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Opinion

The High Stakes of Shopping Hyper Local


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(photo: @NYC_SBS)


This holiday shopping season has been marked by the ninth annual Small Business Saturday, an initiative intended to encourage people to buy holiday gifts at small, independent brick-and-mortar shops instead of large chain outlets or online vendors. With the retail madness now in full swing, many small and independent businesses must wonder: can “shopping small” be an everyday experience rather than just an annual promotion?

Small businesses are at the center of an emotional debate about the economic and cultural vibrancy of our neighborhoods. But do their contributions justify the attention?

In new research with colleagues at the NYU Furman Center, we measure the importance of local patronage—the steady stream of customers that small and independently-owned businesses rely on to keep their doors open. Neighborhoods count on these businesses for services, personal goods, food, and keeping the streets dynamic and safe. Our results suggest that these benefits are at risk when external factors reduce support for local businesses.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy produced a large and unexpected economic shock that devastated a number of waterfront communities in New York City. There were also neighborhoods in the flood zone that were untouched, and we use this disparate impact to understand how an extreme interruption to local demand affects the viability of commercial businesses that rely on a nearby consumer base, like grocery stores or hardware stores. Data show that the storm had a larger negative effect on these neighborhood-based establishments than it did on businesses that draw on broader markets that are less location-specific, like financial services or building supply companies.

Among all classes of businesses we examined, only neighborhood-based establishments suffered meaningful and persistent losses. Moreover, losses were borne almost entirely by the smallest, independent enterprises. Retail operations were nearly 50 percent more likely to close in areas with more severe flooding. They also lost on average nine jobs per city block and experienced a 14 percent drop in sales revenues for a surprisingly long period following the storm – revenues and employment still had not rebounded as of late 2016. Establishments with broader consumer bases – the bankers and builders – also declined on severely flooded blocks. But unlike their neighborhood-based counterparts, this was largely due to fewer new openings rather than more closures. Businesses with broader customer bases also avoided the economic hit that shuttered so many neighborhood establishments.

These findings put numbers on the visceral losses felt by New Yorkers—fewer services and more empty storefronts, essentially the disappearance of a vibrant streetscape that is the lifeblood of urban neighborhoods. There are also fiscal implications for the city overall. Across the city those blocks with severe flooding experienced a net loss of 540 establishments, 3,700 jobs, and $2 million in sales revenue. Even if some of that is regained in other, less affected parts of the city (an outcome not apparent in our data), these are potentially millions of dollars lost in tax revenues.

While our focus was the response to a natural disaster shock, these results also have implications for the economic forces reshaping cities. E-commerce, for example, has dramatically changed how people shop for goods and services in their neighborhoods. There are growing calls for government policies to protect local businesses from such shocks, such as commercial vacancy taxes and rent protections, or for Internet sales taxes that can rein in online competition.

However, our data imply that much of the solution is in the hands of everyday consumers, in their decisions to walk to a nearby retailer rather than to order something from a far away distribution center. Though the price might be a few dollars higher, the benefits that you and your neighbors receive from having vital local businesses are well worth the cost. And even same-day shipping can’t compete with the instant gratification of a quick stroll to the store.

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Rachel Meltzer chairs the Public and Urban Policy M.S. Program at the New School’s Milano School of Policy, Management, and the Environment. On Twitter @ProfRachelM.

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My Vision for the Role of Public Advocate: Ron Kim


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Ron Kim (via Kim campaign)


I’m running for New York City Public Advocate to put people over corporations.

In six years representing parts of Queens in the state Assembly, I’ve watched politicians at all levels of government bend over backwards to prioritize the needs of the largest companies in the world. Whether it’s bailing out predatory financial institutions after they send the world economy into a tailspin, giving away the store to corporations like Amazon to lure them into a city they wanted to come to anyway, or handing tax breaks to big developers who turn profits on the backs of working people; our government is too often beholden to corporate interests.

Meanwhile, subways are crumbling, children in NYCHA housing are poisoned by lead, and economic disparity is skyrocketing due to the crushing debt burden that millions of New Yorkers struggle to manage. The twisted prioritization of corporations has starved our communities of badly-needed resources and created an environment where it’s virtually impossible for 99% of people to make better lives for themselves and their families.

But government doesn’t exist to serve corporations. It exists to improve the lives of people. We need a new and bold agenda to shift the paradigm in favor of everyday New Yorkers and a leader who is determined to execute it. That’s why I am running for New York City Public Advocate and why I am proposing “The People’s Deal.”

Cancel Student Debt
The first step in “The People’s Deal” is to cancel student debt. New Yorkers have $35 billion of student debt alone and hundreds of thousands will never be able to pay that back. This prevents them from buying homes, starting businesses, and providing for their families. My vision for the Public Advocate is to transform the position into the first elected office dedicated to eliminating student debt for New Yorkers. We can do so by using eminent domain to seize outstanding loans from the predatory banks that control them and cancel them starting with the most distressed. We will pay for this by fighting to end corporate subsidies to companies like Amazon. This bold step is 100% doable and it would have a measurable and immediate impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.  

End Corporate Subsidies
The next step is to fight to end those corporate subsidies. Something is desperately wrong when elected officials give $3 billion of taxpayer money to Amazon, one of the wealthiest companies in the world, and millions in tax breaks to wealthy developers. While lead paint poisons children in NYCHA housing, it’s clear the priorities need to change. If we end the taxpayer giveaways, we can reinvest that money into the people of this great city. This action will have a direct and positive impact on working New York families and simultaneously spur economic growth.

Bust the Trusts
The final step is to bust the trusts. In the old days, the trusts were Standard Oil and US Steel. Now it’s Amazon, Uber, and Facebook and these companies arguably have more control over our daily lives, more personal information about us, and more ability to violate our privacy than Standard Oil or US Steel ever did. At the same time, small businesses are getting pushed out of our communities due to prohibitive costs and harmful government policies. My plan is to lead a push to break up the modern-day monopolies and use the bully pulpit of the Public Advocate to establish a new era of community and small-business empowerment. Studies show that dollars spent in local communities have a stronger multiplier effect than handing subsidies to mega-corporations who distribute them to shareholders.

The People’s Deal is bold. The millionaires, billionaires, and corporations won’t like it because the system works for them. But New York is a place where big ideas with an eye towards fairness can be realized. We are the home of FDR and the New Deal, which lifted millions out of poverty during one of the worst crises in our history. The people of New York deserve leaders who are committed to empowering them and to putting their interests first. That’s why I am running for Public Advocate.

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Ron Kim is a member of the state Assembly representing part of Queens. On Twitter @rontkim.

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The Governor's Right to Call for a New York Green New Deal, But Here’s What It Should Look Like


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Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s draft resolution for a Green New Deal has sparked new momentum for climate action among progressives and young people across New York and beyond. Not only is her federal proposal spreading like wildfire on social media, but group after group — from the Sunrise Movement to Moveon to Indivisible to 32BJ SEIU — is mobilizing thousands of activists in support of the message. Four members of New York’s congressional delegation have already endorsed Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, thanks to constituent pressure: Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jose Serrano, Adriano Espaillat, and Nydia Velazquez.

And now even Governor Cuomo is on the Green New Deal train. Just Monday, in his speech outlining his 2019 legislative agenda, he declared his own intention to enact a so-called “Green New Deal” in New York.

Cuomo is right that here in New York we don’t have to wait on the federal government for our own Green New Deal. We must take immediate action to cut carbon emissions and shift to renewable energy, while creating green jobs. What he failed to mention, however, is that the New York State Assembly has already passed what is essentially a Green New Deal for New York several years in a row. And that version is better than what Cuomo sketched on Monday, which he said would “make New York's electricity 100% carbon neutral by 2040 and ultimately eliminate the state’s entire carbon footprint,” though he gave no timetable for that.

The Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) would compel the state to invest in green jobs, renewable energy, and community development while setting meaningful, enforceable targets for reducing carbon emissions for all energy sectors to zero by 2050. This is the Green New Deal we need for New York.

Like Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, the CCPA is a visionary climate justice bill: it ensures that our transition to renewable energy will protect society’s most vulnerable, and treats climate action as an opportunity to create fair-paying union jobs and grow the economy. And unlike the electricity-focused vision outlined in Cuomo’s speech, the CCPA would cut emissions to zero for all sectors and prioritize investing in communities that suffer most from climate consequences.

Up until now, the CCPA has failed to come to the floor for a vote in the State Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans. So too it has been mostly ignored by Governor Cuomo while it languished. But in 2019, with an overwhelming Democratic majority in both the Assembly and Senate and early indications from the governor that he wants to capitalize on the Green New Deal’s momentum, New York leaders can and should make the Climate and Community Protection Act state law. Not all Green New Deals are created equal.

As with federal level climate action, the CCPA has broad support among voters. The CCPA and its companion bill, the Climate and Community Investment Act — an “upstream” tax on corporate polluters that would fund the CCPA’s just transition — are supported by NY Renews, a growing coalition of nearly 150 grassroots organizations and labor unions across New York. These are the same groups that propelled Democrats to victory and a new Senate majority, and who will be able to collectively mobilize hundreds of thousands of people across the state for what comes next.

As this year’s federal report on the economic cost of climate inaction illustrates, we cannot afford to wait any longer to pursue transformational climate action. According to the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just ten years to drastically reduce carbon emissions in order to avoid climate catastrophe. With a pro-polluter President and a divided Congress, it is life-or-death essential for blue states, especially states with large economies like New York, to take the lead on eliminating emissions, shifting to renewables, and investing in climate resiliency now, in 2019.

In just a few weeks, Cuomo and legislators will have a chance to immediately pass the Climate and Community Protection Act. It is not just about reducing emissions or reaching “carbon neutrality,” it’s about justice and the bold comprehensive change needed to successfully protect humanity from climate crisis. It’s been ready and waiting in the wings and now it’s ready for the spotlight. Legislators and Governor Cuomo should follow through on their promises and pass the Climate and Community Protection Act this year and make a true Green New Deal for New York a reality.

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Liat Olenick is a public school science teacher, union leader, and co-president of non-profit Indivisible Nation BK. On Twitter @Liat_RO.

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As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Riding high on the crest of a Democratic blue wave powered by grassroots progressives, New York Democrats finally took back the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. With this accomplishment comes a responsibility to finally act upon a long list of priorities that have been stymied by the Republican-controlled upper chamber of the Legislature in Albany.  

Chief among these priorities is criminal justice reform, a topic that the New York City Council has been tackling aggressively for some time. Perhaps the Council’s most ambitious effort in this sphere has been to close all jails on Rikers Island. The decrepit jails on this island embody human misery and tragedy and it is our moral imperative to close them forever.

Any realistic effort to close these jails requires reducing the pretrial detention population, as close to 90 percent of those housed on Rikers are merely accused and not convicted of crimes. While the city has managed to take several bold steps in this area, state action will be required to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality. Over the past few years, our efforts at state reform have been hamstrung by an uncooperative state Senate. Throughout the process, our progressive allies in the Assembly majority and Senate minority voiced support for progressive criminal justice reform but were unable to move key bills to fruition.

Their inability to move legislation through the Senate did not stop some state elected officials from crafting bills that would greatly improve our criminal justice system. This legislation now stands a strong chance of passing once the new Democratic majority sits for the 2019 legislative session.

agenda19v2 aFirst and foremost, bail and speedy trial reform must be prioritized. Both efforts would go a long way towards a more equitable criminal justice system writ large, while lowering the detainee population on Rikers Island. While we here on the City Council have done much to make our bail system fairer, only Albany can implement the deep and systemic reform necessary to make our pretrial detention system truly fair and just. There are a number of bills in the Assembly and Senate that either significantly restrict or eliminate cash bail, encourage the use of monitored release in lieu of detention, and help ensure that pretrial detention is reserved for only the most severe cases. Any of this legislation would go a long way towards fixing what is a fundamentally broken and unfair bail system.

Meanwhile, speedy trial reform is arguably even more important in reducing pretrial detention. Given that close to 90 percent of the jail population is pretrial detainees, cutting the speed with which cases are resolved has a direct and massive impact on the jail population: a 25 percent faster system would mean close to a 25 percent reduction in the jail population. Much like our state’s bail laws, our speedy trial laws are outdated and ineffective, lagging far behind the federal system and other states. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied, so resolving criminal prosecutions faster not only reduces our jail population, it also helps our criminal justice system as a whole. While Senate Democrats tried to push for some minor reforms to our broken speedy trial laws in recent years, our new Senate leaders must be aggressive in tackling this issue.

There are also lesser-discussed issues that could be enormously transformative, such as parole reform. Approximately 16 percent of the population of Rikers Island jails is incarcerated for parole violations, and the state controls this issue in its entirety. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the state parolee population is the only jail group that saw an increase in its size over the past four years. Thankfully, Albany is aware of the issue, evident in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State speech, in which he touched on the importance of parole reform. When the new state Legislature convenes in January, it can move to shorten parole terms, incentivize good behavior, and require speedier hearings on these issues.

Though its impact on our jail population may not immediately be apparent, discovery reform should also prove critical in helping the city to run a more just criminal justice system and to close Rikers Island jails. Discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defense. New York State has among the most restrictive discovery laws in the country. While the issue may seem complex, it is actually fairly simple: since well over 95 percent of criminal prosecutions result in a plea or dismissal, the faster the defense is able to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case, the faster a plea or dismissal can be reached. Luckily, there is already legislation in Albany to ameliorate the situation, and our new leaders should embrace these progressive reforms.  

Over the past several years, we here at the City Council worked hard to bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century. However, there has always been a limit to what we can accomplish without willing partners in Albany. In early January, when our fellow Democrats in the state Senate take their seats as the new majority and work with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, the possibilities for progressive criminal justice reform will widen tremendously.

The progressive activists who helped make Democratic victories a reality in November will be watching the new Legislature closely. It is imperative that our state elected officials finally act to create a criminal justice system in New York that reflects our values as a state and a city.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Diana Ayala, Margaret Chin, and Stephen Levin are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Their districts are all slated to be home to new or larger jails as Rikers Island facilities are closed. On Twitter @DianaAyalaNYC & @CM_MargaretChin & @StephenLevin33.

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Building the School Girls Deserve in New York City


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Brittany Brathwaite, the author (photo: Girls for Gender Equity)


What does the school girls deserve look like? At Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), we know cis and trans girls - and gender non-conforming youth - should go to schools that are safe places to learn, grow, and thrive. Yet, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) continues to let us down, and doing so at a time where the current presidential administration is diligently working against what needs to be done to create those institutions.

In a participatory action research project we conducted in 2017, one in three students in New York City schools reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment. Further, one in two students shared with us that they felt their gender expression and identity was being unfairly restricted by their schools.

Both of these issues can have a tremendous impact on student outcomes, with certain populations being more vulnerable than others. As Dr. Monique Morris documented in Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, black girls across the country face disproportionate and often overlooked barriers to their education and they “have become the fastest growing population to experience school suspensions and expulsions, establishing them as clear targets of punitive school discipline.”

Among those being punished? Victims of sexual violence at home and/or at school that are disciplined for ‘acting out’ in the classroom instead of receiving the support that they need to heal and young women who are punished for dress code violations due to their body type.

School is far too often a hostile space for youth that so urgently need to be welcomed and affirmed there; hostility that leads to suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and even imprisonment for some of our most vulnerable young people.

In 2016, GGE organizers, youth development experts, and young people themselves contributed to a participatory action research project focused on the disproportionate impact of gender and racially biased policies on cis and trans girls and gender non-conforming youth of color in the DOE, which is the country’s largest school district.

This work resulted in The School Girls Deserve (SGD) report, depicting the unique ways school pushout and discipline disproportionately impacts girls and TGNC youth of color. This report included 45 recommendations for New York City to improve its policies, addressing gender-specific realities that young people experience rooted in a racial and gender justice lens. We are calling on the city to take action on two of those recommendations.

First, we’re looking to the DOE to ensure equal protection for young people in public schools through the enhancement of Title IX, the civil rights law designed to prohibit sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The New York City DOE operates 1,800 public schools with a total student population of 1.1 million -- but employs just one Title IX Coordinator to support them. GGE is calling for trained Title IX Coordinators in each of the 7 DOE Field Support Offices.

Second, we’re calling for a citywide dress code that celebrates diverse cultures, body diversity, and gender expression. Girls of color and TGNC youth are disproportionately disciplined for what they wear to school. Yet, the DOE does not currently have a universal dress code policy. Girls and TGNC youth report missing out on class time because of discriminatory dress codes and unfair enforcement. Both informal and formal classroom removals cause girls and TGNC youth to lose out on opportunity to learn. GGE will work with the DOE to develop an affirming, inclusive school dress code, ensuring that schools are supportive and welcoming for all young people.

As we are fighting to see Title IX used more effectively, federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is looking to limit its ability to protect survivors of sexual violence. She recently unveiled a series of devastating proposed regulations that would remove Title IX protections from off-campus and online sexual harassment, as well as incidents of harassment that do not result in a student missing classes or dropping out entirely, give schools the ability to claim religious exemption from adhering to anti-sex discrimination policy, and limit investigations of abuse or harassment to cases that are reported to a Title IX official -- again, remember that New York City has just one person in such a position serving 1.1 million students and their families. Earlier this year, DeVos announced plans to remove protections for transgender students from Title IX.

This isn’t the first time - at the federal level, this administration has repeatedly demonstrated its blatant disregard for girls, women, and TGNC people. The leader of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Candace Jackson, has said that in her view, “[90% of accusations] fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ we broke up, six months later, I found myself under Title IX investigation because she decided our last sleeping together was not quite right.”  

When leadership of an agency designed to protect students’ civil rights tries to discredit the courageous people that come forward with their experiences of sexual assault, it sends a message to young people that they shouldn’t come forward and get the support that they need.  

While we are lucky to have strong protections for women and TGNC folks in New York City, our schools do not reflect that. We must make it clear to our youth that there are adults who are committed to believing and supporting students who experience sexual violence in schools. We need staff and leadership in the DOE who have the skills to shift school climate, and to ensure that schools are not reinforcing harmful messaging that is now, sadly, coming from the highest office in the land.

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Brittany Brathwaite is Organizing & Innovation Manager, Girls for Gender Equity. On Twitter @urbintelligence & @ggenyc.

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Instead of Taking Responsibility for Its Failures, The MTA is Targeting People of Color


MTA fare beating

(photo: MTA)


The MTA seems determined to blame New Yorkers for the mess it’s in.

The authority’s latest excuse is that poor people who jump turnstiles are responsible for the MTA’s financial woes. The MTA and the politicians and bureaucrats who control it should take responsibility for their own actions -- and inactions -- that have led to the city’s mass transit decline. Instead, the MTA seems to want to pit New Yorkers against each other.

The MTA and NYPD pledged last week to crack down on fare evaders. The MTA’s plan is to send agency executives and NYPD officers to subway stations and bus stops across the city. The executives will stand at subway turnstiles and on busses to create body blockades to bar anyone trying to get in without a Metrocard. More armed police officers at subway stations make an already harrowing commute for New Yorkers even more intolerable, and for many, will serve to add unnecessary fear into the way they start or end their day.

New York City Transit President Andy Byford also criticized Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s decision earlier this year to stop prosecuting subway turnstile jumpers.

The billions of dollars at the MTA’s and the city’s disposal must be spent on fixing the actual causes of the crisis -- aging infrastructure -- not tangential issues like fare evasion, a distraction in the pursuit of solutions.

The MTA claims that fare evasion is robbing the agency of $215 million a year, though how it actually reached that number is lacking in clarity and validity. The transit authority appears determined to pin the blame for its precarious financial position on poor black and Latinx people who, history tells us, will suffer the most from any increase in fare evasion arrests.

And another population that both our mayor and governor have spoken passionately about protecting would stand to suffer greatly as a result of a new enforcement policy: immigrants. Immigrants who have even minor contact with the criminal justice system face far more drastic consequences. Under the Trump administration, an arrest for jumping a turnstile or even a criminal summons could result in deportation, family separation, and destroyed lives.

An analysis of New York Division of Criminal Justice Services data from the last four years by the Marshall Project shows that nearly 90 percent of people arrested for turnstile jumping were black or Hispanic. Given the NYPD’s history of targeting people of color for arrests and summonses for low-level offenses, let’s call the new proposal to crack down on fare evasion what it is: a plan that would funnel thousands more black and brown New Yorkers into the criminal justice system, and to scapegoat people of color for the decades of underfunding and mismanagement that are responsible for the MTA’s current problems.

Police resources must be spent on working with the community and identifying the types of behaviors that cause the most harm—not physically harmless fare evasion.

Years of grappling with the ripple effects of Broken Windows policing have shown us that arrests are not the way to deal with minor offenses, like riding your bike on the sidewalk, having an open container of alcohol, smoking marijuana, or jumping a turnstile. An uptick in enforcement would reverse the recent positive trend of fewer fare evasion arrests. Through October, police have made 5,236 arrests for fare evasion. That is still 5,236 arrests too many, but it represents a 66 percent drop compared to the same period last year.

DA Vance’s policy of not prosecuting turnstile jumpers represents real progress away from the dangerous and discredited Broken Windows theory of policing, which posits that if minor crimes are allowed to happen, then they will lead to more disorder and eventually to serious crime. In practice in New York, the theory is used as cover for discriminatory policing and harassment of communities of color, with no measurable impact on crime.

Poor black and brown people should not take the fall for the sins of politicians who have allowed the MTA to become a laughing stock. Arrests won’t solve the MTA’s problems, but they could devastate New Yorkers.

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Donna Lieberman is Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Marco Conner is Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @JustAskDonna with @NYCLU & @marco_conner with @TransAlt.

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Secretive Amazon Deal Should Have Us Rethinking Subsidy Programs and More


Stringer de Blasio press conference

Comptroller Stringer, the author, at a press conference (photo: NYCHA)


What if I told you that moving your business to New York City could land you $3 billion in subsidies? Even better, what if getting those billions didn’t even require publicly disclosing key information required to qualify for the money in the first place?

If that sounds like a great deal to you, you’re in good company because Amazon is taking advantage of secrecy and subsidies baked into our outdated system of tax incentives. We all know the Amazon deal to place a “headquarters” in Long Island City was negotiated in the dark, circumventing a comprehensive public review process and leaving an entire community with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, as residents grapple with strained infrastructure and skyrocketing home prices, one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world will receive nothing short of a taxpayer-funded entitlement program.

The total package could approach nearly $3 billion when state and city benefits are included -- with an unprecedented $1.3 billion in city incentives alone. The Amazon deal has made it abundantly clear that many aspects of our current tax incentive programs – two in particular – need to be more closely scrutinized, changed or eliminated.

First, let’s take a look at the city’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program, or REAP, which was originally designed to help attract employment outside of Manhattan’s business core. Amazon stands to receive some $900 million in tax credits for bringing its employees to Long Island City under REAP. To put this into perspective, REAP benefits totaled $32 million last year to 205 firms – but because there’s no cap on the program, Amazon alone stands to gain an unprecedented $75 million per year. In fact, REAP doesn’t just lower Amazon’s tax bill – because it’s a refundable tax credit, the city might actually have to cut a substantial refund check to Amazon.

Also, because REAP doesn’t require recipients to meet performance goals, Amazon can still receive benefits regardless of whether it eventually hires the 25,000 it promised, or just 25; or pays its employees an average of $150,000 as promised, or just $30,000.

Lost in the discussion is that our economy is already doing the work of REAP. Indeed, from 2007 to 2017, 83 percent of new jobs in New York City were outside of Manhattan, raising the question of whether the REAP program is needed in a city where businesses are already spreading across the five boroughs on their own.

Second, we need to pay close attention to the other benefit offered to Amazon, the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program, or ICAP, which offers tax subsidies to companies that renovate or build on properties in boroughs outside of Manhattan to spur economic development. That may have sounded like a great idea when ICAP’s predecessor was originally launched in 1984, but today, at a time when Long Island City is booming, Amazon could benefit from nearly $400 million in property tax abatements for constructing its new “headquarters” in the neighborhood.

What’s worse, programs like REAP and ICAP are “as-of-right,” which means there’s no discretion in determining eligibility. If you check the boxes, you get the benefit – whether you’re a startup in need of help or Amazon, which is valued at $1 trillion.

The final insult in all of this is that there is little to no publicly available information on the particulars of these deals. In the absence of real detail, it’s impossible to do any serious evaluation of the effectiveness of these programs in the neighborhoods they are supposed to lift up. How can we determine if future incentives are a responsible investment if we do not know who received the benefit, how much they received, or if the subsidy even helped create new jobs? It’s a fiscal black hole.

We need legislation that answers these questions by requiring companies to waive their rights to privacy regarding the terms of deals in exchange for receiving benefits. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s not without precedent – the city’s Industrial Development Authority, which provides low-cost financing and other benefits, already requires this of its beneficiaries. And like those agreements, the details of REAP and ICAP deals should be reported annually.

Would Amazon have come to New York without the benefit of REAP and ICAP? Clearly, New York City was at the top of Amazon’s list, regardless of the subsidies. But we cannot allow Amazon to be the only winner amid such great need, whether it’s the residents of Queensbridge Houses, seniors struggling to stay in the neighborhood, or local kids yearning to gain the skills that Amazon professes to value.

It’s time we re-evaluate these programs and stop doling out billions of tax dollars without knowing what we’re getting in return. Instead we should focus our resources in ways that actually serve to improve the lives of the New Yorkers and not as a handout for wealthy corporations. Above all, New York City taxpayers deserve transparency and accountability for the use of their money, and it’s a price any employer – including Amazon – should be willing to pay to do business in New York.

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Scott Stringer is the New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

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For the Future of Our Communities, Labor Support for The Green New Deal


green new deal via sunrise movement

(photo: @sunrisemvmt)


Four years ago, the New York climate march brought 300,000 people to the streets of Manhattan to demand action from national and world leaders. Marching in New York City with my family, we witnessed how thousands of people from all walks of life filled the streets with energy, passion, and hope for a better future for our children and grandchildren. 32BJ SEIU, the labor union I am honored to lead, played a vital part in the People’s Climate March because our members live and work in communities that are affected by climate change.

We reside in coastal cities that have been flooded by storms like Hurricane Sandy. Our urban areas suffer with skyrocketing asthma rates. Many of us have families in the global south that have been devastated by climate change. We march and organize to bring attention to this existential crisis and demand action now. And we know that solutions can be found that both generate jobs and deliver sustainable energy.

As the new crop of progressive legislators in Congress is showing us all, the time to be bold on issues like climate change, the economy, and immigration is now. Last week Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the introduction of the Green New Deal, a plan to make climate change, clean air, clean water, and reductions in pollution a priority for the new Congress when its members take office in January.

As a union representing 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers up and down the east coast, we support this bold vision to reduce greenhouse gasses, switch to renewable energies, and create good jobs. It’s both doable and indispensable.

For labor unions like ours, climate change is an environmental issue, an economic opportunity, and a political challenge that can destabilize our societies. We need to be ambitious and that requires us to think on a large scale and allocate the appropriate finances to fully address the climate threats that our planet is facing.

These threats are environmental and economic, and they will require investments in the communities historically dependent on fossil fuel extraction and production so the transition to renewable energy doesn’t leave “coal country” out in the cold. This is an opportunity to re-industrialize America with a green economy, with jobs that, with the right training, can provide career ladders for many low-wage workers who struggle to afford the high cost of living.

32BJ has a Green Buildings Program that serves as a good example and learning experience. The program, which trains existing building superintendents how to make residential buildings in New York more energy efficient, was meant to reduce the 77% of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by residential buildings. It has taught us that investing in long-term training and education programs for current employees can help them transition into the green economy and even become leaders in these efforts.

When these jobs are well paid, with benefits and union representation, green initiatives can further support local communities already dealing with the impacts of climate change. Initiatives like the Climate Jobs New York Program, which includes legislative requirements for labor standards in the creation of new wind and solar energy jobs across the state, show us that it is possible and deeply impactful when good union jobs are a central tenet of green job initiatives.

Directly impacted communities, those who have done the least to cause climate change—the poor, people of color, immigrants—and are suffering the most also need good jobs, affordable modernized public transportation, and big investments in renewable and solar energy in order to survive and thrive through the projected climate threats to come.

As Congress weighs the viability of a Green New Deal, we urge elected officials, labor unions, environmental groups, and community organizations to support its vision and to be smart, compassionate, and bold.

While there is much going on around the globe today that is disturbing and disheartening, it is also a time for hope. Let’s keep moving, marching, organizing, voting, and winning.

***
Hector Figueroa is president of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, representing 175,000 property-service workers up and down the east coast. On Twitter @figue32bj & @32BJSEIU.

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New York’s Opportunity to Become a Model for Effective Civics Education


govcuomo andrew elementary

(photo via the Governor's Office)


Could New York be the next state to catch the civics bug and modernize its civics education standards? Hopefully, state legislators and policymakers are watching Massachusetts, which just took a big step forward by creating a national model for effective civics education.

Two short days after the November 6 election, Massachusetts adopted cutting-edge legislation (S-2631) that, when implemented, will ensure that every Massachusetts student receives a project-based civics education, equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy. This legislation, the most substantive civics education bill passed in the country in recent history, may show New York the way forward.

Like many states nationwide that are proposing reforms to their civics education standards, Massachusetts may have felt the need to respond to the current civic reckoning. It seems like policymakers may finally realize that one of the potential consequences of deprioritizing civics education in schools is an electorate that does not understand how democracy works or have the civic skills to advocate for systemic change to issues impacting themselves and their community.

The lack of civic knowledge and skills has resulted in an electorate that does not actively participate in politics or believe that government is relevant to their daily lives. In one fell swoop, Massachusetts has positioned itself as a model state for effective civics education. New York, which prides itself on being a state that sets national legislative and policy trends, should take note.

To contextualize the current state of New York’s democracy and why civics education is needed “now more than ever,” the state has historically ranked at the bottom of the national voter turnout list. That’s why it’s so impressive that almost 50 percent of registered New York voters cast a ballot on November 6. According to the Journal News, this year was the “highest turnout for a midterm election in almost a quarter-century.” Compare that to turnout in 2014 when only 33 percent of New Yorkers cast a ballot in the midterms.

Part of the reason for our state’s historic, low voter turnout is our antiquated voting laws. New York requires voters to register 25 days before the election, they cannot register to vote online unless they have a DMV-issued identification, 16- and 17-year-olds are not allowed to pre-register to vote when they obtain said DMV-issued identification, and New Yorkers cannot vote early - unlike voters in 37 states. One can only hope that the new leadership in the state Legislature can bring our voting laws into the 21st century to address some of the root causes of our participation problem.

But another root cause for New York’s low voter turnout is that the state isn’t effectively educating young people for civic participation.

To be fair, New York already mandates that all students take Participation in Government (also known as PIG), a one-semester civics education course, before graduating from high school. On its face PIG should do the trick as the course is intended to provide students with “opportunities to become engaged in the political process by acquiring the knowledge and practicing the skills necessary for active citizenship.” The reality is that while PIG is aligned with principles of Action Civics on paper, PIG as implemented falls short.

Action Civics is a 21st-century civics education pedagogy that is a student-centered, project-based approach to develop the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st-century democratic practice. As implemented, PIG does not educate students about local democratic structure, help them learn about processes by engaging in those processes, or how to research, analyze, propose, debate, and advocate for their collectively determined solution(s). By and large, PIG as implemented is civics as usual, a largely passive form of learning that is often a senior year after-thought based on rote memorization of random government facts.

Teaching civics well requires robust professional development and curricular resources from the state. Even if teachers wanted to teach PIG as intended, many are not provided the resources or training necessary to do so effectively. There are very few resources or professional development courses designed to equip educators to navigate the discussion and debate of community issues or local democratic structures, and implement nonpartisan, student-led project-based learning in the classroom.

There’s also no accountability system in place to ensure teachers measure student learning and ensure that their students develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy.

The takeaway is that PIG is being implemented haphazardly and inconsistently statewide. The fact that PIG is being implemented inconsistently only further widens the Civic Engagement Gap plaguing underserved school districts statewide. The reality is that students from rural and low socioeconomic urban communities are 50 percent less likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes.

Fortunately, all is not lost. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) made a commitment to modernizing New York’s civics standards when they added the College, Career and Civic Readiness Index (CCCRI) and created a graduation “seal of civic engagement” in the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While the CCCRI establishes a baseline for holding schools accountable for ensuring students’ civic readiness, NYSED has yet to define “civic readiness.” NYSED also needs to define the criteria for how students can earn the seal of civic engagement and then ensure that every student is granted meaningful opportunities to achieve it.

As a member of a task force NYSED recently established to propose recommendations about how to define civic readiness and the criteria for the seal of civic engagement, I will advocate for a robust civics education for every student in New York.

It is incumbent upon us as a state to follow the lead of Massachusetts and others in adopting a rigorous definition of civic readiness and investing in professional development to prepare educators to teach modernized civics standards. Most importantly, NYSED must distribute funding equitably to districts, prioritizing those with greatest need to help them implement new mandates. Doing so would help strengthen New York’s democracy by ensuring that more New Yorkers have the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our 21st-century democracy; and hopefully vote in all elections. Anything less would only widen the Civic Engagement Gap.

***
DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen. On Twitter @DeNoraGetachew & @GenCitizen.

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The Fuzzy Fine Print of Amazon’s Queens Real Estate Deal


lic via edc

(image via NYC EDC)


The first of several New York City Council public oversight hearings on the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Long Island City will be held Wednesday at City Hall. Titled by the Council as “Exposing the Closed-Door Process,” the questions should concern not just the big-picture issues but also some fine print regarding the company’s acquisition of city-owned real estate.

Of course, the estimated $3 billion in tax breaks and subsidies in the deal made among Amazon, the state, and the city deserve scrutiny, though, except for a state capital grant that could reach $505 million, those questions -- as Gotham Gazette previously reported -- mostly concern revising existing policy.

For example, the Citizens Budget Commission warns that "offering Amazon benefits that go well above the current cap and expiration date" of the Excelsior Jobs Program -- up to $1.2 billion in state tax credits -- "sets a concerning precedent.”

National subsidy watchdog Good Jobs First points out that the city's decision to have Amazon contribute PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, into a local infrastructure fund, would "further enhanc[e] Amazon’s property value," a benefit worth quantifying.

But Council members also should look at two maddeningly complicated passages in the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Amazon signed with Empire State Development (ESD), Gov. Andrew Cuomo's economic development authority, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), Mayor Bill de Blasio’s economic development entity.

They rather cryptically describe some contemplated transactions that deserve far more sunlight, both now and if/when they move toward fruition.

First, look at the proposed map (below), which shows two private development sites, two public development sites, and one city-owned building, known as DOE (Department of Education) Premises.

image1

Let's put aside the private development sites, which are owned by a company called Plaxall, and were intended to be part of a large project called Anable Basin.

Instead, let's focus on the two public development sites, which were previously part of a planned project called the Long Island City Innovation Center, involving developer TF Cornerstone and other partners. (The DOE site was not to be part of that project.)

An $850,000 lease
The agreement contains a major parenthetical: Empire State Development will lease the public development sites "for a total agreed base rent payment, exclusive of PILOT, of $850,000 per annum (such price being consistent with the competitively procured terms of NYCEDC's prior agreement with the Company's development partner and reflective of the costs to be assumed by the Company that include but are not limited to City agency relocations... and the Specific Infrastructure and Community Commitments...)"

That’s a lot to unpack.

First, $850,000 won't buy much in New York's rental market: that sum is the same asked of a child care center in the Upper West Side (in a former Duane Reade) or that which drove a bookstore out of SoHo. (I earlier mentioned this issue in an essay for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.)

And if that $850,000 reflects "the costs to be assumed by the Company that include but are not limited to City agency relocations," how are those presumably considerable costs calculated?

If those costs are absorbed in the first years of the Amazon lease, wouldn't the deal get better for them over time?

How exactly was that sum "consistent with the competitively procured terms" of the prior agreement? Why should that prior agreement apply to the Amazon project, given the latter’s scope and the suite of subsidies?

image3

Also, unlike other tenants in Long Island City, Amazon will not be at the mercy of a landlord aiming to raise rent after an initial lease period. The rent, according to the document, "will escalate in accordance with an agreed upon schedule based on the Consumer Price Index" or CPI.

Note that, while that verbiage suggests that the rent increases will correlate with the CPI, that doesn't mean direct correlation. In other words, an "agreed upon schedule" could be a percentage of the CPI. That's worth asking about. And, of course, this non-binding document only presages future negotiations.

The DOE building
Now consider the DOE Premises, a hulking former city warehouse -- approximately 672,000 square feet -- on Vernon Boulevard. According to the city/state memo, Amazon's initial base rent shall not exceed "the value of $500 per built gross square foot multiplied by 6.25%."

Why make that calculation so convoluted? It's hard to believe that was not presented as a way of obscuring the math that leads to $31.25 per square foot.

image2

Note that the base rent "shall equal the fair market rental value as determined by an Appraisal," but...the parties have already stipulated a ceiling of $31.25. That seems like a sweet deal.

How would that appraisal work? It might not happen until 90 days before the lease closes, but it will take "into account sales of, and income generated at, comparable commercial use properties exclusively for the period prior to the date of the MOU," as well as capital investments made by New York City.

Though an appraisal seems meaningless, the comps could use more attention. Consider the Falchi Building, a former factory building recently spiffed up in another section of Long Island City, below Sunnyside Yard. In 2016, the Commercial Observer reported asking rents "in the $40s" and also $55 per square foot.

Of course, asking rent is not contract rent, and these relatively small deals don't compare to leasing a full building. Still, it's hardly clear that $31.25 is the market rent in the area. Nor do we know how to value the "capital investments" factor cited in the MOU. (Update: However, according to the city's just-released response to Amazon's RFP, that site was presented as having a net illustrative rent between $24 and $49.)

image4

Note that the base rent will increase by the lesser of either 3% or the area CPI. Is such a cap on inflation standard operating procedure? 

Maybe city and state officials often come to such seemingly generous agreements. (If so, maybe reconsider those practices, too.) Or perhaps they can defend them as tougher than they seem. But the fuzzy fine print should provoke reason for skepticism—and some hard questions from our elected officials.

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Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

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Setting the Record Straight: Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan Can and Should Do More for the Homeless


cluster apartments convert

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


Mayor de Blasio has been under constant fire for offering homeless New Yorkers access to just 5 percent of the units created and preserved by his 12-year, 300,000-unit affordable housing plan, even as homelessness has reached a new all-time record high. He has been confronted at his home, at the gym in Park Slope, and on the steps of City Hall, with a growing coalition of advocates, experts, elected officials, and homeless families demanding that the mayor increase that figure to 10 percent of the total, including 20 percent of all new construction. This would result in 30,000 units of affordable, permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, with 24,000 units to be created through new construction, by 2026.

The progressive mayor who campaigned to end the “tale of two cities” has responded dismissively, sometimes with anger – and always with a series of excuses that don’t hold up to closer examination. Let’s take a look:

The mayor says his Housing New York 2.0 plan addresses the affordable housing crisis for everyone, and adding more homeless units would take access to housing away from other New Yorkers who need it. But here’s the thing: New York City’s affordability crisis disparately impacts those with the lowest incomes. There is no shortage of private market apartments affordable to higher-income households: the vacancy rate for units renting above $2,500 per month is in fact a whopping 8.74 percent, while the vacancy rate for apartments renting for less than $800 per month is only about 1 percent.

Yet a full 20 percent of the mayor’s housing plan is for households making between $70,000 and $142,000 annually, at rents ranging from $1,700 to $3,500 per month, while at the same time dedicating a mere 5 percent to help homeless New Yorkers. Fully 10 percent of the apartments created through the mayor’s plan will have rents at or above $2,500 per month, a level at which there is currently a glut of vacant units. The mayor’s housing plan should target its help for those who need it most.

The mayor says his housing plan is just a small part of what the city is doing to address homelessness. That much is true, but it is not a fact to be proud of. Mayor de Blasio plans to build only 200 new apartments per year for homeless New Yorkers out of the 10,500 apartments per year to be constructed between now and 2026. Other programs implemented by the city that serve homeless people with disabilities, help pay off rent arrears, or provide subsidies for market-rate apartments can’t meaningfully reduce homelessness unless the city also sets aside far more newly-constructed housing for the homeless. The numbers bear this out: homelessness continues at record levels five years into de Blasio's New York, with more than 63,500 people sleeping in city shelters each night, including over 23,000 children. They are paying an extraordinary price for bad policy, as is our city as a whole.

And finally, the mayor says that adding more homeless housing to his plan is not financially feasible. But the House Our Future NY Campaign is urging Mayor de Blasio to designate just 10 percent of his overall housing plan, including 20 percent of the new construction target, for homeless New Yorkers: 30,000 units overall, with 24,000 to be created through new construction. Funds the mayor has already committed to the plan, including over $1.3 billion in city funds each year for the next eight years, show that the mayor has the resources to significantly reduce homelessness. He simply lacks the will.

The mayor’s obstinacy in the face of record homelessness and an ongoing housing crisis for low-income New Yorkers belies his professed values as a progressive leader. Without swift course correction, this wrong-headed approach will lock the City of New York in a state of ever-expanding homelessness for the foreseeable future. The only way out is with bold solutions. Mayor de Blasio must immediately dedicate 10 percent of his housing plan, including 20 percent of all new construction, to house homeless New Yorkers. Tens of thousands of our neighbors languishing in shelters and on the streets – indeed all New Yorkers – deserve a housing plan that offers a responsive and robust answer to record homelessness, not more equivocation in the false promise of fairness for all.

A full examination of the Mayor’s claims can be read in a new policy brief released by the Coalition for the Homeless here.

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Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for Coalition for the Homeless.

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