deny the tenants’ rights of due process.

2. Stop selling public land (including NYCHA) and end the 421-a tax exemption.

3. End the city’s pro-developer rezonings, and instead pass community-led rezoning plans that put people first and protect workers, tenants, small businesses, and schools -- like the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) plan.

I am the founder and president of Friends of Small Business Job Survival Act (SBJSA) a citywide coalition of small business activists dedicated to passing the historic bill. I have worked with business leaders and chambers of commerce who serve communities across the city to fight to pass this act. If passed, this act will give small business owners the right to 10-year leases and an arbitration process to negotiate lease renewal. SBJSA will stop the extortion of small business owners by landlords.

The fight for our small businesses is a fight for our communities, and real affordability and diversity of New York. For 33 years REBNY successfully stopped the SBJSA but this year thanks to my leadership we are about to pass it. Passing SBJSA and defeating REBNY is the greatest David and Goliath story since Jane Jacobs stopped Robert Moses. Seeing communities standing up against big real estate, I believe that we can win this fight.

It’s not a coincidence that New York City has record homelessness and displacement under a mayor mired in pay-to-play corruption scandals. De Blasio is a puppet of his real estate donors who have launched a ‘displacement-replacement‘ agenda: displace long-time residents and replace them with high-income individuals employed by big corporations like Amazon.

In this special election on February 26, New Yorkers have an opportunity to elect a Public Advocate who will stand up to the mayor’s corruption and big real estate’s displacement agenda and fight for our communities. I am the candidate to do just that.

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David Eisenbach is a history professor at Columbia University and a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. On Twitter @Eisenbach4NY.

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How New York Can Become a Real Democracy: Re-Center Race as Legislative Progress Continues


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(photo: Governor's Office)


For decades, the phrase “three men in a room” has been used to capture how the leadership of New York state government (the governor, the state Assembly speaker and the state Senate majority leader) in Albany decides in back-room negotiations what legislation lives or dies. Finally, this year, state government can remake itself much closer to the image of true democracy. Leaders in the Assembly and Senate, Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, are for the first time both African-American, and one is a woman.

This is an undeniably exciting moment, but it is also a moment fraught with uncertainty and real questions about what it means to have a truly inclusive democracy, one that reflects a multiracial society and advances solutions to benefit all, not just a select few.

While it is Democrats who are leading the charge on voting and campaign finance reforms – issues at the very heart of democracy – both parties have participated in, and benefited from, a system run on corporate money and machine politics. That system consists of a very small, very wealthy, and very white donor class that occupies the place that democracy should.

Recently passed reforms such as early voting and changes to the “LLC loophole,” which limits the amount of money powerful individuals and companies can contribute to candidates, are game-changers for New York. Still, much of the hard work of disentangling the deep, white roots of money from politics remains, work that must be done in order to have a true democracy in New York. In particular, automatic voter registration and public financing of elections are essential to achieving this goal. But there’s more.

In the public discourse on many issues, the flag of economic equality flies high. What has been less talked about is the systematic exclusion and oppression of communities of color as a direct result of our current system. Democracy reforms are not just about good governance, they are about giving people of color access to the political power from which they are all too often excluded. Race has become a footnote in a discussion when it should be the headline, for the simple reason that we cannot achieve a truly inclusive democracy if we do not start by acknowledging who has been excluded and why.

A recent column on the housing crisis by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, centers the impact of money on the most basic and essential of goods – shelter.  

“For the real estate industry, these donations [to candidates] are a calculated investment to protect and expand their soaring profits,” they wrote in The Daily News. “Albany returns the favor by granting favorable tax breaks for developers and blocking meaningful action on the rent laws, which protect millions of tenants and families.”

At Community Voices Heard, a member-led, multiracial organization working to secure racial, social, and economic justice for all New Yorkers, we know the consequences of this relationship are far too real. In 2018, we organized tenants in Ossining, New York, to enact the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA). ETPA provided tenant protections for more than 2,000 residents. Just a year later, the mayor and village council have proposed repealing ETPA without offering an alternative proposal, a troubling development for the residents fighting against a profit-driven industry to stay in their homes. Without strong leadership in Albany to protect tenants, battles like these will become an endless war.

Legislation to mitigate climate change tells a similar story. As is well known, the fossil fuel industry ranks among the top political campaign contributors and spends enormously on lobbying as well. The impact of a toxic environment is not being borne equally. According to The Nation, studies show that the majority of people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color. According to the same article, in cases where communities filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency alleging a violation of their civil rights, 95 percent of the claims were denied. In New York, one can see similar trends in the decades of negligence and mismanagement of public housing under the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) or the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy.

In recognition of this, the Climate and Community Protection Act, re-introduced this session by Assemblymember Steven Englebright and Senator Todd Kaminsky, contains provisions aimed specifically at ensuring an equitable transition to renewable energy, including allocating 40 percent of funding to frontline and historically disadvantaged communities. This approach, which both acknowledges racial inequity and ensures that it informs policy-making, is an important step in the fight for an inclusive democracy and should serve as an example for advocates and lawmakers alike.

Business as usual in Albany has often meant that lawmakers, lobbyists, experts, and advocates are quick to embrace a “race-neutral” dialogue when talking about the momentous issues at stake: voting, climate, housing, healthcare, jobs, and more. But it is worth remembering that these issues were core tenets of the Civil Rights Movement. The weeks ahead present both a challenge and an opportunity: to disrupt the normal discourse, to be explicit about racial inequities, and to fight for policies that can build a truly inclusive democracy.

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Afua Atta-Mensah is Executive Director of Community Voices Heard. On Twitter @AfuaAttaMensah & @CVHaction.

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Public Higher Education for New Yorkers Is Under Serious Threat


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(photo: CUNY Office of Communications)


New Yorkers should be proud that the City University of New York leads the nation in offering low-income students the opportunity to enter the middle class. CUNY is a powerful engine of social mobility.  

But that engine is at risk of breaking down unless our elected officials change course. Years of systemic underinvestment in educational opportunities for students of color – starting well before they reach university - means that students are increasingly unprepared for the global economy at the same time that their professors are stretched incredibly thin trying to make ends meet.

My wife and I are both adjuncts – like the majority of professors who are teaching CUNY students - at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. We each make about $3,500 a course, the average wage for adjuncts at CUNY. When you factor in time for grading, student conferences, and planning, this compensation comes to not much more than minimum wage.

We now have an 8-month old daughter and despite reducing our household expenses to the bare necessities and taking on side gigs (like driving for Uber), our total debt just keeps growing. We can’t afford childcare that is available at the college we teach at and so we are presently applying for subsidized childcare elsewhere. I am sharing these intimate details because these are the kinds of circumstances CUNY adjuncts are grappling with all around this expensive city.

My wife and I – and all the other adjuncts we know – love teaching. We want to be there for our John Jay students, the next generation of police officers, emergency personnel, and legal professionals who will go on to provide public safety, justice, and aid for our beloved City.

I routinely meet adjunct professors who are juggling four, five, and six courses not simply because they love teaching, but because they are trying to combine the wages of a number of low-paid courses in order to pay the rent. But others I speak to have given up and are leaving the college teaching profession at the first better-paid alternative.

Other universities manage to pay their professors – both full-time and adjunct – a decent wage. But not CUNY.

Adjuncts at the University of Connecticut start at $4,700 per course. At Rutgers in New Jersey the starting pay for an adjunct is $5,200, while at Penn State it is $6,100. Nearby private colleges pay adjuncts even more. At Fordham, they start at $7,000. At Barnard they will soon earn $10,000 per course.

Our full-time CUNY colleagues are underpaid as well, with average salaries well below peer institutions like Pace, the University of Connecticut and Rutgers.

All of this means that it’s harder to attract good teachers – right as CUNY is desperately trying to improve the faculty diversity at the University. And it means that teachers have less time to spend on their students – as they’re pushed to take on side jobs to make ends meet.

Per-student state support for CUNY’s senior colleges has decreased 18% over the last 10 years when you adjust  for inflation. In that time, tuition has skyrocketed.

It would not take billions to make real change: $350 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the billions in subsidies our elected officials are prepared to offer Amazon, would ensure that CUNY remains accessible while continuing to reduce inequality and fight poverty.  

CUNY and its graduates have given so much to New York City. But if politicians continue to starve public higher education and the people who make it work, the CUNY economic miracle will not be there for future generations.

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Sami Disu is an adjunct professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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Creating a Single-Payer Health Care System That Works for All New Yorkers


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


In November, New Yorkers voted for a united government in Albany with a resounding directive: fix our broken healthcare system. Those election results are directly linked to the financial strain New Yorkers are facing as they struggle to choose between paying for their medication, premiums, long-term care, and basic needs, such as food or housing.

The high costs of healthcare in our state have devastated hundreds of thousands of New York families by bankrupting those who are underinsured or forcing them to forgo treatment due to the financial burden it usually causes. According to the Campaign for New York Health, approximately 1 million New Yorkers still do not have health insurance; 20,000 New Yorkers have died due to their lack of coverage in the last ten years; and millions more would be bankrupt if faced with a medical emergency under their current health care plan.

The New York Health Act (NYHA) is the only option on the table that would provide comprehensive healthcare coverage to all New Yorkers. It would extend coverage to those that currently have no access while providing quality and comprehensive care to New Yorkers who have been traditionally underinsured.

This year, we are going one step further. We are introducing a version of the NYHA that aims to close an additional gap in our healthcare system by integrating long-term care coverage into the legislation. This shift in policy will address our state’s long-term care crisis and meet the healthcare needs of seniors, people with disabilities, as well as countless family caregivers, who are primarily women, for generations to come.

The benefits of including long-term care in the NYHA will not only be felt by those who will now be able to afford assisted living, nursing home care, or home health care, but it will also have a rippling effect on our economy. In the Northwest Bronx, where we both live and work, thousands of home health aides, care workers, and unpaid caregivers have to withstand low wages, few benefits, and not enough investment in training and retention services. The current system is financially debilitating to families, those who require care, and the workforce that is tasked with administering care, all of whom are predominantly women struggling to provide for their loved ones. For instance, nationally, Latinx family caregivers spend 44% of their annual income providing caregiving services, while African-American family caregivers spend 34% of their income.

A healthcare system that guarantees long-term care coverage would help ease the financial burden of thousands of families across our state while dramatically improving the system for those who receive and provide care. According to a study recently released by the RAND Corporation, even with the addition of long-term care, the NYHA would cost less than what is being spent under the current healthcare system. It is simply the most fiscally responsible step to take.

The majority of New Yorkers have spoken loud and clear. They are demanding a healthcare system that works for them and not for the most powerful corporations. This new version of the NYHA and our new leadership in Albany bring us one-step closer to making healthcare a right and not a privilege for all New Yorkers.

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State Senator Gustavo Rivera is the Senate sponsor of the New York Health Act. Karla Lawrence is a direct care worker specializing in gerontology and long-term care; she is a member of 1199 SEIU and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a leader in the New York Caring Majority.

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Trump’s State of the Union, Kavanaugh’s Dissent, and the Coordinated Attempt to Ban All Safe, Legal Abortion


gov cuomo womensrepro

(photo: Governor's office)


Last week, new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh showed his true colors when it comes to access to safe, legal abortion. His dissent in the Louisiana case completely disregarded legal precedent and revealed his hostility to Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court cases upholding the law.

Earlier in the week, President Trump used the highest office in the country to continue his misinformed, divisive brand of extremist politics, including by fear-mongering about abortion law in New York. This is not a drill: our constitutional right to abortion is under attack like never before.

There has been a coordinated campaign by anti-abortion extremists to misinform and in fact outright lie about New York’s Reproductive Health Act and what it does. They are falsely citing this bill to promote reckless nationwide restrictions that would leave millions across the country without access to safe, legal abortion.

The anti-abortion minority’s claims about abortion care in New York specifically and the United States more generally are patently false and are solely designed to lie to Americans in order to prevent more progressive legislation protecting abortion rights from being passed in other states. This is a calculated and orchestrated movement built on false facts and fear mongering.

At Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), we worked with partners and supporters for more than a decade to ensure that, regardless of what happens in Congress or the Supreme Court, New Yorkers — and those from outside New York who we may need to serve in the future — will have access to the abortion care they have today and will need in the future.

The attacks on the Reproductive Health Act aren’t actually about later abortions — they are about slowing progress on protecting abortion rights at the state level and ultimately outlawing abortion in the United States entirely.

Poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans believe that abortion must remain legal and accessible in the United States. Yet, extreme politicians in the overwhelming minority continue to try to control the conversation with lies about abortion care and those who need access to that care every day. States across the country continue to pass hundreds of laws that restrict people’s ability to receive abortion care.

Yet, here in New York, we were able to pass legislation that would protect, not erode, abortion care, and that is what is at the heart of the most recent attacks — fear that voters and elected officials are fully understanding this extreme anti-abortion strategy and working to reverse it.

New York State legalized abortion back in 1970, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court did so nationally through Roe v. Wade, and New Yorkers consistently supported abortion access in the succeeding years. However, the state failed to update its abortion law, leaving providers and patients without full protection. New York advocates lobbied for over a decade to mirror Roe in state law only to hit a conservative roadblock in the state Senate. On January 22, 2019, this long-overdue legislation was finally enacted into law.

The RHA accomplishes three important things. It makes sure that the federal abortion rights we currently have are protected in New York law in the event that they are lost at the national level — and it’s clear this law came just in the nick of time. The RHA brings the protections of Roe into state law by ensuring that New Yorkers can access needed care throughout pregnancy when their health or life is endangered, or their pregnancy is not viable.

It also recognizes that abortion is health care, not a crime, by moving the regulation of abortion care into the public health law where it belongs. And it clarifies that trained health care providers acting within their scope of practice can provide abortion care. This ensures that more New Yorkers have access to early and safe abortion care.

Across New York City and the country, we at Planned Parenthood will continue to provide high-quality abortion care and fight to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal. We believe deeply in the right of all people — no matter who they are, where they live, or what they earn — to make their own personal decisions about their health, their families, and their paths in life, without political interference.

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Laura McQuade is President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City. On Twitter @PPNYCAction.

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Justice for New York City’s Private Sector Sanitation Workers


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(photo: @NYCSanitation)


Racial segregation is still thought of as a southern issue, but sadly New Yorkers continue to face glaring examples of racial inequity in our own backyards, like the commercial sanitation industry.

A generation ago, the private carters provided middle-class jobs to a mostly white workforce. But in the years since, the industry has become mostly black and brown, and wages have dropped. A half-century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans remain at the bottom of the economic ladder across the country.

On average, black families have less than one-tenth the household wealth of white families, and African-American men’s wages are less than three-quarters of white men’s wages. The gap is similar for Latino-Americans. Many of New York’s commercial sanitation workers have been involved with the criminal justice system, and are forced to settle for lower-paying and more dangerous work. Yet again: black work is undervalued, and black workers are underpaid.

These underpaid, undervalued workers tough it out in often deadly working conditions. New York City’s private sanitation workers, numbering close to 2,000, cross the city each night picking up trash and recycling at the city’s office buildings, restaurants, and shops. Because 90 different companies compete for business in this industry, stops are often far apart, and workers travel from borough to borough each night, making hundreds of pickups. The typical shift is more than 12 hours long, but can sometimes be as much as 18 hours, with six-day workweeks.

The hours would be bad enough on their own, but the private carting industry is notorious for dangerous and unsafe practices. A majority of the industry’s trucks that were inspected over the last two years were ordered off the road for major problems like bad brakes or bald tires. Crashes are increasing, as well.

One worker, a Guinean immigrant named Mouctar Diallo, died in 2017 when he was run over by the truck he was working on. Diallo had started working in the industry as a teenager and was paid less than $80 a night. His company kept him off the books, without any of the protections he was legally entitled to. When he died on the job, the company said they did not know who he was. The media reported that he was a “daredevil homeless man,” much to the horror of his mother.

It’s hard to imagine any of this happening if Diallo had been a white man, instead of a black immigrant, in a city whose proud history of welcoming immigrants is etched into its very skyline, with the Statue of Liberty’s torch a shining beacon to those “yearning to breathe free.”

New York City must live up to its historic reputation as a welcoming haven for all, including people of color and immigrants. And just as we did in the past, we need to do better by workers who do our least-valued, and yet most important, jobs.

And when New York’s underpaid, undervalued black and brown workers head home to catch what sleep they can to recover from their dangerous and unforgiving jobs, they encounter environmental racism, too.

Most of the private waste facilities, where trash is dumped before being shipped to landfills and incinerators outside the city, are located in three primarily black and brown communities: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens. These neighborhoods get far more than their fair share of garbage truck traffic and diesel pollution, and they have the high asthma rates to show for it. A study by community activists found that at one particularly polluted South Bronx corner, a private sanitation truck passes every 24 seconds.

The entire industry needs systemic reform.

Last fall, the New York City Department of Sanitation announced a plan to clean up private sanitation, by dividing the city into zones and limiting the number of carters operating in each zone. The plan will cut truck traffic while allowing the city to set aggressive labor and environmental standards for the first time. It’s a good start, but our leaders can go even farther to truly protect these workers.

First, the commercial sanitation system should mirror the more efficient and professional system for residential collection, with one carter responsible for each zone and one truck picking up trash on each block. That will result in the largest reductions in garbage truck traffic on our neighborhood streets. Second, the policy should mandate fair wages for workers in the industry, so nefarious private carters cannot undercut the competition simply by paying their workers less. When the City Council takes up the legislation this spring to put the waste zone policy into action, it should pass the strongest plan possible.

The private carting companies, predictably, have resorted to fear-mongering about job losses. In reality, the policy is expected to create jobs while also transforming this work into the good jobs our community deserves. When Los Angeles enacted a similar program, it created 900 jobs for local residents.

We are two years away from the next citywide election, when politicians will come to the black community looking for our vote to put them over the top. They have the opportunity now to show us that they support our working families.

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Minister Kirsten John Foy is President & Chief Executive Servant at The Arc of Justice. Sean Campbell is President of Teamsters Local 813. On Twitter @KirstenJohnFoy & @Local813.

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Historic New York Voting Reforms Must Be Funded, and Followed by More Changes to Improve Our Democracy


gov cuomo votes

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


On January 14, the New York State Assembly and Senate made their mark on New York voting history. After over 100 years without meaningful reform, legislators passed six bills that will significantly increase voter access to the polls and the reach of their voices. On January 25, Governor Cuomo codified this historic expansion and signed those bills into law. Important legislative priorities such as early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, registration portability, and the consolidation of our state and federal primaries are now state law. Our legislators also took a significant step toward changing our constitution to allow for same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting by mail.

It is important to note amidst the celebration of grassroots and advocacy groups who have been fighting for these reforms that our work, and the work of our representatives, is not complete. Transformative reforms such as automatic voter registration, the restoration of the voting rights for people on parole, establishing a universal right to vote, and shortening the deadline to change party affiliation were starkly absent from the legislation passed. Many of these common sense reforms are long overdue.

Our elected representatives have received well-deserved praise for taking decisive action in the process of bringing New York’s voting laws into the 21st century by prioritizing and passing legislation that was stymied for far too long. However, not only is there more to do, but New York is once again faced with the unfortunate and unnecessary lack of transparency that has become synonymous with state government in Albany.

Voting reform has the exciting potential to bring more people into the democratic process. But New York will not be a leader in democracy until the process of governing embodies openness, accountability, and greater participation. Reform must not stop with the passage of the aforementioned voting legislation, but requires inclusion of the once-honored legislative processes of hearings, debate, and public comment. Our elected representatives, as they consider and take further action, should seek out the voices of their constituents.

New Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says their work is not done, and so we too must continue to work and hold our representatives accountable until no one is left behind and New York is the embodiment of a democracy we can all be proud of.

As the chief executive of New York State, and the keeper of the state budget, Governor Cuomo is now tasked with implementation and ensuring new reforms are appropriately funded. It is concerning that his proposed executive budget lacks specific funding allocated for early voting. Just last year, Cuomo, in the face of intransigence and hostility in the state Senate, allocated $7 million for early voting in the executive budget. When this year provided with passed legislation to sign and implement, why would the governor not designate funding specifically for early voting in his budget?  

Cuomo states that the cost of early voting will be covered by the consolidation of the federal and state primaries combined with the new sales tax revenue to be collected from the elimination of the internet tax advantage. Neither of these revenue streams will be available to county Boards of Elections in time to fund early voting in 2019. It is puzzling why now, at this historic moment, the governor would withhold designated funding for a reform he supports and for which he allocated money only a year ago.

During his “First 100 Days” speech given in December, Cuomo criticized the federal government's attempts to disenfranchise voters, and stated that "we have to do the exact opposite and improve our democracy.” The reality is that to improve our democracy after over a century of inaction, it is going to take money. And to prove a commitment to the reforms being passed by the Legislature, the same reforms he himself has called for throughout his tenure, the governor must commit real dollars for implementation this year.

The governor and the leadership of the Assembly and Senate must stand true to their promises and ensure these reforms are appropriately implemented and adequately funded. Now is the time for clear, decisive action. It is not the time for unfunded promises, backroom deals, or excuses. Do not give us reform in name only. There must be a line item in the budget to specifically and sufficiently fund early voting.

All interested parties should work together to make sure the counties are provided with funding and support so that they are prepared for these changes and voters can take advantage of them seamlessly. Voting reform advocates statewide will continue to fight so that we the people can access our most fundamental right to vote. We believe in our elected representatives and we know they can get this done.

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Nicole Hunt is on the executive committee of Brooklyn Voters Alliance, a grassroots group dedicated to strengthening democracy in New York State. On Twitter @msnicolemh @bkvoters.

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Making the Queens District Attorney a Partner in Justice for Workers


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Melinda Katz, the author, center (photo: @queensbpkatz)


New York City and our nation as a whole are at an important moment in history. As Republicans in Washington threaten rights and pass bigoted legislation, local leaders need to take a stand and fight back on a broad range of issues, because the reforms and legal protections we need will not come for those who wait, they will come from those who demand them.

As I run to be the next Queens District Attorney, I am releasing the first of a series of policy papers discussing pressing issues facing our borough. In the coming weeks and months, I will lay out my plans for addressing immigrant rights, racial disparities in our justice system, domestic violence, women’s rights, the use of seized assets, and more. Today we need to consider how the District Attorney can better protect worker rights.

For generations, Queens has been home to working- and middle-class families, as well as different waves of immigrants pursuing the American Dream. People here work hard to give their families new opportunities, but there are also bosses who seek to cheat these families or bump up their profits by putting workers in harm’s way. We need our next District Attorney to put a new focus on these crimes against workers, bringing justice for those who have been victimized for too long.

The current Economic Crimes Bureau in the Queens DA’s office states that its traditional role is protecting employers from embezzlement by employees. I believe there must be resources also devoted to addressing the extensive theft in the opposite direction: employers stealing wages from workers. New York’s workers lose over a billion dollars a year due to wage theft, as their hard-earned dollars are illegally stolen and put into the pockets of employers, with the largest number of victims in the construction, restaurant, janitorial, and home care fields.

While some workers are robbed of their paychecks, others are robbed of their lives and well-being. Workers, especially construction workers, are injured and even killed on the job far too frequently, often as a result of employer negligence. These workplace safety violations often go unreported, and after an accident, evidence of wrongdoing can disappear if not gathered quickly. Currently, the DA waits for the city to make determinations before getting involved, leaving far too many workers unprotected and far too many negligent employers unaccountable.

Historically, crimes against workers would only result in a fine or civil action, but it’s time to recognize that white collar crime has no moral high ground over other crimes: if you steal from workers, you are as guilty as someone who holds up a liquor store. If you injure workers due to negligence, you are no better than a thug who beats someone up on the street.

I will bring criminal prosecutions against those who commit these crimes against workers, and I will make sure we have the evidence to build winning cases. Instead of waiting for the city, I will assign an Assistant District Attorney with an expertise in the construction industry to every major workplace accident or fatality. I will pursue legal action against employers that knowingly put construction workers or others at risk, and individuals who commit wage theft. And I will reach out to workers and community leaders to make sure that no one is victimized because they don’t know their rights and are left vulnerable to these crimes.

To achieve this, I will establish a Worker Protection Bureau in the Queens DA office to investigate and prosecute workers’ rights violations. Specifically, my office will take a more hands-on approach to investigating workplace injuries, prosecuting workplace violations and wage thefts, and creating protections for immigrants.

Queens is known as the World’s Borough and has a rich and thriving immigrant community. Unfortunately, immigrant workers are most likely to be targeted and many are reluctant to come forward for fear of having their immigrant status threatened. As part of my Worker Protection Bureau, I will have a multilingual team doing proactive outreach to workers, while guaranteeing that no one will be subject to arrest for reporting workplace violations. I will also hire a specific liaison to undocumented workers so that there is better dialogue among the District Attorney’s office, undocumented workers, and organizations working with undocumented workers.   

All workers are entitled to a safe workplace where they earn fair wages and are treated with respect. As Queens District Attorney, I will take an active role in ensuring workers’ rights are protected.

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Melinda Katz is the Queens Borough President and a candidate in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. On Twitter @MelindaKatz.

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Anti-Union Amazon is Not Welcome Here


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Jimmy Van Bramer, the author, at a rally (photo: @TeamstersJC16)


Let me be clear: if Amazon is anti-union, it is not welcome in New York City.

This is a union town. It is wrong to subsidize Amazon’s arrival after the company has proudly proclaimed to the world that it is anti-union and will fight any effort on the part of Amazon employees to unionize.

Our city and state would be contributing to economic inequality by allowing Amazon to increase the pool of New York City workers who are not in a union.

Unions have always been the great equalizer, a vital tool for working people to come together and bargain collectively against corporate power and greed.

Amazon’s refusal to agree to labor neutrality is shameful. All workers have the right to be in a union, including those who work at Amazon's fulfillment center on Staten Island and those who would work at a new campus in Long Island City.

Growing up in Astoria, my family didn’t have much money. My stepfather was a janitor. Mom worked at supermarkets. Dad was a pressman. All were fortunate to join unions. Being in a union allowed them to pay the rent and provide for me and my siblings.

Without unions, I would not have had health care, dental care, or the ability to go to college. As is the case for so many working families, unions were the lifeline that my family needed to succeed. How dare Amazon come to our city, to the sum of $3 billion in tax breaks and subsidies, and declare war on workers’ rights to organize?

Last month when I attended Mayor de Blasio’s State of the City speech, I braced for the moment that he would laud the “HQ2” Amazon deal. The deal, after all, had been touted as the largest economic development deal in the history of our state and a major victory for the city. Would it lead off the speech? I wondered how the mayor would talk about being the “fairest big city” while also defending the largest act of corporate welfare in New York.

It came and went in the blink of an eye. One sentence! As the mayor moved quickly from his bad deal, those who’ve critiqued it were vindicated.

By avoiding Amazon in his speech (as the governor did in his State of the State), the mayor tacitly acknowledged that this deal is a loser in progressive, Democratic circles. You cannot align yourself with Amazon — as it remains mum on its cooperation with ICE and steadfastly anti-union — and then appoint yourself as a spokesperson to “spread the gospel” of progressive values all over the country.

The Amazon giveaway is not only bad, it’s immoral. And it should force us all to rethink the race to the bottom approach to economic development incentives. We cannot afford to give $3 billion to Amazon in subsidies and grants when so many people who already live here are struggling to pay rent and stay in their neighborhoods.

With the arrival of “HQ2” in Long Island City, we would see gentrification on steroids in Queens. The influx of high-paid Amazon workers would price out long-time residents and drive away family-owned small businesses, proving particularly detrimental to immigrants and communities of color.

The governor and the mayor have bungled this from day one, and despite what they say, we all know the “HQ2” jobs will be largely inaccessible to communities like Queensbridge that are among the most unemployed and underemployed in New York City.

This Amazon debacle must be an inflection point for our society, where we reign in corporate welfare and the billionaire class and give more power to the people who have the least among us.

We should be encouraging workers’ efforts to unionize, protecting small businesses, and investing in our local community, not trillion-dollar corporations owned by the richest man on Earth.

Those of us who care about ending economic inequality must reject so-called “progressives” who in practice recite Republican talking points that espouse the lies of trickle-down economics and right-to-work, anti-union nonsense.

The mayor can cancel this deal right now. If he is actually concerned about Amazon abetting ICE and busting unions, he should do so immediately.

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Jimmy Van Bramer is a New York City Council member representing Long Island City and other parts of Queens. On Twitter @JimmyVanBramer.

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Enough DOE Deception Around Admittance to Specialized High Schools


mayorsoffice school

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


How many times is the Department of Education going to mislead the public in connection with the city’s effort to eliminate the test used to select students for admission to its highest performing high schools?

Reasonable people can disagree about the value of changing admissions to Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five other schools that use the Specialized High School Admissions Test. But facts should matter to the DOE.

The latest case in point concerns the city’s announcement that it was changing the Discovery Program to improve the numbers of black and Latino students at these schools. By taking an intensive summer program, Discovery is an alternative mechanism for disadvantaged students who just miss the SHSAT cutoff to gain admission to these highly selective schools.

In June, Mayor de Blasio announced support for a bill in Albany to gut the test. In the interim, the city called for revamping Discovery, telling the public: “Based on modeling of current offer patterns, an estimated 16 percent of offers would go to black and Latino students, compared to 9 percent currently.” The increase would be the result of limiting eligibility to Discovery to children attending a subset of the city’s middle schools having at least a 60 percent Economic Need Index calculated based on the neighborhood’s poverty level.

While the changes prevent many poor children of all races and ethnicities from being eligible for Discovery, a recently-filed lawsuit contends the changes are unconstitutional because in changing the way the city structured its Discovery program revamp – by limiting eligibility to the middle schools with at least 60 percent of the students living in poverty – the city disproportionately excludes poor Asian children at ineligible schools.

Joshua Wallack, a Deputy Schools Chancellor who is the DOE’s point person leading this effort, recently submitted an affidavit under oath to the court explaining that the DOE cannot say what impact the change will have on increasing black and Latino enrollment. He explained that “there are several factors beyond DOE’s control” that will affect the racial and ethnic composition of the students admitted through a changed Discovery program.

He also conceded the switch to only high-poverty schools may not improve diversity at the specialized high schools because Asian-American families are statistically the poorest demographic group in the city. He noted that last year 70 percent of students admitted from these high-poverty schools were Asian-American.

On one level, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation hopes the city’s Discovery changes do result in increased enrollment of children from underrepresented communities. That is why we have urged the city to change the Discovery program to take into account children who are educationally disadvantaged by expanding eligibility without regard to qualifying for free lunch for children attending schools that currently send few if any students to specialized schools; because of segregated housing patterns this change would likely increase the number of black and Latino students qualifying for Discovery without penalizing poor students of all races who are being excluded because of the change.

But on another level, we are appalled that the DOE would initiate significant changes without adequate review and study. The city’s modeling was based on only looking at one year of data, which can undermine its accuracy. There should be more than “optics” in play when it comes to disrupting a system that is producing the highest-achieving high schools in the city.

This is not the first time that the DOE has misled the public on this topic. While the DOE claims replacing the SHSAT with a range of more subjective metrics will have no impact on student preparation for the college-level coursework required in specialized schools beginning in the ninth grade, the New York City Independent Budget Office just released a report showing that 500 students scoring below grade level on the state’s math assessment would likely be admitted to the specialized high schools under the mayor’s proposed changes.

The DOE’s hostility to the SHSAT knows no limits and apparently drives officials to suppress the truth whenever it is inconvenient to their view. This year saw the forced release of the DOE’s study done five years ago proving that the SHSAT was both a reliable and valid predictor of student performance at the high schools. No explanation has been offered for why they suppressed this information and kept it from the public.

But the major inconvenient truth the DOE continues to ignore is that demographic results of the SHSAT directly reflect the inadequate advanced academic programming (especially in so-called STEM subjects like science and math) it provides to most children in underrepresented communities. When that advanced programming was offered in middle schools in every district, demographics at specialized schools more closely mirrored the city at large. Once the city systematically eliminated those programs in black and Latino neighborhoods, those students were denied tools to let them succeed on the test and in the schools.

We know students from all communities can succeed on the SHSAT and in the schools when given the tools, since they did in the past. If the DOE would do the hard work of restoring Gifted and Talented and enhanced and accelerated coursework in every community, we could close the demographic gap at the specialized schools.

When government denies the truth and makes public policy on false assumptions, we get the worst of both worlds: effective change does not take place, and additional harm can result. It’s time for the DOE to face the truth and start doing something about the real problem. School system leaders can start by going to our Save the SHSAT website, where we have laid out just such a plan.

***
Larry Cary, a Manhattan lawyer, is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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Despite Need, Gaining More State Support for Affordable Housing Remains Major Challenge for De Blasio


cuomo gov housing

(photo: the governor's office)


Right now, New York City’s government should be taking advantage of the Democratic majority in both houses of the New York State Legislature to make progress addressing the affordable housing and homelessness crisis affecting city residents. But success requires a skillful effort since the political challenge is daunting, despite overwhelming public concern.

Why now? We have a new Democratic majority in the state Senate elected in 2018. The state Assembly, controlled by Democrats since 1975, has been a liberal body limited by Republican power virtually the entire time, until now.

But there is no immediate consensus on what the housing solutions might be, how much money might be available, whether the new Senate Democrats would be willing to vote for a new tax, even if just levied in New York City, or the extent to which the Cuomo administration is willing to spend more money. The population in need is large and diverse, and the resources to address any particular segment of the needy population are severely limited.

What’s the city been doing up until now? City government has made major investments in affordable housing and used its resources to stabilize evictions and step up emergency assistance -- to prevent the crisis from getting worse. But there is little let-up in a cycle of rapid growth, gentrification, and development, rising rents and prices, and the inability of large segments of the city’s population to afford higher rents on limited incomes as low rent apartments have grown scarce.

Housing data show us exactly where New York City stands. The dimensions of the housing crisis are staggering:

-There are more than 2 million rental apartments in the City of New York, with about 1 million in the private rent-stabilized or controlled system, according to Housing NYC 2018, the annual Rent Guidelines Board report. Median household incomes in rent-stabilized apartments are about $45,000 a year in 2016, and median rent stabilized rents were $1,270 in 2017.

-A report by Comptroller Scott Stringer (Nov. 2018), entitled The Housing We Need, identified 396,000 households in the City with incomes of less than $28,000 a year as severely rent-burdened, meaning their rent was 50% or more of their income. Additional households are also severely rent-burdened but their incomes are higher.

-There are 61,000 persons in the shelter system right now, not counting people living on the street (DHS Daily Report).

-There are 208,000 households on the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) waiting list, and 148,000 households on the Section 8 waiting list, with new applications closed (NYCHA Fact Sheet).

-Only about 18% of rental households live in a subsidized situation, like NYCHA, Section 8, or the Mitchell-Lama program, which has privately-owned but regulated units with low-cost financing and tax abatements to make them affordable (NYU Furman Center, 2017, Changes in NYC Housing Stock).

-About 19% of New York City residents, or 1.7 million people, lives in poverty.

The federal government added to the crisis by curtailing new subsidized housing in the 1980s and ‘90s.  

But, by 1994, New York City became governed for 20 years by Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, for whom low-income housing was not a major priority. The shelter population was 24,000 in 1993, 28,000 in 2001, and 49,000 in 2013, the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. Mayor Bloomberg developed a program called Advantage to help residents exit the shelter system, which had a two-year cap on a voucher-like subsidy to encourage recipient families to become independent. The cap was criticized for its lack of permanency and the state eliminated its share of the cost in 2011, whereupon the mayor refused to pick up the state share and the program lapsed.

State Senate Republicans, in power during Mayor de Blasio’s tenure up until now, were not interested in proposals from the mayor like the “mansion tax,” a surcharge on real property transfers above $2 million, with the new money dedicated to housing vouchers for the elderly. Aside from the universal pre-kindergarten victory in his first year, the city has spent much of its political energy in Albany trying to limit damage to the city budget from proposals by the Cuomo administration to shift social service, higher education, Medicaid, criminal justice, and transportation costs from the state to the city, winning on some issues but losing others, rather than obtaining major new resources from the state for housing.

There are a few programs in place right now that attempt, with varied levels of success, to help ease the housing crisis:  

Supportive Housing: Since the 1990s, both the state and city have committed more resources to supportive housing, which assists persons with serious addiction or mental illness, the frail elderly, and others, and recently have embarked on new programs in this area. The state has committed to 6,000 more units of supportive housing over five years (not all of which will be in New York City), starting around 2016, and the city has made a commitment to 15/15, meaning 15,000 more supportive housing units over the next 15 years, beginning around 2016. But these units will be available not just to persons with psychiatric disabilities in the shelter system, but to persons leaving psychiatric hospitals, prisons and jails, adult homes, or just coming from their own homes and families but diagnosed with severe illnesses. There are 16,000 single adults in the shelter system now. 21,000 single adults entered the shelter system in Fiscal Year 2018, while fewer than 9,000 exited in that year (DHS Management Report, FY18). The capacity of new supportive housing units to rapidly absorb single adults from the shelter system is limited.

Affordable Housing: The large city affordable housing program, now called Housing New York 2.0, initiated by the de Blasio administration in 2014, has created or preserved 122,000 units since inception; the full plan calls for 300,00 units by 2026; 39,000 of the 122,000 units are new construction; the remainder preservation. Preserved units are also vital to long-term affordability because owners are agreeing to retain their building in regulated status in exchange for low-cost financing for repairs and large percentages of their residents are low- and moderate-income.

The new units are created through capital grants and low-cost financing to private developers to reduce the cost of construction, allowing some units to be marketed to low- and moderate-income tenants. Other units are rented at market rates and are not counted in the affordable classifications. Some projects are 100% affordable, meaning they have heavier subsidies and are not offered to higher-income households. Affordability relates to income levels; more than 50% of the affordable units have been slated for households making between $47,000 and $75,000 a year for a family of three. About 25% of the units have been slated for incomes below $47,000 a year.

But there is concern that not enough of the units are for very low-income households. A change for lower-income households would, however, require more subsidies, assuming the number-of-units goal remains the same. Without more money overall, the city would have to forsake some moderate-income units for lower-income units. Nonetheless the city has made a major commitment to getting more housing units built, in addition to the resources to reduce homelessness. The State of New York produces some affordable housing through its own programs, or sometimes in combination with city programs, but the scale of the state’s effort does not match the city’s.

There are several other significant proposals to address the affordable housing crisis that do require state involvement:

-Comptroller Scott Stringer proposed to change property transfer taxes to raise more revenue and concentrate the capital grant subsidies of the Housing New York program to the low-income population and the homeless.

The mortgage recording tax in the city would be eliminated while the real property transfer tax would become more progressive. The change would raise $400 million a year and the funds used to provide deeper subsides to help the city’s neediest population. But planned Housing New York units for the moderate-income group between $47,000 and $75,000 a year, and those above that level, would be switched over to the lower-income group and thus be displaced.

A modification to the Stringer proposal might be to use the $400 million a year as a targeted add-on for the lower-income population, rather than a substitution away from the moderate-income group. After all, both groups, the moderate-income, and the very low-income, need housing. Mayor de Blasio’s proposal, the Mansion Tax, and the comptroller’s plan both require a tax increase. But can the mayor persuade some of these new suburban Senate Democrats to agree to a tax increase for a housing purpose, when they are also being asked by the governor to support congestion pricing?

-Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s legislative proposal, named Home Stability Support, creates a Section 8-like voucher for the shelter population, as well as the at-risk of eviction population, funded at 14,000 vouchers a year. Cost estimates have ranged from $450 million a year to close to $1 billion a year (Renewed Push for Homeless Subsidy, Gotham Gazette, Dec. 2017). An effort by the Assembly and Senate last year in budget negotiations to fund even a start-up at $15 million a year was rejected by the governor’s Division of the Budget.

The Mansion Tax, the Hevesi proposal, the cancelled Advantage program, and current city emergency rehousing assistance efforts, which cost $200 million a year (NYC OMB, Mayor’s Message, 2018), all involve Section 8-like vouchers concept to help residents pay for rental apartments. New vouchers are very expensive. Section 8 usually pays a landlord up to $1,500 a month, or $18,000 a year, to cover one household. Each new 1,000 vouchers thus cost up to a new $18 million a year. Who should get the priority for new vouchers? The homeless? The elderly? The 148,000 households who are on the current Section 8 waiting lists, who have also been vetted as in need?

Some serious coalition building is in order to make progress. Gaining a political consensus about where to put new funds, and where the money will come from, means Mayor de Blasio must pull together support among housing advocates, the Assembly and the Senate, and run the gauntlet of Governor Cuomo and the state Division of the Budget. Is there sufficient political will to address this intractable problem?

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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