Tuesday, September 29, 2015

ASSORTED: Animals getting sicker in city shelters; Verizon fails; BX Small Biz Forum; Fair Housing Act

More extinct NYC as seen on Seinfeld re-runs: H and H bagels on the UWS; Bolo restaurant....

Just in case anyone thought the mass closings of the city's small businesses had somehow been resolved--what with all the very recent attention and some proposed action by certain legislators--it hasn't. Just read this post on Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Using this anecdote, apply it against every neighborhood in the city. Because it isn't exaggeration or hyperbole to state the obvious: mom and pops are being pushed out in every community in every borough, and it's been happening for decades. 

EAP readers know I've been covering this issue for a very long time, and not only on this blog. I was reporting about this before it became a pseudo-cause celebre. And, you'll also know that what makes this situation particularly tragic is the fact that our city government has been doing all it could and can to perpetuate this problem, which makes absolutely no sense given the city's small businesses are NYC's main employer, especially critical in immigrant communities.

So, TakeBackNYC will be holding another forum, this time in the Bronx. For the most part, TakeBack has eschewed having elected officials involved in these town halls because, they perceive, so many are compromised by the power and money of the real estate industry--and too often they would be right. I think it's safe to declare few of our city's electeds are familiar with Profiles in Courage--either the book or the concept.

However, they are making an exception at this week's meeting because the current prime sponsor of 'The Small Business Jobs Survival Act'--what many consider to be the best solution, albeit about fifteen years too late--represents the Bronx.  Here are the details:

Bronx Small Biz Forum
Wednesday, September 30, 7-9pm
Hellenic Orthodox Community Church, 3573 Bruckner Blvd., parking in rear or take IRT to Pelham Bay Park Station;
Sponsors include Bronx Times, Bronx Merchants Coalition and Townsquared-NYC.

Also, here are several more WBAI Morning Show segments I produced. These are a bit more diverse than the ones listed in my last post, ranging from having the state divest from fossil fuel holdings, to the miserable failing of Verizon after receiving an exclusive city contract to bring broadband to every portion of the city, to the overlooked SCOTUS decision upholding the 1968 Fair Housing Act. 

Finally, because this is also one of those issues I've covered (almost exclusively) for years, an update on what's going on at the city's "independent" animal shelter system. The latest concern stems from sometimes preventable diseases spreading like wildfire among animals in ACC 'care.' Because of the still-unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, these diseases are deadlier and spread faster. Even worse, not only is the organization in denial about the extent of the problem, they're adopting out sick animals without disclosing the extent of illness to rescue groups, who often then have to spend their very limited resources to care for the animal.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-NY, discusses the abject failure of telecom company Verizon to bring fiber optic services called FIOS to all of NYC by 2014, as codified in a 2008 city contract. Yet, a recent city audit found up to 75% of NYC still doesn't have access to Fios. Why again is the general consensus that Mike Bloomberg is such a great businessman?

NY State Senator Liz Krueger talks about sponsoring the "Fossil Fuel Divestment Act," which if passed, will direct the state comptroller to withdraw state pension funds from fossil fuel holdings. She also explains why she signed on to a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections for not closing the notorious LLC loophole, a way the real estate industry in particular has circumvented campaign finance limits.

Esther Koslow, pres. and chair of Shelter Reform Action Committee, gives an update on what's going on at the city's animal shelters.  Most alarming is the rampant and virulent strains of diseases putting animals in their care at great risk, diseases that could be curable and preventable, but are often caused by poor conditions and overcrowding. The city and DOH still refuse to build shelters in every borough, despite a 2000 law passed by the City Council, but overrun by former Speaker Christine Quinn while she continued her mission to do the bidding of former Mayor Bloomberg. And, Koslow discusses the inherent problems and contradiction in continuing to allow DOH to oversee issues relating to animals while claiming ACC is "independent" though all funding and key decisions are made by DOH.

The NAACP-LDF discusses the importance of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Fair Housing Act,  Although somewhat overshadowed  in the mainstream press, this decision based on the 'disparate impact' standard is as critical to civil rights in America as is more well known legislation like the Voting Rights Act (already gutted by SCOTUS).

Monday, September 14, 2015

THE POWER OF BIG REAL ESTATE IN NYC: Permeating throughout all levels of government--case studies

Another very recent extinct (at least at its 40 year location) NYC site as seen on Seinfeld reruns: Trash & Vaudeville, the last remnant of NYC's original punk neighborhood and my now-extinguished longtime spiritual home.
Because of other projects and family commitments, I haven't found much time to write over the summer, into the fall even. However, I have continued producing segments for WBAI radio's Morning Show. Here are several dealing with land-use, development and real estate in New York City.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, discusses the anti-landmarking moves in the "progressive" NYC Council, widely seen by preservationists as a massive land-grab by the real estate industry. Noting more than half of the city's current landmarked sites and districts would not have met the proposed deadlines including the Empire State building, Berman said the bill removes any discretion from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Since the hearing, the source for REBNY'S anti-landmarking report has refuted the powerful real estate organization's findings, and in fact, said rent-regulated apartments are "better preserved in landmarked areas."

Michael Kramer from 'Save Our Seaport' on the National Trust for Historic Preservation naming the Seaport Historic District as one of the nation's top endangered sites, on the backroom deal between the NYCEDC and a private developer rife with conflicts-of-interest, and the effect of mega development on the historic district and the anti-flood plan for Lower Manhattan/Brooklyn.

Alicia Boyd, founder of the Movement to Protect the People discusses the rigged process and widespread corruption amongst local elected officials and the community board evident in the city's plans to upzone the minuscule commercial district for mixed use. That means, according to Boyd, "affordable housing" that's not really affordable in the only African American area abutting Prospect Park which will cause massive commercial and residential displacement, and those valuable park views.

Louis Flores, publisher of the online news site Progress Queens, has consistently covered NYCHA issues in an in-depth way often ignored or avoided by the mainstream media.  His interview includes discussion of the lack of governmental NYCHA oversight by those officials and offices tasked with such responsibilities; insider deals the city has made to sell Section 8 buildings with well-connected developers who have track records of shoddy work; selling city assets ie land at NYCHA complexes with no ULURP as mandated by the city charter. This interview was conducted before the city announced plans to develop market rate housing on NYCHA property.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

WBAI Avella interview on Willets Point; TakeBackNYC interview; Reflections on the Rent Laws Battle & RGB

UPDATE: This is a segment I produced for WBAI radio with Queens State Senator Tony Avella discussing their successful lawsuit vs. NYC over the Willets Point giant (private) development plan, questionable practices by the NYCEDC, and how the city treats its small businesses. 

More extinct NYC as seen on Seinfeld: The Reggae Lounge, Metro movie theater....

TakeBackNYC is holding a small biz forum tonight night, Wednesday 7/22/17, @ the Malcolm X Ballroom, Broadway & 165th Street, 7-9 pm, this time in Washington Heights. This is a neighborhood that's been hard hit by escalating rents as evidenced by the countless number of vacant storefronts. It's also a heavily immigrant-populated community, who are the primary owners of the city's small businesses and therefore the primary employers of NYC's jobs. They are also notoriously vulnerable to illegal extortion by landlords.

Here's another WBAI radio segment I produced with Steve Null, who wrote the original SBJSA language with then-CM Ruth Messinger. He's currently an advisor to TakeBackNYC.

For those who don't already know, TakeBackNYC is a 
"direct action political lobbying organization" comprised of a coalition of actual small business owners, residents and advocacy groups who are trying to stop the mass closings that have been ongoing over the last twenty years, aided and abetted by city and state governmental policies. I have several prior EAP entries explaining the history. They supplement the work of SaveNYC, which now concentrates less on the political process.

The TakeBackNYC forums are meant to present an alternative to the official government response of assorted roundtables to promote the status quo (ie the real estate industry) under the guise of saving small businesses, according to many small business advocates. Their primary proposal--referred to as the 'landlords' bill when it originated during the Koch days--is considered misguided and incomplete: it only covers retail establishments, mediation is non-binding, the lease term is for one year only, and it does nothing to prevent extortion.

One of the main elected officials touting this approach initially proposed to get Albany--already a questionable proposition--to pass a law PAYING landlords not to rent gouge commercial tenants. As if owners don't already benefit from an array of incentives, abatements and actual subsidies not including programs like the perpetual increase of an MCI, j51 and the notoriously corrupt 421a......and as opposed to rent regulations, which too many in the press still refer to as some form of subsidy program when in fact no money is ever exchanged. 

Let's also not ignore willfully lax enforcement by prosecutors and the relevant underfunded government agencies, ultimately permitting harassment of tenants (sometimes to the point of them being forced out), sub par living conditions and unlimited examples of illegally decontrolled regulated apartments. 

While I was writing my rent regulation series in June, more than a few tenant organizers confided in me on background that while Gov. Cuomo should be blamed for the way everything unfolded and for the lack of success, there is no shortage of culprits.

Specifically, Mayor de Blasio was singled out for beginning his 'renew and strengthen' the rent regs campaign much too late. Though the laws were set to expire mid June 2015--a date that was commonly knows for several years--the mayor really didn't start his discussion in earnest until this May--just a month before they would sunset. If he had been as committed to bolstering tenant protections as he has been to his universal pre-K policy, they noted for example, he would have started much sooner, the City Council would have been much more coordinated and organized, and more resources would have been dedicated to the cause.

Albany Democrats--especially in the Assembly including new Speaker Heastie--must also receive their share as they totally capitulated. Rather than digging in their heels and calling the Senate Republicans' bluff--especially given how badly the GOP wanted a 421a renewal--in the end, all those months of tough talk and rhetoric was seemingly all bluster. 

Honorable mention must also be given to those non-profits who provided elected officials with political cover for either political cowardice, expedience, or outright dishonesty. The fact that many of these organizations receive funding through these offices makes it impossible to ignore a potential ethical conflict-of-interest.

Regarding the recent RGB's final vote, two things I think are of note. The first is how everyone appeared to ignore the fact the Board approved two percent increases on two-year lease renewals, because this news was overshadowed by the first ever rent freeze.

Keep in mind, the RGB's own data revealed landlords' operating costs were estimated to increase by only about 0.5 percent. If one were to be generous, an increase of 1.5 percent would have been appropriate. So, already, the Board has given owners yet another gift, after so many years of disproportionately high increases. It's followed by last year's 2.75% increase for two-year leases, also excessively high and ignored by the press.

The other thing of note is the way the vote came down. Out of nine members, all but the two owner reps voted in favor. This includes the public members, who are supposed to be independent--except it has rarely worked out that way. This is an article I wrote about a former public member who was punished for actually being independent.

What the vote implies is that City Hall maneuvered everything before the members actually voted, perhaps in reaction to way things unfolded last year. 

But this represents an inherent problem with the RGB and the system itself, and it's not exclusive to any single administration. Because all the members are appointed by the mayor, there are no checks and balances, no oversight and no accountability. Just because the numbers were not as egregious as in past years doesn't mean the process itself is a good one.

Monday, June 15, 2015

UPDATED SERIES ON RENT REGULATIONS: DHCR Enforcement & Timeline of Failure

Today's article in City & State:

After the Deal: Concerns About How Rent Regs Will be Enforced


Today's article in City Limits:

Timeline of Failure: How NYS Got to the Brink of Rent Laws' Lapse

Friday's article, #5 with more to come:

Reform, Interrupted: Study Up for Round 2 of Debate Over 421-a

#4 in the City Limits series:

Where is Jeff Klein in the Rent Regulations Debate?

#3 in the series for City Limits:

Loss of 333,000 Apartments Seen

Here's the second article, about today's tenant rally in Albany and regulations affecting residents outside of NYC:

Rent Regulation Affects Tenants Outside New York City

Here's the first article in a series on I'm writing on rent regulations/negotiations this week for City Limits.

Cuomo's Power Tested on Rent Regulations

FYI: Community Board Public Hearings on Citywide Upzoning Plan June 10th:


Monday, June 1, 2015


UPDATE: Guess who is baaaack: THE ROOFERS!! The makings of scaffolding were spotted in the building earlier this week, and for the last few days the stomping, banging and associated noises can be heard both overhead and through the windows.

What's more, the tenants have just received new MCI applications, but not for the roof. One is for an unnecessary TV/security system worth more than $10,000. By unnecessary, I mean in the 20 years we've been together, I can't recall an incident of theft, robbery or the like--though there has been a problem with teenagers in the building smoking pot in the stairwells during the winter months. Installing a security system now is particularly ironic because during the heyday of the crack epidemic, the area was considered a ground zero for its sale. The landlord took no precautions to safeguard either the building or tenants then, but now that the neighborhood is gentrifying and "safer," it's clearly appropriate to step up security.

This another of the scams inherent in the MCI process--owners are permitted to make "improvements" whether they are needed or not, and regardless of what tenants may want. Anything to keep bumping up those base rents...

The second application (so far) is for a backflow preventer installed in 2013, allegedly at a cost of almost $14,000. I'm not sure what that is, but why wasn't it included along with the smorgasbord of other applications submitted in 2013? 

This highlights more system-wide weaknesses: how easy it is for landlords to get away with fraud. Despite what the agency says publicly, DHCR only really goes by check copies submitted by owners to verify work. With technology being what it currently is, it doesn't take much to make things up but still look official. It's also well known DHCR regularly ignores its own regulations.

And then there's self-certification, where DHCR relies on what an owner states to have done, but because of massive underfunding, too few inspectors and a lack of political will from the Governor, it's extremely difficult if not impossible to ensure the work occurred as described in the MCI application. And, we all know how well self-cert has worked within the city since Giuliani instituted it: crane and building collapses, illegal gas siphoning, an escalation in construction worker deaths due to unsafe conditions, developers building in excess of zoning limits....

More extinct NYC sites as seen on Seinfeld reruns: La Reserve restaurant, Gladiator Gym....
Even though I'm in the early stages of two different articles, I wanted to post this anecdote:

Recently, my boyfriend's rent-stabilized building underwent serious upheaval. The most current issues stem from roof work beginning late last October. From the very first day--the day the roofers literally just put equipment out--most if not all the apartments on the top floor began experiencing cracks in their ceilings. 

Because the city allows non-emergency work to commence as early as 7am, every morning started with what sounded like the workers throwing heavy equipment across the roof, that they were jumping in place over our heads--and then the banging and drilling started. The rooms shook. This continued for months, with breaks only for inclement weather.

The work permits posted listed several jobs including asbestos removal that are valid until August 2015, all the while management kept telling tenants the work would only continue for a few weeks or months. They seemingly stopped about three weeks ago. The perennial question, of course, is who on earth begins roof work going into winter?

The Friday after Thanksgiving turned into a debacle. Whatever the roofers had already done left the roof extremely vulnerable to water seepage. His apartment was so deluged with water because that happened to be a rainy day, that there were about 10 receptacles set up to collect the leaks, including at least four 55-gallon garbage pails the super lent him. We're talking about mini-gushers in some spots. Of course, his apartment was not an isolated case.

There were leaks in every room, water damage in most, and the phone line shorted out. Eventually, so did an electrical outlet. 

Plaster and bits of ceiling began falling, first as crumbles but eventually in small-to-medium sized chunks. It got so bad, he went around with a ladder, broom and scraper to poke out the water and air pockets to limit the potential of what could fall. He ended up filling two of those 55-gallon cans with debris.

Many complaints were lodged with 311 and online from a myriad of tenants. They ranged from reports of the damage and destruction; to a growing number of cracks throughout individual apartments as well as building-wide; to the fact the roof team often worked well past weekday hours (sometimes as late as 10pm) and on Saturdays. There was also considerable concern about whether the leaking water was asbestos-tainted, as well as what if any safety precautions were undertaken while they removed asbestos or to limit asbestos dust from tracking throughout the building. Some also filed 'dimunition of services for individual apartments' forms with the NYS Division of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR).

Mind you, his apartment and others were repaired and painted in 2012, because of even earlier roof work which was also the direct cause of leaks, cracks and general chaos. Portions of walls had to be torn out in his apartment and in the one directly below due to widespread mold caused by the leaks. In fact, extensive repairs had to be made to the roof itself to correct the damage done from the first go-round, about seven years ago (which means it took them four to make the 2012 repairs). 

Still, the damage was much greater from the work commenced last year.

The landlord received giant Major Capital Improvement (MCI) increases for which he applied in 2013 and was granted in 2014 for jobs that included the roof, facade, partial parapet work, and some pointing. As a result of DHCR's action, the rent jumped by more than $200 per month, separate from any RGB increases.

In total, this means three attempts to "fix" the roof.

A letter from management dated December 2014, said, "The building has needed a significant amount of repairs in recent years, and we had hoped that the facade and parapet work would address the leaks that you and others on the 6th floor had been experiencing.

Unfortunately, while some of the leaks were addressed, several were not and the replacement of the entire roof could not be delayed any longer. The existing roof deck is constructed of wood planks. Several of the wood planks were found rotted and in need of replacement...[which] was not anticipated when this project initiated." 

This is significant as his apartment and others never had leaks until the initial roof work; furthermore, how is it the landlord was unaware the wood planks were rotted (at least in part) after the repairs just two years earlier?

"While working into the evening is not ideal, the roof deck cannot be left exposed or uncovered..." Except it clearly was, because if you had seen the leakage, you'd know there was virtually nothing standing in between the roof and the ceilings.

"The conditions of the original parapets and bulkheads below the roof line have also required a significant amount of repair." Again, for which they received MCIs in 2014. Clearly, as maintained by the tenants in response to the 2013 application, the work was either incomplete or poorly done.

"Even with best efforts to cover them, the heavy rain rain breached the protective sheets and caused the recent leaks. As of November 28th, the roof has been made completely watertight and there have been no further leaks into any area of the building." Except that there were additional leaks after the 28th, including the one that caused an electrical outlet to short out in the kitchen.

The neighbors were finally galvanized to organize and hire an attorney after they received the 2013 MCI applications, which is unfortunately the only real recourse tenants have. The lawyer is primarily focusing on challenging the haphazard parapet work. The state's rent stabilization code requires "complete replacement," which was clearly not the case. 

For whatever reason, they decided not to challenge the MCI granted for whatever was done to the roof. (Of course, the case could be made shoddy work should be automatically challenged, but the landlord-friendly system doesn't work that way.)

There is widespread concern the landlord will file another MCI application for the latest work because--the owner claims--as cited a few paragraphs earlier, repairs alone will not fix the problems. And, DHCR permits total rehabs.

This is a hugely controversial facet of the MCI program, because very often, owners deliberately allow conditions to deteriorate so considerably simple repairs won't suffice, as described in an article I wrote last December. It's effectively a perverse incentive to reward doing the absolutely wrong thing.

By the way, when HPD finally did send an inspector earlier this year (who miraculously appeared to be a diligent and dedicated worker), we discovered all the complaints should have been lodged about the roof itself and not about the apartment. The laundry list of complaints were, therefore, dismissed on a technicality--even though many were made over the telephone with an employee from either HPD or DOB, who could have apprised him of this at any point because conversations were had in each case. Frankly, who would have ever thought to do this, as the damage was inside the apartment?

DHCR has yet to respond or send anyone.

I can't omit that the walk through with the managing agent and contractor included talk the work would involve sheet rock to cover the damage, and then plaster. Yet, when the workers appeared, no sheet rock materialized, so he now worries whatever mending was done will be insufficient to prevent a recurrence. Also, my boyfriend was adamant about not allowing the repairs to even start before the roof was complete because he wanted to ensure everything was dry, though management lobbied him repeatedly.

And, it's not as if he was or will ever be compensated for the amount of time and energy he spent cleaning up the water damage, going around the apartment preemptively popping air and water pockets, and twice having to single-handedly move furniture from room to room to allow for the repairs
He managed to fill another 55-gallon can with water-soaked wall paper he personally stripped because otherwise they would have just painted over the paper. 

He will never get back the hours wasted trying to negotiate when the repairs would be made with both the managing agent and then the contractors. Nor for the work he had to turn down to be available for either management or the days work was done, because he didn't trust them to do a competent job unsupervised--given the track record, would you?

The point of this tale is two-fold:

1. Not only to give a glimpse into the not-uncommon pressures under which regulated tenants are forced to live, but to underscore something my boyfriend told me. Your home, he said, is supposed to be your safe place away from the enormous stresses already placed on our day-to-day lives as New Yorkers. To instead have this respite be the source of them--for eight long months--was almost too much for him to bear. 

One can only imagine what the physical state or mindset must be of tenants who face seriously dangerous conditions like toxic mold or no heat in winter everyday.

Whatever your view of rent regulations may be, we're still talking about tenants who are contractually obligated to pay rent in return for a safe place to live. NY State's warrant of habitability is supposed to guarantee a certain standard of just that--habitability. 

However, DHCR--which oversees most regulated-related issues including MCIs--and the city's housing agency, HPD, give landlords enormous latitude and flexibility to circumvent these commitments. There are also countless existing loopholes to facilitate this kind of activity.

Both agencies are notorious for looking the other way--or worse--time and time again when tenants are living in sub par conditions. As recounted previously on Ethics Ain't Pretty, HPD can barely recognize what might be considered harassment, even though it's reached epic proportions. 

2. The other is to remind readers the state's rent laws are set to expire mid-June. Extending the current laws alone will not suffice in helping tenants. An important tenet of what activists are advocating is to reform the MCI system--not only in what can be considered an MCI, but in the way tenants pay for these "improvements" in perpetuity, long after a landlord has recouped the initial investment (because after all, it IS an investment to keep your property in working order.) 

Even though DHCR initially granted a $200 per month increase, the agency later modified the ruling to about $60. However, despite the modification, that $200 still applies to the base rent and all future increases will be calculated with that amount as the starting point. All part of the game...

Every NYC regulated tenant--and anyone who cares about fairness and keeping the city remotely diverse, whether economically or racially--must convey this message to their state legislators and the governor

TakeBackNYC, a new coalition of small business owners, residents and community organizations will be hosting a forum on Thursday, June 4th, 2015 @ 7pm at St. Joseph’s High School, 80 Willoughby Street. 

As was the case with a March forum, the goal is to allow different stakeholders to learn about and bring awareness to the problem, and its root cause: exorbitant rents and a lack of rights for commercial tenants. I've recounted ad nauseum on this blog about the situation and how political it is, mainly because it involves REBNY and big real estate--who want to maintain their unfettered ability to make the largest profits as possible, facilitated by our city's government.

They'll also discuss the different proposals currently under consideration in the City Council. That there are even multiple "solutions" and now acknowledgement of an actual crises of mass closings is in itself a minor victory for the small business community. Among them is the 'Small Business Jobs Survival Act,' which is the solution most supported by real small business owners and activists. 

There's also a #SAVENYC event scheduled for Saturday, June 6, featuring The Rocksteady 7. Doors open @8pm, Hank's Saloon, 46 Third Avenue at Atlantic, Brooklyn, NY. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

What's missing from #OneNYC? Why losing NYC character is important, RGB increases, #SAVENYC event tomorrow....

Since my last post, here are a few more businesses that I saw on Seinfeld re-runs which have also vanished: United Artists movie theater in Times Square, 50th Street Guild movie theater, Putamayo, Chock Full o'Nuts coffee shops...
And speaking of businesses, it's hugely curious the de Blasio administration's new #OneNYC (his version of Mayor Bloomberg's sustainability plan) includes a purported goal of lifting people out of poverty, while simultaneously appearing to ignore one of the most sure-fire measures that has accomplished this. Small businesses have traditionally been considered a major pathway for low-income earners to achieve social mobility. 

In fact, small businesses in general are often the only employers of the least desirable, like people with little education or with a criminal record, because they take chances, including in hiring. Just starting a small businesses implies you're a chance-taker, as the odds are overwhelmingly against you at the outset. And, you can be sure big corporations don't take similar hiring risks, and government hiring usually involves rules, regulations and certain minimum requirements.

Yet, there is not a single reference to saving an existing business or to job retention in #OneNYC, or anywhere else in the administration's repertoire, for that matter.

Depending upon whom you ask, immigrants own either almost 50 percent of all NYC small businesses according to the city's small business agency, or more than 80 percent, small biz advocates like the Small Business Congress (SBC) estimate.

Regardless, why would the mayor's plan ignore existing businesses? You can talk about creating jobs, workforce development and better job training up the wazoo, but why wouldn't you do anything to protect those that already exist? 

This heartfelt editorial written by an immigrant small business owner goes to the crux of what's wrong with the city's two decades of ignoring the needs of our mom and pop stores--a policy still in place and seemingly not in any danger of imminent change.

#OneNYC's biggest "initiative" to directly help the poor is raising the minimum wage, an admirable and necessary goal. However, it's a somewhat simplistic and one-sided solution that could ultimately backfire, if it alone is enacted.

To put this into perspective, understand NYC small businesses contend both with exorbitant rents IN ADDITION to often paying a landlord's passed-on property taxes. Throw in a living wage requirement, or anything that could lower revenues for many mom and pops, and that could very well be the tipping point. It's just too much pressure--something inevitably has to give. We could potentially see widespread closures and massive amounts of job layoffs.

Now, before you think I'm adopting some reactionary position suggesting a living wage is less important than keeping small businesses open, that misses the critical point. It's not an either or question---we should be able to have both.

The key reasons the city's mom and pops operate within such a hostile climate are twofold:
1-The unfettered speculative real estate market--rising rent is a major cause of prices increasing, but wages are stagnating simultaneously, and every lease renewal puts more pressure on wages. Every rent increase essentially takes away any flexibility a small business owner may have had and that covers how much workers are paid above minimum wage. Steve Null from the SBC said, "There's a jobs AND wages crisis, and its connected. [Real estate] speculation and profiteering is causing inflation." 

2-The top-down economic policy started under Mayor Giuliani, but expanded as if on steroids under Bloomberg; As Null explained, instead of the city asking small biz owners 'How can we help you pay more [to your workers]?,' it ignores the environment under which they operate, permitting speculators to keep making bigger profits. "You can have better wages or higher landlord profits, but not both. You have to make an economic priority," Null said.

Let's not kid ourselves--we all know the main reasons small business after small business close in NYC--especially these days--are astronomical rent increases or a tenant being denied a new lease.

To help paint the picture, the SBC described some of the most common results when a commercial lease expires:

  • It's a death sentence for many long-established businesses, arts and cultural institutions, and for thousands of jobs;
  • It perpetuates sky-high rents, the changing character of city neighborhoods and loss of an energy and spirit to that community that can't be replaced;
  • The loss of opportunity for social mobility and critical first job experience for lower income families;
  • Countless empty storefronts on main street, with some spaces warehoused for years to maintain artificially high rents.

The mayor can change this immediately if he so chooses. After all, as previously written in EAP, Council Member Bill de Blasio was once a sponsor of the 'Small Business Jobs Survival Act' (SBJSA), which he called a means to fighting economic injustice. 

The SBJSA is intended to equalize the one-sided relationship between commercial tenants and landlords by bestowing tenants with rights: equal rights to negotiate and mediation, to a lease renewal, and to a lease that would cover a decent time span.

And this bill applies not only to retail tenants, but also cultural/arts organizations and professional offices--as opposed to at least one other proposal currently floating around. Unfortunately, these desperately needed rights seem to have disappeared from the mayor's brain.

It shouldn't be surprising given the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, who recently told a radio interviewer in a stunning example of cluelessness, "New Yorkers have a tendency to over-romanticize the city's past...to rewrite history. Change is hard but change can also be great." 

How can someone with such authority and responsibility be so incredibly wrong? Then again, given her chosen and limited frame of reference--predominantly Goldman Sach's Urban Investment Group and Giuliani's HPD--I guess it's not that shocking.

Jeremiah Moss, creator of the Vanishing-NY blog and the #SAVENYC campaign, articulately explained why the DM is so deluded, in a segment I produced for WBAI radio's 'The Morning Show' on April 16:

I hear this argument a lot, that it's just all about nostalgia, and it's NOT all about nostalgia. It's not about the past really, it's about the present and a very real problem in the present of NYC losing its unique character. So, while many of the places we're losing are older--older places i think are like elderly people, the most vulnerable in this society--it's really about preserving and protecting what makes New York, New York. 

And that's not a nostalgic endeavor, that's about wanting to have a place with character, and we know NY is losing its character. We're hearing about it now everyday. We hear about it from celebrities. We hear about it from tourists. We hear about it from writers. It shows up in film... on Saturday Night Live. This is clearly something that most people agree upon...It's [the city] not there anymore, and it's disappearing faster and faster everyday.

Like clockwork, the Rent Guideline Board's (RGB) just-released preliminary increase numbers for stabilized lease renewals simply underscore how utterly meaningless the administration has been about affordability--and sadly, how beholden it is to the real estate industry. 

Last year's shenanigans were bad enough. But in a year where owners costs have demonstrably dropped, it seems as though our progressive mayor--with his total control of RGB appointments and the cover the RGB's own data offered--if he had wanted a freeze or negligent increases, the mayor could have easily gotten them.

Instead, we got 0-2 percent increases for one-year lease renewals and 0.5-3.5 percent for two. One tenant activist wrote: BDB/Alicia Glen Screw Tenants Again.  
This year the argument for a rent freeze, or even a decrease, and the accompanying data, are even stronger. While the freeze is still in play, the upper boundaries are even higher than last year. And for a two-year lease, the lower number.... is almost a full percentage point higher than last year's 2.75 percent. With the decrease in landlord expenses, especially fuel, a 0.5 percent increase is obscene. These ranges were set with the full approval of Mayor de Blasio. (Glen is the DM to whom I referred earlier.)

It should be noted the RGB's own 2015 Price Index of Operating Costs for rent-stabilized apartment buildings increased by a mere 0.5 percent. The federal government's 2015 cost of living adjustment (in this case, increase) was 1.7 percent.

How on earth are these ranges justified, especially for two-year renewals? This administration was welcomed by many who expected a deliverance after so many years of exclusively pro-landlord disproportionate increases. Disappointment shouldn't be the only response. People should be irate and inundating their Council Member, Speaker and Mayor with calls and emails. They should be marching on those offices. This cannot and should not be accepted as a fait accompli.
Don't forget #SAVENYC's rally/concert at Arlene's Grocery, in what remains of Manhattan's LES tomorrow, Saturday, May 2 @10pm. Admission is $5, with appearance by the very fabulous and entertaining NYC stalwart, performance artist Penny Arcade, and original NYC punk and front man of the Dictators-NYC (formerly the Dictators), Handsome Dick Manitoba. 

Having seen both perform several times, get ready for lots of fun. Because both are veterans of the city's one time thriving underground/alternative scene, prepare to also be schooled in why NYC's disappearing character is so damned important.
Update and Correction: The RGB's 2-year lease renewal range is 0.5-3.5 percent, not 3.5-5 percent. Additional information has also been added.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A TALE pt. 2; SBJSA; EV Explosion, RGB......

2nd UPDATE: There are reports out of the immediate area affected by the gas explosion that the local businesses are really hurting. From a friend on 6th Street: As for local businesses, things are bad because we haven't had access to them, everything has been blocked off. Tuesdays was the first day I could get to the supermarket, and my laundry place, which is on 7th Street, still has police barricades and cops (you have to tell them where you are going.) Gem Spa, which I have been to twice this week, is only accessible from St. Marks side, the block is still all barricaded except as of yesterday, and the east side of street now has area where pedestrians can walk.... Had sweet conversations with supermarket with supermarket and laundry people, they were happy to see me (and everyone.) 


UPDATE: Check out this blog and video about the area's history of disasters and the familiar conjecture why it has been allowed to go on.

The latest building explosion occurred one block north of my own. My sincerest sympathies to the tenants of those buildings whose lives are now in shambles. 

Construction--both legal and illegal--have placed the neighborhood under siege for years. The plumbing and gas work the city had stopped just a short time before the explosion will probably result in some kind of criminal charges against the contractor or subcontractor. However, it is the landlord who should most be held most accountable. Sadly, the likelihood of this is not great, based on history. Business as usual for NYC real estate......

It should be be noted that since Giuliani instituted self-certification--12 whole weeks of waiting otherwise!--that wild west development mentality to which i alluded last post is the norm, not the exception. We don't know if the plethora of construction crews and contractors who work across the boroughs are licensed and/or union--the only measures that ensure codes and safety regulations are strictly followed--and even then, it's still no guarantee

In other words, the city has enabled circumvention of rules to accelerate construction, too often at the expense of workers and residents alike. When there is malfeasance, the city has usually slapped the culprit's wrist, with little follow up. Remember how many offenses it took for architect Robert Scarano to lose his license? 

The Building's Department has been badly-run and underfunded for many years now, notoriously one of the city's two worst agencies, and the latest scandal is further evidence of this. An article quoted DOI Commissioner Mark Peters, who said "a leading reason bribery recurs is that inspectors have the unilateral power to quickly stop projects or let them resume--as they should, he said, in case of a safety hazard. But the combination of modest wages and the authority to make decisions worth millions of dollars to builders is a recipe for graft." It should be noted there is so far no evidence of bribery in the case of the East Village explosion.

One would think tightening-up city oversight of these potentially dangerous situations--whether it's a crane toppling over, ill-equipped private contractors working on volatile gas lines, or architects designing buildings that exceed site zoning--would finally become a priority, even before this latest incident. Alas, as I mention later in this post, the current administration (at least so far) seems to feel building at any cost should remain the priority.

Meanwhile, we should also be mourning the loss of a beautiful building, a wonderful example of early 20th-century architecture--a dying breed--probably because of greed. Has NYU already approached the owner about buying the land to construct yet another shoe-box looking over sized dormitory, as they can get extra bulk using a community facility bonus?
In my most recent post of Ethics Ain't Pretty, I wrote about the plight of the city's small businesses, and the 'Small Business Jobs Survival Act.' The matter was really underscored lately as I found myself watching Seinfeld re-runs, circa 1994-96. Every single local store they showed (or used) as an exterior location no longer exists: the Regency and Metro movie theatres, Antique Boutique, Shakespeare &Company and Brentano's book stores, Love's discount drugs, the Improv, and a small Manhattan antique/junk store formerly located on 2nd Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets. Frankly, it became sort of a morbid game for me.

I'm grateful the #SAVENYC campaign has garnered some traction, and I'm encouraged the organizers are beginning to realize momentum doesn't necessarily lead to action. Generally speaking, we'll all be waiting a long time by relying simply on the hope elected officials will do the right thing. It's still up to average citizens to back up that momentum using tools like: 
-Phone calls and letters to your council member, council speaker and mayor; 
-Street petition drives, as well as online: Save Our Jobs: Support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (File #: Int 0402-2014), and make sure the petitions get to the area's electeds as well as an individual landlord;
-Flyer distributions;
-Holding public events like the recent Little Italy action, more forums, and press conferences where you essentially shame council members (especially those of immigrant origin) who don't support the bill, and thank those who do--utilize the myriad of community media vehicles, especially in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

Before I was a journalist, in my previous life I worked on political campaigns. It is critical to understand success will only come from the grassroots upwards, especially because the opposition is well-funded (the real estate industry), intractable (the bureaucracy), and either compromised or lacking in morale courage or political will (too many of our elected officials.)

YOU MUST BE VISIBLE. This will be a street battle. It will only be won block by block, district by district, and borough by borough. 
Now, back to the main point of this entry, which as you will see, is extremely prescient. I started having regular and very specific nightmares in the mid-late 1990's that tortured me--mostly of my neighborhood--where every single building had been torn down and replaced by giant interchangeable shoe-box luxury towers. Not a single store remained from when I first moved in (or earlier), not a silhouette was familiar. 

My own building kept morphing into different shapes, but more importantly, I usually could not gain access. Sometimes the front door was moved; other times it simply didn't exist. The dinky elevator's door rarely opened, and if it did, would never stop at my floor. 

The nightmares weren't reserved for just my neighborhood and in fact, were amply repeated throughout the city. Every institution that helped to make NYC so unique--the rep movie theaters, used book, record and clothing stores, decent clubs, affordable (often ethnic) restaurants, historic markets and bakeries--any place that once offered something different from the norm all disappeared. The small businesses owned and run by people who worked 15 hour days, often seven days a week--people who were my friends and neighbors, vanished. (That one played repeatedly for a time when a three-generation Palestinian family who ran my local pet store was forced to close after 18 years because they were denied a new lease, no matter what the terms.)

Sometimes, they were more sinister: large institutions (usually academic or medical) literally gobbled up everything within sight. Giant development projects forced parades of the displaced to shuffle across various avenues, desperately in search of a safe and affordable place to resettle, with the ranks of the homeless swelling to never before seen heights. There were variations on these themes, but you get the drift.

Then, a little more than a year ago, I had this lovely dream where the darkness engulfing the city was replaced by light. As cliched as it may sound, for a while there, my dreams were optimistic and hopeful, even when they had nothing to do in substance with the city in which I grew up. (The same city where, after two years of college in DC, I transferred to a school here. I never missed my family, just my city.)

After a few months, the lightness began to dissipate. Slowly, some of the old nightmares returned. Nowadays, I have them regularly, interspersed with an entire set of new ones. On too many fronts, it's starting to feel like there was never an election, a new mayor or new administrationThat old feeling of deja vu is now coming on strongly.

There's the secret deal City Hall reached to sell certain NYCHA apartments--a variation of an idea that first originated with the Bloomberg regime. And despite his outspokenness against the Bloomberg plan to sell NYCHA land, it was just reported the de Blasio administration plans to do exactly that.

There is great irony in the fact the deal was made with not only very well-connected firms regardless of who has been mayor, but ones with dubious reputations for less-than-stellar work, L&M Development Partners/BFC Partners (who work together quite a bit in the field of affordable housing). Guess who one of L&M's lending partners is--Goldman Sach's Urban Investment Group, which our current deputy mayor for housing and economic development used to run. L&M also has a questionable track-record regarding subcontractors, fair wages and workers, hiring one even after the firm's owners "plead guilty to criminal charges of tax evasion and paying workers off the books."

So, the city is looking to improve living conditions for the poorest from companies commonly known not only to build shoddily, but who are also less than willing to correct their mistakes. BFC even had the chutzpah to unsuccessfully sue homeowners to shut them up for having the nerve to complain to their elected officials, given that the homes were subsidized with public money.

And, BFC first rose to prominence in the 1990's during the Giuliani administration for tearing down community gardens. Hmmm--isn't that interesting? That same aforementioned deputy mayor was a senior official in Giuliani's HPD, the point agency involved in selling off the gardens. I personally don't believe in coincidences when it comes to real estate in New York.

The development "deals" negotiated thus far are hardly a vast improvement in terms of the actual number of affordable units created. There's also the little matter of how quickly the city jumped to negotiate with a developer/landlord who has a history of harassing rent-stabilized tenants in an effort to vacate regulated units--precisely the kind of behavior about which Mayor de Blasio has been outspoken against. 

And, the perpetual question, "Affordable for whom?" appears to be answered in a shockingly similar fashion as when it was asked of the Bloomberg administration. (A-not for the people who need it most. No matter how you spin it, people or families earning $100,000 a year or more simply don't need the same kind of assistance. Whether they choose to send their children to exorbitantly priced private schools should not be a public policy quandary for the rest of us, especially today with options like school choice.)

During the mayor's race, candidate de Blasio repeatedly expressed his belief the city just hadn't benefited appropriately for such developer incentive programs to continue, particularly regarding financial bonuses to build affordable housing. However, Mayor de Blasio's recent 'State of the City' address and subsequent machinations have made it clear 421a with perhaps some tinkering, and its cousin, IZ, are both under serious consideration.  

Many don't realize how similar IZ is to something like 421a. In the end, they both predominantly lead to large towers, commercial and tenant displacement, segregation, and too few many actually affordable units. All the while, the money keeps rolling in for developers--why else would REBNY and its media shills keep maintaining that we need these incentives because otherwise no affordable housing would be built.

It's been widely reported the city spends in excess of one billion dollars per year on 421a alone, but what about the ancillary costs? As David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society wrote, that expenditure exceeds "the entire budget of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which enforces the housing code, supports the development of new housing and distributes 33,000 federal Section 8 vouchers." Jones also noted that amount could pay for about 100,000 new rent vouchers. 

There's the concomitant costs when residential tenants are priced out so they either have to move--sometimes away from the city--or worse, become homeless. The city already pays about $3000 per month per homeless family for the privilege of being crammed into a dismal, tiny slum hotel. Yes, this is an area where the mayor and his highly qualified HRA commissioner are committed to improving conditions, but it will take time to undo so many years of willful neglect, disregard and callousness.

There is also a loss to the tax base when local businesses--usually long established--are forced out. It's been well proven local businesses contribute more to the local economy than franchises or chain stores do. And, what about the associated job loss, particularly damaging to immigrant and other vulnerable populations?

Mayor de Blasio's latest budget allots for more legal services in gentrifying areas, ie, those locations his administration will be singling out for the bulk of development and added density. But that extra money won't help tenants outside of those neighborhoods. And, it does little to correct HPD itself, where the root of so many problems originate.

Furthermore, few seem to take into account the impact of more towers and more people on the city's decrepit infrastructure. Our mass transit system is already over capacity, while both the city and state keep reducing their portion of funding. The cost of much delayed repairs to city bridges has become astronomical.

In many areas, there are insufficient numbers of public schools and/or seats in those schools. The energy power grid continues to age and deteriorate, with ruptures and 14 recent manhole cover explosions in Brooklyn alone. This  point now seems particularly salient.

We face increasing numbers of water main breaks, subway and street floodings, and the fairly recent phenomenon of sewage back-ups over the last two decades. It's not a coincidence these events have occurred at the same time of unbridled development with little thought to overall planning.

Granted, issues like climate change aren't something the mayor alone can solve, but he can certainly make sure the city plans more efficiently and effectively. Yet, the department of City Planning is something of a misnomer because it implies the chair, commissioners and staff take a macro-view on how and what shapes NYC. 

In reality, they lurch from mega-development project to mega project, zonings (sometimes up and sometimes down), and now rezonings, if Mayor de Blasio has his way. According to Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, these rezonings would mostly result in buildings 20-30 percent higher, even in contextual zoning districts. 

In areas where affordable housing has been included within these districts, the results have been mixed--not the influx of affordable units the city is promising will manifest. And this would be completely separate from any incentive or bonus programs like 421a, IZ, low income housing loans, etc., so developers can still get these breaks as well. 

Finally, the aesthetic argument the city is promulgating is simply ludicrous and ironic--that NY would be oh-so-much more livable without the boxiness of contextual zoning---BY ALLOWING TALLER BUILDINGS EVERYWHERE, to block out what little sun we have remaining to us. Because, that strategy has worked so well in the past....

Berman wrote in a recent op ed, "Fewer restrictions on height, allowing grander floor-to-ceiling heights and apartments with more commanding views, would fetch developers even higher prices. But it certainly would not make these new apartments more affordable. And neighborhoods would pay the price with less light, air and sky, and a loss of the character and scale they fought so hard to maintain... The main beneficiaries of these aspects of the 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' plan appear to be real estate interests, not those who care about quality design or affordable housing. It's likely no coincidence that these proposed changes are ones that deep-pocketed developers have sought for years. Now, wrapped in claims about quality and affordability, they finally have a chance to get them." Enough said.

Not widely commented on at the time, the mayor's affordable housing plan from last year actually calls for accelerating the land use and environmental review processes, and making it easier for developers to build. Often, those reviews are the only lines of defense for a neighborhood to fight against the vast resources and lawyers of a developer, and a government more interested in enabling and enriching them than ensuring a habitable city. Despite its name, the city's new zoning plan underscores the real priority.

Pundits and journalists alike are missing the broader picture: it's not just examining how a specific program works--or doesn't, as is really the case. We can continue to examine 421a or IZ or any some such developer incentive scheme, or even the zoning plan, individually. But, we're not connecting the dots, to the detriment of the people who call this city home.
As spring begins, so does the annual farce over lease renewals at the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). The Rent Stabilization Association has already begun its radio campaign, first with general anti-rent regulations ads. Soon, we'll be subjected to the woe-is-me tales narrated by (allegedly) small landlords, many of whom live in their own buildings. Too bad so many regulated buildings are actually owned by large companies...

Additionally, there's already a bad precedent--where last year's vociferous pledges for a rent freeze failed to materialize thanks to interference from Mayor de Blasio's own deputy mayor for housing and economic development. Frankly, I'm frightened to see what's in store for stabilized tenants this year. There's been no similar promises so far, despite the massive decline in oil costs. Many people don't realize the board has never not voted for increases in its history. 

And there was this odd (and a little creepy) video, which had limited distribution. Note to the mayor's communications team: justing saying it in a bunch of different languages doesn't make it so. (I hope the city didn't spend a lot of money in its production!)

Now comes the news the mayor appointed a Forest City Ratner executive as an owner representative to the RGB. Ratner, of course, is best known for the Atlantic Yards boondoggle, which helped to destroy viable Brooklyn communities. Where the eventual (if ever actual) "affordable housing" will be unaffordable to a majority of New Yorkers who most need it, despite millions in tax abatements. 

Ratner cannot alone be blamed for this outcome--that would be like blaming a rat for eating garbage. Developers take advantage of whatever they can to make the greatest profits possible--it's what they do. That's where government is obligated to intervene, and where both the city and state have failed miserably.

What on earth can this person actually know about living in a rent-regulated apartment, an aging housing stock, and underfunded and unresponsive government agencies who regularly stand aside while landlords harass tenants, make unnecessary improvements for the reward of increased rent (often for things they should be doing in the first place) with the goal of destabilization. Last year's appointment as owner representative has a similarly dubious background.

No, things are not boding well for the city's roughly one million stabilized apartments. And we haven't even gotten to June...