Tag Archives: Mayor Bill de Blasio

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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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 Change.org.  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


Published in City & State

What a difference a new administration makes. At the end of last year developer Jed Walentas had a deal in place to turn the waterfront Domino Sugar Refinery into high-end Williamsburg apartments, including 660 units of affordable housing— roughly 30 percent of the building’s capacity.

Walentas’ company, Two Trees, had already played an integral role in transforming formerly down-and-out Brooklyn neighborhoods like DUMBO into glossy, expensive new locales for the rich and hip—and the Domino project appeared set to be the next outpost in Walentas’ empire.

Then Mayor Bill de Blasio coasted into office in January touting his campaign promise to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. Rather than abiding by the deal Walentas had struck with the Bloomberg administration, de Blasio let the developer know that Two Trees’ plans for Domino were in jeopardy because its affordable housing allocation was insufficient.

In March the de Blasio administration announced that Two Trees had essentially bowed to its demands, agreeing to add 110,000 square feet of affordable housing to reach a total of 537,000 square feet. The revised Domino project is slated to create 700 affordable apartments covering a range of incomes, and there will be a significant number of two-and three-bedroom units sized for families. The affordable apartments will be integrated throughout the complex with the aim of creating a dynamic mixed-income community— and unlike in prior proposals, all of those units will remain at affordable rates in perpetuity.

In return, Two Trees was allowed to increase the height of the project to 55 stories, which, according to The New York Times is “20 stories higher than the current regulations permit.”

Despite the new agreement, at a City Council hearing on April 1 focusing on the latest version of the Domino project, some advocates and elected officials expressed concerns.

“Many times these kinds of [inclusionary zoning] deals [have been] done on negotiated understandings with developers that were not necessarily legally binding. It’s important to have it actually legally codified,” said Moses Gates of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD). “To Two Trees’ credit, they were always open to that paradigm. The next step is to really write these affordability restrictions into the zoning code across the board, and not have to rely on ad hoc negotiations on affordability for each new development.”

The fungibility of affordable housing requirements was reinforced when Steve Levin, one of two Council members who represent Williamsburg, pressed Walentas about the specific number of affordable housing units the project would ultimately include. Walentas admitted that the number might actually end up being fewer than the 700 units agreed to with the de Blasio administration.

“We’ll be building a guaranteed minimum … As a developer with a billion and a half [dollar] project over many years before us, there’s a good chance that we build fewer than we build more,” Walentas said. “My best guess would be somewhere between 660 and 700 affordable units.”

The vagueness of that number highlights a deficiency in what has become one of the city’s chief tools to create new affordable housing: “inclusionary zoning”—the requirement that a developer include a certain percentage of affordable housing units in exchange for being allowed to build. The percentage of affordable housing is measured in square feet, not by the number of units, meaning that housing advocates’ push for larger apartments could wind up bringing about a diminution in the total number of units ultimately made available when the project is completed.

In his testimony before the Council, Walentas made clear his displeasure about the sudden left turn the Domino deal had taken after the de Blasio administration got involved.

“We have spent the better part of one and a half years listening to our and your community and their concerns, and until six weeks ago, we believed that we were headed down a road where on that first building there would be a significant amount of city subsidy made available, and when we got to this point in the process … there would be a three-party agreement that would lock in the amount of city subsidy, the specific AMIs [Average Median Incomes] on that project, and it would be benchmarked to certain unit size,” Walentas said. “It made economic sense to us, or at least made for a project that we know we could finance … The administration went in a different direction, so we had a whole economic framework in place for this entire project that basically went out of the window. Our internal financial assumptions have been reeling since then.”

Developers like Walentas should expect that the de Blasio administration and City Council’s increased demands for affordable housing will constitute a new normal for the industry. At the Domino hearing Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, addressing Walentas, seemed to sum up the general feeling among her Council colleagues.

“This is a different Council today than it was a few months back. We have much more progressive leaders that care about workers and families. And your project is going to set a precedent for the rest of the city,” said Crowley. “You’re going to receive a significant amount of funding through tax abatements and government bonds … and overall it looks like it could be a gain for our city, [but] we need to be sure. So us acting for an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], even though it may not be binding, we’re going to trust that agreement, because you’re going to be back here asking for zoning changes in the future.”

If the affordable housing goals promised by Two Trees are met— and met in a timely fashion—the Domino project could provide a shot at redemption for de Blasio, who has endured criticism for his support as public advocate of the Atlantic Yards project, where the agreed-upon units of affordable housing have been built at a much slower pace than promised.

After talking tough about enforcing the affordable housing agreement struck between ACORN and Forest City Ratner, the developer of the project, de Blasio’s commitment to holding Forest City’s feet to the fire came into question when Bruce Ratner, the company’s CEO, co-chaired the mayor’s 50th birthday fundraiser.

When she was still the City Council member representing Atlantic Yards, Public Advocate Letitia James said of Forest City’s failure to meet the affordable housing goal on schedule, “New Yorkers and taxpayers were basically duped.”

To guard against a scenario like the one playing out at Atlantic Yards, Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of the ANHD, suggested in his testimony before the Council that the city mandate inclusionary zoning to give it better leverage in the future.

“Domino is a good start, but just a start,” Dulchin said. “The last administration gave away the store. This administration should do better. That probably starts with a baseline of a strong and mandatory inclusionary zoning policy so the city starts from a strong position in every negotiation like Domino.”

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