Category Archives: City Council

Advocates Approve of Proposals to Reduce City Homelessness

Published in City & State

The Department of Homeless Services is making some changes in their strategy to reduce homelessness in New York City, and homeless advocates approve. DHS presented their 2015 budget to City Hall last Monday, and outlined new focuses and funding, including prioritizing specific groups to help move out of the shelter system, capping payments to cluster sites at $1500 a month, and using NYCHA as a low-cost solution to homeless family placement.

The groups being prioritized by the DHS are “vulnerable populations,” which include homeless families who have been to a shelter more than once, and “working families” that live in a shelter and work full time.

In the 2015 budget, $60.1 million will be directed specifically to vulnerable populations by reducing reimbursement rates for landlords of cluster sites and hotels, capping those reimbursement rates at $1500 per unit per month.  Cluster-sites are units for the homeless in otherwise market-rate apartment buildings, effectively acting as a satellite shelter. They are similar to former “scatter-sites,” which were widely criticized and all but disappeared under Bloomberg, only to reemerge with a new name, and enhanced social services.

The $1500 cap is a major break from the recent history of homeless policy; several homeless advocates interviewed say the average amount received by a cluster-site unit is roughly $3,000 a month. Many of the cluster sites are located in neighborhoods where a unit’s market rate would be far below that number. At the hearing last week, newly appointed DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor noted that the vast majority of DHS shelters are contracted out to private providers.

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, applauded the price cap.

“The city actually pays $3,000 a month to use apartments as temporary shelter, a complete waste of money and totally misguided, that the Bloomberg administration expanded to record levels,” Markee said. “If what they can do [is] reduce the payments to cluster-site landlords and reinvest that money into rent subsidy, that’s one step towards moving in the right direction.”

The Working Families Rental Assistance Program will provide 801 families annually with a 3-year housing subsidy, with an option to renew after 5 years.  The program will receive $80 million over four years, with the City and State each contributing 50% of the funding. 2015 gives the program $6 million, with planned increases the following 3 years. At the City Council hearing, Taylor acknowledged that 801 was a small number, but by focusing on a group disposed to better support themselves, DHS might show the State a high success rate to expand the program in the future.

“Targeting working families is a great idea,” said Ralph Da Costa Nunez, president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness. “The problem with the Bloomberg administration is that they just threw vouchers out there and created chaos…targeting working families is the way to go. … You’re going to shoot for your best opportunity to move families out that will stay out.”

City Council members were particularly interested in the use of NYCHA housing to help stem the rising tide of homelessness, describing it as not only the cheapest solution to New York City homelessness, but one that wouldn’t require State funding and approval.

Under the current plan, homeless families that are already on the waiting list for public housing with be prioritized.  Those families will then get follow-up services from DHS. Representatives from the DHS and NYCHA would not say how many homeless families would be moved to the top of the list.

Advocates note that NYCHA was a major hallmark of the homeless policy in New York City under the four Mayors before Bloomberg, and hope it will be used more rigorously under de Blasio.

As of March 2014, there are 247,262 families on the waiting list for NYCHA’s Conventional Public Housing program. As of January 2014, the vacancy rate of NYCHA apartments available for occupancy was 0.95 percent.

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Filed under City Council, Homelessness, NYCHA

City Council Passes Madison Square Garden Tax Repeal Resolution

The New York City Council’s Finance Committee met on Wednesday to vote on a resolution that calls on the New York State Legislature to repeal a 1982 law granting permanent property tax exceptions to Madison Square Garden. Councilman Corey Johnson, a co-sponsor of the resolution, called it “the only state tax break that was written into state law to benefit one individual company.” MSG provided written testimony, but did not attend the hearing. MSG skips $17.3 million a year in property taxes thanks to a 32 year-old law signed by Mayor Ed Koch.  In 1982, the tax break was deemed necessary because of turbulent economic times, a high murder rate, and the fear that the Knicks and the Rangers would play their home games elsewhere. City Council now thinks that threat is long gone. “For a sports franchise to leave the biggest media market in America, to leave what is the best sports fan base in America…simply would be an inconceivable business decision,” said Council Member Mark Levine. All Finance Committee members voted in favor of the resolution, though the vote has no actual consequences other than a symbolic opposition. Council Member Vincent Ignizio provided a dose of pragmatism to the proceedings.  “This bill is dead on arrival. It’s not happening in Albany.  The Governor’s opposed, the Speaker’s opposed.  It’s not going anywhere.  But I think it gives birth to a broader discussion that this council wants to have.”

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Filed under City Council, Sports, Taxes

Jumaane Williams on de Blasio’s Affordable Housing Announcement

Jumaane Williams, the Chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, was generally positive about Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing announcement yesterday. However, Williams would like to see de Blasio make repealing the Urstadt Law a top priority, and more outreach to low-income households. Passed in 1971, Urstadt put New York City rent regulation in the hands of the State, which has generally leaned towards deregulation. Williams lauded de Blasio’s 50/30/20 mixed income program (50% middle income, 30% moderate income, 20% low income), but pushed for more.  “They talked about 80/20 kind of being outdated and we need a new model…I’m hoping he will research some of the other models” said Williams, “…because I think we need to dig a little deeper to get more of the lower income band.”  In this vein, Williams has been a vocal advocate of regional AMIs [Area Median Income] – the current AMI used by HUD includes Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester Counties, which have higher median incomes than New York City. He also noted that some people believe the City actually needs an additional 400,000 units of affordable housing, not the touted 200,000 number. Williams has some lingering questions going forward: “I would like to see how much money the City is going to put in of the $41 billion…they’re going to be talking about [NYCHA] later on, and I’m looking forward to what [Councilman] Richie Torres has to say about that.” 

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Filed under Affordable Housing, City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio

City Council Hears Concerns on Municipal IDs, Implementation

Published in City & State

The New York City Council Committee on Immigration, led by Councilman Carlos Menchaca, held a hearing Wednesday on the proposal to create a municipal identification card program for New York City residents. The proposal has the strong support of the Mayor’s office, and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was highly confident the bill would pass the Council.

“This hearing is the first step towards achieving that ultimate goal of the largest municipal ID program in this country … Let it be clear that this is a priority for this City Council, and we will have municipal IDs in this city,” Mark-Viverito said.

The ID program is aimed at benefiting vulnerable populations, including immigrants, the transgendered and the homeless. There was widespread agreement, however, that the card must be widely adopted by all New Yorkers in order to avoid stigmatizing users who otherwise would not qualify for more traditional forms of ID, particularly when those users might be from populations that already suffer social scrutiny.

Testimony from City Council members and representatives of non-profit groups like the Immigration Coalition and the New Economy Project offered a range of ideas about how to make the card appealing to everyone. These ideas included store discounts and affiliations with banking institutions. Councilman Antonio Reynoso even proposed that children as young as twelve should be eligible to receive an ID.

Bryan Ellicott, a transgendered man, talked about the importance of male and female designation on the cards. He suggested in his testimony that rather than requiring proof of sex reassignment surgery, transgendered people could instead provide a letter from a therapist or doctor prescribing hormone replacements. He said the only way to change one’s designation with the state currently is to spend upward of $30,000 on surgeries.

San Francisco, a city that has already created its own municipal ID program, has done away with gender identifiers on its IDs altogether. Ellicott, who represented only himself at the hearing, not any particular LGBTQ organization, disagreed with this approach.

“I don’t support that at all. New York State has me walking around with a female gender marker on my ID. I would like a male one,” Ellicott said.

Mindy Tarlow, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, and Nisha Agarwal from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, testified about the implementation of the proposed legislation, which designates the Mayor’s Office of Operations as the administering agency for the ID program.

“The process for applying for a municipal ID card will be similar to the DMV model. Individuals will be required to show evidence of their identify and residency by providing acceptable documents,” said Tarlow.

The cards would cost a “reasonable fee” and financial assistance would be provided for those who cannot afford the expense. Among the forms of identification that could be used to qualify are foreign passports, consular ID cards, and a copy of a foreign birth certificate.

To accommodate the homeless, the Office of Operations would be required to create alternative methods of establishing residency for people without a fixed address. The city would not be allowed to retain originals or copies of records, and all information collected would be treated as confidential.

This point was of particular concern to privacy watchdogs like the New York Civil Liberties Union.  In New Haven, the first city to create a municipal ID program, tensions arose when information about applicants was requested by anti-immigrant activists who said they would turn it over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As to how the city would go about promoting the card, Agarwal cited “social media, community and educational institutions, famous New Yorkers, foreign consulates, faith-based institutions and beyond.”

Eric Mar, of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, also testified via telephone. He explained how his city rolled out its municipal ID program in 2009.

San Francisco’s ID cards cost $15 and individuals can quality for discounts. Mar said that the San Francisco program cost roughly $828,000 to set up, and now costs around $200,000 a year to maintain, which is “roughly paid for” by the $15 fee.

New York City, of course, with a population of nearly 8.5 million people, is much bigger than San Francisco, which has around 1 million people.

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Filed under City Council, Immigration, Mayor's Office of Operatinos, Mindy Tarlow, Municipal IDs, Nisha Agarwal

City Council Speaker Announces Rules Reform, Changes to Discretionary Item Funding

On Tuesday afternoon, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a sweeping rules reform package that included changes to member discretionary allocation for over $50 million given to the City Council to spend annually. In the proposed reforms, all discretionary spending given to City Council members will be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.”  That formula will include a base amount given to every City Council member, and an increase based on the number of people living in poverty in their district. The Speaker’s own discretionary funding will be limited to 50% of total discretionary member expense allocations.

Beyond the money, there will be new open data requirements for discretionary spending, the creation of a dedicated legislative drafting unit to draft legislation requested by members, a plain-language summary of bills, a written attendance policy, and a “supermajority bill sponsorship” that would require bills with 34 co-sponsors to have a Committee decide whether or not to hold a hearing.

These are major changes, and what some see as a response to the politically-motivated allocation practices of former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The mood in the City Council’s Red Room was celebratory, with many Council Members thanking Speaker Mark-Viverito for making good on her election promises, and seemingly acting against her own self-interest allocate the money.  “This process began last fall when 34 new and returning members signed onto a platform calling for significant reforms to the Council’s rules,” said Mark-Viverito.  “What followed was an exhaustive and comprehensive top to bottom look on the Councils’ existing rules…we engaged with members so the public, good government groups… and we did a public hearing where we took hours of testimony on best practices.”

“We will take the politics out of member items,“ she said.

Councilman Brad Lander, Chair of the Rules Committee that helped develop the reforms,  (and who later in the day turned his blazer inside-out in support of Clippers players) was ebullient.  “I challenge the press and the historian here to find any set of reforms that’s more bold and comprehensive and moves the Council forward towards good government in any point in it’s history.”

Inez Barron, for her part, spoke about the Fresh Democracy Council in 2002 that tried to introduce rule reforms.  “The problem was that those that were pushed through and accepted were not embraced and not implemented, because the Speaker at that time did not embrace it. “  After the press conference, Barron was very forthcoming with her opinions about former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who removed former Councilman Charles Barron (Inez’s husband) from the Committee on Higher Education.

“Personally, the prior speaker was very vindictive, punitive, and denied the constituents of a district their fare share, so if you did not take the same position as the Speaker, you were punished…  money went to persons who lived in those districts who had residents in their district who gave graciously and abundantly to the Speaker. So it was a reflection more of a political debt in terms of financial support …My predecessor Councilmember Charles Barron [Councilwoman Barron’s husband] didn’t get as much from the speaker, but he was resourceful enough and persistent enough to reach out to other agencies to get them to buy into projects that he wanted to have in his district.”

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, whose district is in the Bronx, agreed with that assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of these reforms.  “I represent the 5th poorest district in the entire city and if you look at the allocations… [the] cost of speaking up on certain issues that differed with the previously speaker was penalized, and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”

Dick Dadey, the Executive Director of the non-profit citizen’s Union, was positive about the proposed reforms. “Today’s proposed rules reform will do much to change the way in which the council operates.  It will be a much more democratically run…and allow members to be able to represent better their constituents, and result in more equitable distribution of funds for al the neighborhoods of the city as well as allow members to advocate and push for legislation that serves the needs of their districts.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio is known to be against discretionary item funding.  City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito disagrees.  “I’ve been a very, very strong a defender…of the discretionary allocations.  We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts.  These go to organizations that employ locally, that provide very grassroots community based services…so we’re going to continue to make that case, and that’s what’s going to be part of our conversation with the Mayor.”

Another public hearing about the rules reforms will be held on May 7th.






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Filed under City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Money

City Council Proposes More Disclosure on Independent Expenditure

On Friday afternoon, the Government Operations Subcommittee of the City Council met to discuss the issue of the moment – money in politics. Yesterday, a federal judge struck down New York State’s limit on contributions to independent groups that support political candidates. Previously, New York put a $150,000 limit on such contributions. The tone in City Council was somber about the decision as Council Members considered several bills to make campaign disclosures more transparent. “Transparency may be the only safeguard that we have against the potentially corrupting influence of money,” said Councilmember Ritchie Torres. Representatives from the Campaign Finance Board testified, as well as the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause. Amy Loprest from CFB spoke about Proposition 148-A, a bill that would increase independent expenditure disclosure requirements. “During the 2013 elections, ‘Jobs for New York’ spent more than 4.9 million…for the average voter looking at a mailing for the group…nothing about it’s name would indicate that it was backed by contributions for the real estate industry,” she said. “The goal here is to provide disclosure, not to discourage independent expenditures” said Councilmember Brad Lander, a sponsor of 148-A. “I wouldn’t mind if we had some other way to discourage independent expenditures, but the goal of this legislation is to encourage disclosure.”

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Filed under Campaign Finance Board, City Council, Elections, Money

Letitia James Talks with Reporters, Discusses de Blasio, Charter Schools, Citi Bikes

On Wednesday, Public Advocate Letitia James sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss her work as New York’s Public Advocate, and her goals moving forward.

She covered subjects ranging from Citi Bikes, to Affordable Housing, to her opinions on Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In terms of her own office, James hopes for a budget increase, which Mayor de Blasio has proposed.  “It’s difficult to continue to operate with twenty staff members,” she said. James also emphasized that she is working closely with City Council. “I’m trying to remove the divide between City Council and the office of the Public Advocate.”  James has attended several City Council meetings, and talks about being a steady presence there.  “Operating in silos will no longer continue.”

James stated early on in the discussion that main priority moving forward is providing universal free lunch to New York City students.  “The children who are below the poverty line often times are ashamed, often times are ridiculed, and often times hide in disgrace or go hungry…I want to remove the stigma of poverty, and I want to allow all children to eat a free nutritious lunch regardless of income in the city of New York.”  James said that she needed $20 million for a free lunch program, most of which she claimed would be reimbursed by the federal government.  As of today, there are just over 1,660 signatures in a petition for the program on the website  James also claimed that 46 city council members have signed a letter in support of a universal free lunch. The cost of covering this program, however, is uncertain, and will involve talks with the Federal Government.  “There’s a question as to the reimbursement.  Hopefully they can get beyond the challenges.”

When asked about the struggling Citi Bike program, James reminisced that she came out in favor of Citi Bikes when they made their debut, and said that she would support a co-public-private venture to try to save the program.  She also expressed that she would like to see it expanded to reach more of New York.  “The bike network only reaches downtown Brooklyn and then it falls off the face of the earth.”  She remains open to the city using its own funds to help bail out Citi Bike. “I think what we need to do is put everything on the table, and have a robust discussion about how to save the program…I’m not saying no to that.”

On Charter Schools, James said that she is not against them per se, but outlined her problems (and lawsuit) with co-locating charter and public schools. “It’s unfortunate that we had to initiate litigation against the de Blasio administration in the absence of any standard or metrics in the instance of forced co-locations, and particularly in the absence of the blue book task force,” she said.  She often referred to co-locations happening at schools that were already over capacity, and cited complaints that she’s heard of lunch being served at 9 am, and special-needs students being taught in closets because of the lack of space.  “Halt the co-location in any school where children are being taught in trailers.  I think that’s a reasonable request.”

On the affordable housing front, James was clear that she agreed with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in supporting a moratorium on the downsizing HPD is carrying out on New York subsidized housing.  This downsizing involves moving tenants from bigger apartments to smaller ones. Citing HPD Commissioner Vicki Been’s testimony at City Council last week, James doubted whether the federal sequestration (and budget shortfall that HPD suffered) was completely at fault.  “It’s unfortunately that the federal government has turned its back on urban centers, but at the same time I think HPD can do a better job with carving out certain exceptions so that seniors and disabled can live in their home during the twilight of their life.”  She also listed her goals for affordable housing throughout the city that included redefining AMI to be between $30,000 and $80,000 for a family of four, increasing the size of apartments for families with children, and expanding the famous 80/20 affordable housing percentage to include more than 20% affordability.

On Police Commissioner Bratton, James was positive. “So far, so good.”  She called for an increase in the number of detectives assigned to cold cases, and an increase in the number of Police Service Areas specifically assigned to public housing crime.  There are currently only 9 PSAs in New York City.  She also called for an increase in the number of police officers as a whole, citing a growing number of officers who are retiring. “Do I think we should increase the rank and file? Yes.”

James was mostly complimentary of Mayor de Blasio, saying that they don’t talk regularly, but they do have conversations. “If I had to grade the mayor, he’d get a B+,” she said, citing his push for sick leave, stop and risk reform, and universal Pre-K.  “Were there some missteps in Albany? Yeah.  But Albany is a strange place, and they live by a different sent of rules. And it’s really hard to get accustomed to those rules in your first 100 days.”  On Cuomo, she said simply that his poll numbers were up, and declined to comment further.

James noticeably shied away from making any comments on the Rangel Espaillat congressional race taking place in Harlem right now.  “This is not a political discussion. This is a discussion on policy.”





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Filed under Affordable Housing, Bill Bratton, Budget, Charter Schools, Citi Bike, City Council, Education, Governor Andrew Cuomo, HPD, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police

Heard Around Town: Letitia James talks about de Blasio, Cuomo

Published in City and State

On Wednesday, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss her first 100 days on the job and her vision for the office going forward. But first James is hoping that the additional funding Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed in his preliminary budget for her office remains in the final agreement. “It’s difficult to continue to operate with twenty staff members,” she said. James also emphasized she wanted to have more of a role in her old stomping ground at the City Council, hoping to “remove the divide” and play a more active role in policy. “Operating in silos will no longer continue,” James said. As for her evaluation of the mayor’s first 100 days, James was mostly complimentary, giving him a B+ grade, citing paid sick leave, stop-and-frisk reform, and universal pre-K as big wins. “Were there some missteps in Albany? Yeah. But Albany is a strange place, and they live by a different set of rules, and it’s really hard to get accustomed to those rules in your first 100 days.” Her evaluation of Governor Andrew Cuomo was considerably more brief; James noted that his polling numbers were up, and declined to comment further. 

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Filed under Budget, City Council, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio

Heard Around Town: Vicki Been on HPD Downsizing and the Sequestration

Published in City & State

Vicki Been, the new commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, was put on the spot about the agency’s downsizing program for subsidized housing yesterday during a City Council hearing. This downsizing involves moving tenants from apartments that are too big for residents to more appropriately sized ones. Questioning from City Council members and Public Advocate Letitia James at the hearing centered around the sick and elderly who go through tremendous shock or strain if moved to a new, unfamiliar apartment that may not be suited to their needs. The appeals period was another area of concern—a period of only 15 days—which many cited as not enough time for someone to get documentation of a medical condition from a doctor. The downsizing is a result of the 2013 national sequestration. HPD was hit with a sudden and brutal $37 million in federal cuts.  Been said that HPD downsized to prevent kicking out approximately 3,000 families from public housing. “I’m faced with a Congress that is dysfunctional at best, and is leaving us in the position where we’re either cutting people out of our program and taking vouchers away… or taking these kinds of steps to try and save some dollars so we don’t have to cut people off the program…It’s not a choice that I or my staff have taken lightly. It pains us enormously. And that’s where we are.”

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Filed under Budget, City Council, Housing, Money