Monday, October 23, 2017

Help Save WBAI Radio; NYCLPC Sued & More NYC Real Estate Foibles

As many of you know, I work in part as the senior producer at WBAI radio's The Morning Show, the only station-sponsored daily public affairs program. I came to the station--the oldest and largest independent progressive station in the NY area--after years of working in print. However, my background and greater passion has always been in broadcast and frankly, I'm a really good producer--much better than I am a writer. 

Unfortunately for me, my timing in broadcast was terrible, both in terms of the national economy dating back to the recessions of the 1990s; the deleterious post-OJ effect on serious and substantive public affairs discourse; and frankly, a curious phenomenon that developed during that time period where it became shockingly clear that smart women with opinions (that could be backed up) who were over 30 were not exactly welcome within the ranks of many news outlets.

WBAI and the host of The Morning Show, Michael G. Haskins, have been true blessings for me on multiple levels (though not financial.) I implore you to help us in the fight to save WBAI. The owners of the Empire State Building are essentially extorting the station, yet they just prevailed in court.

Please read this note from WBAI volunteer Marilyn Vogt-Downey:

The Empire State Realty Trust--the owners of the Empire State Building where WBAI's transmitter is located--has pushed WBAI Radio into a crisis. The crisis is real! And we need your help to turn this crisis around.

We need your time, your energy and, especially, your skills... we need YOU to be part of a cadre of volunteers to help build our off-air multi-million dollar fundraising campaign. 


YES we can do it together... 


We need grant writers, event planners, social media & computer technology experts, phone banking volunteers, and particularly those experienced with obtaining large donor contributions... Are you an experienced fundraiser??? We need you now!!!


Historically WBAI listeners have shown great heart and courage in the face of political adversity. Now it's urgent that we bring our efforts together on behalf of WBAI, our irreplaceable station.


Specify your area of expertise and experience and let us know how you can help. 
Again, please call 347-647-9224 or email mjvogtdowney@gmail.com


Together we will win!


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In my capacity as producer at WBAI, I've had the opportunity to create substantive segments about issues I believe are either ignored by the mainstream press or not fully examined. Here are some important interviews on which I worked before the recent court decision:

A Community organization's lawsuit vs the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) 
for the 'capricious' manner in which it makes important landmarking decisions, with no standard set of regulatory guidelines. Because of the arbitrary nature, and absent standards, it's impossible not to speculate about what factors are considered like the administration's close ties to developers. Certainly, the fact that the LPC chair has no landmarking or preservation experience is more than troubling. Several other community groups have filed suit against LPC for an array of reasons, and this case has potential citywide implications;
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Update on the controversial (and wildly unpopular) rezoning of Jerome Avenue in the Bronx;

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The travesties occurring in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section caused in part by a corrupt community board and a mayoral administration hell bent on turning the city over to private developers as in the case of the Bedford Armory;
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I'm also particularly pleased with the following two segments focusing on national issues:

1) What the Trump administration is trying to do to working Americans, in terms of overtime regulations and the pay gap;

2) A fine tribute to and discussion of the late LGBT pioneer Edie Windsor and her legacy  between the two co-hosts of GAYUSA, the longest running LGBT news and information show which has aired since the mid-1980s. Both hosts knew Windsor well and considered her their friend.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Is BDB's Transportation Policy Code for Enriching Real Estate Industry?

In what world does it make sense that the city of NY would spend $2.5 BILLION in taxpayer money on a limited trolley system which: 
a) is considered low on a list of under-served areas;
b) happens to run along the very same waterfront route in Brooklyn and Queens where many of the mayor's developer friends own property and/or have developments proposed? 

Or, where another city transportation 'priority' to expand ferry services has a price tag at minimum of $325M, not including operating and infrastructure upgrade costs. A passenger will be charged the same as a ride on a city bus or subway (currently $2.75,) though the actual cost is estimated somewhere around $6.50. One Slate journalist wrote, "Once the city makes its $55M capital investment in docks, boats, (etc.)...the most successful route will require an operating subsidy per passenger almost twice the cost of a local bus and about six times that of a subway."


But, what's especially worrisome about the ferry expansion is the small projected ridership compared with those on the buses and subways, for whom the service is singularly designed to cater, and why. 

In describing the ferry scheme, the Slate piece includes, "All public transit is subsidized, of course. But what makes this a particularly inappropriate use of city transportation dollars is the clientele. Aside from the aforementioned Rockaways stop and a politically expedient stop at Soundview in the Bronx, the ferries will serve expensive or gentrified areas." He continues [Editor's emphasis], "The best reason to spend $30M a year running boats, however, isn't to get people from place to place, but to encourage new construction."

Mind you, the contract wasn't even awarded to a local company.

And, it should be mentioned with both the trolley and ferries, free transfers to MTA buses and subway would be unavailable. As a native who grew up in the 1970s and 80's, I remember all-to-well what it was like not being able to afford two transit fares, bus-to-subway or vice versa---or having to allot more travel time hours so that I could take buses and transfer among two for free. I believe they call that lost productivity.


So, in what or whose world? Why, in faux-progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio's world, that's where. That's a world where transportation policy decisions are actually subterfuge for enriching the giant real estate industry that really runs NYC. (And this world view isn't exclusive to the mayor, or even to one elected official......)


Yet, the same mayor--the man with aspirations (or delusions, your choice)--to be a national leader in the left wing 'resistance' movement calls the #FairFares campaign to provide subsidies for poor NYers who are being priced out of mass transit after six hikes in roughly a decade a "noble" gesture but one the city can ill afford. And, because the price structure encourages paying for a bulk package with discounts, a single ride is more expensive to the very people who can least afford it.

These subsidies are estimated to cost around $200M. According to the Riders Alliance, almost one million residents could be eligible. By the way, the same system already offers subsidies to seniors, the disabled and school children. And though not a classic subsidy, middle-class residents qualify for pre-tax benefits on the total cost of their Metrocards.


The Straphangers Campaign testified before the City Council earlier this year about #FairFares: "More than one third of all low-income, working-age New Yorkers have reported that the rising transit fares have prevented them from either seeking or accepting employment further from where they live..... Transit inaccessibility further perpetuates the cycle of poverty by limiting educational and employment opportunities... and rising costs make it exceedingly difficult for these individuals to live in NYC or even attempt to complete a college degree."


Now, I realize my opinion on this next point differs with many transit advocates, but I have difficulty accepting that public funds may be potentially necessary to expand a "public/private" bike-riding service or that this should take precedence over #FairFares. 

It's very easy to blame Governor Cuomo for the dismal state of our mass transit system---and that blame would not be misdirected. However, many people don't realize how culpable NYC also is in this situation---the decline and deterioration en mass of the transit system's infrastructure after decades of combined underfunding.

The NYC Independent Budget Office (IBO) issued a report in 2008 about the money the city pays to NYC Transit, the subsidiary running the subways and most bus lines: "
The city makes an annual grant to NYC Transit under section 18(b) of the state's transportation law.  The city's annual grant matches a state appropriation, and has remained at about $159M since the mid-1990's." Doug Turetsky, communications director at IBO confirmed in an email funding for "18(b) hasn't changed since Giuliani." 

Furthermore, according to a Daily News editorial, the city's share for half-priced fares for seniors and people with disabilities have remained flat since 1978, now covering less than 10% of costs. 

IBO issued another report in 2015 estimating what the city would be paying annually if aid had kept up with the rate of inflation: "If the city had decided to keep its contribution at the 1982-1986 level in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, the contribution would have reached $363M in 2014, and provide more than $1.8B for the proposed 2015-2019 capital plan."

This very week, Newsday ran an editorial in which it chastised the city for not contributing its 'fare share,' something mayoral candidate Sal Albanese has been arguing for years. 

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Editor's Note: I realize I haven't been very active with the EAP blog in months now. This was in part due to the fact I was busy working on an article which meant a great deal to me. However, what was supposed to be about three weeks of work turned into three months. More significantly, the article transformed into something very different. (Worse still, though, was a request to provide information I knew didn't exist, at least in their terms---though I did spend an extra two days interviewing every industry analyst I could, just in case.) After about 90% of the article was edited--a point to which I really didn't believe we'd ever get--it was killed. It broke my heart, and left me extremely gun-shy to write. 

As always, I've continued working on WBAI's daily public affairs program, The Morning Show, now as senior producer. Below are several segments dealing with, what else? Development, gentrification and/or land use in our rapidly changing city.


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Did the de Blasio administration knowingly violate zoning laws in order to allow the construction of four mega-towers along the Chinatown/LES waterfront?

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Community gardens are at-risk more now than ever since the days of the Giuliani administration, when the city was practically giving gardens away to developers. What's the common denominator between these two time periods and is it mere coincidence? Hint: Which high-ranking BDB official currently responsible for essentially all land-use policy was once a deputy commissioner at Rudy's HPD--the lead agency tasked with identifying city-owned lots for development (vacant or otherwise, it doesn't seem to matter in their criteria)?

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A pro-active group of advocates in Queens is taking on gentrification and the BDB pro-development policies;

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"Who Owns the Sun?" a critical discussion by NYers for a Human Scale City and a really apt question for all of us today.

Monday, February 13, 2017

421a & IZ: It's All About the Impact, Stupid! Pt. 2

This is Part 2 of my posts dealing with little-discussed after affects of 'affordable housing" policies utilized in New York City; here's the link for Part 1.
*****

It's incredibly telling that our esteemed mayor, Bill de Blasio, had nothing but good things to say about Donald Trump's son-in-law going to DC to work in the White House. As Ethics Ain't Pretty readers already know, Jared Kushner has been building up his slumlord reputation for some time now--no doubt learning at the knees of a master sleazebag who doesn't possess an ethical bone in his entire body.

The facts about Kushner, and the way he conducts business, are not in dispute. So far, the mayor has talked to the press about his respect for Kushner, "that he finds him to be a reasonable person" and that Kushner is "someone who really cares about New York City." That last quote is the most troubling.


It's already been widely reported how Kushner's rent-regulated tenant feel about both their landlord and the mayor's characterizations of this man. 


De Blasio has been accused of being a carbon copy of Bloomberg, a Bloomberg redux when it comes to zoning and land use policies. I doubt anyone expected the similarities would expand to include a similar kind of cluelessness and tone-deafness--especially from a self-identified progressive. Then again, we know how utterly meaningless that word is now when it comes to the all mighty power of the real industry...
*****


Journalist and activist Josmar Trujillo and El Barrio Unite organizer Roger Hernandez Jr. give an update on community opposition to de Blasio's East Harlem rezoning. A November meeting/presentation sponsored by the city's Department of City Planning (DCP) didn't work out exactly as the city expected. "Instead, they got a very contentious reception from residents," Trujillo said, where the "underlying message [was/is] a big fat 'no' from El Barrio to the city and to the larger plans of the mayor to ultimately gentrify and displace an untold number of residents."


Both describe the major changes that have taken place since Mayor Bloomberg's 2003 rezoning, which permitted 10-12 story buildings in a community of low-rise 5-6 story tenements--and how it's already affected the neighborhood and its culture. That includes a major drop in the population with the number of Hispanics down 9%, and African-Americans dropping 11%, meaning 20% already displaced just in a little more than a decade.  The initial rezoning brought in 17K units, mostly inhabited by higher-income earners, and skewed the area median income (AMI.)


There is tremendous concern over the consequences of de Blasio's 30-story towers--predominantly unaffordable to area residents--based on what has already transpired since the previous, more modest rezoning.


They also discuss the astroturf group(s) created by NY City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark Viverito, who also represents the area. These are organizations--some of whom are legitimate, but some are not--created to give the appearance of community support when in reality "less than 1%... was involved in crafting the Speaker's alternate plan," which is very similar to the city's with a few more concessions. "It allows for and takes as inevitable a massive rezoning that will change the neighborhood and ultimately displace people," Trujillo explains.


Co-opting non-profits isn't a new phenomenon but it was perfected by former Speaker Christine Quinn to give cover on giveaway after giveaway to the city's real estate industry.


Prior to the Speaker's "community alternative," East Harlem residents created their own plan over the course of a year. The city has ignored them.


Hernandez tells how when the Speaker's so-called alternate plan was being crafted, groups like his were excluded, as were many organizations with legitimate grass-roots credentials.  That appeared especially the case for those who didn't receive funding from a politician and/or were already outspoken about what's been going on in East Harlem, he observed.

*****

Government affairs consultant and longtime activist, Phil DePaolo, talks about the book, Rezoned: Race, Displacement, and Zoning in NYC
which examines the role zoning has played during the administration of de Blasio and Bloomberg, "because of the disproportionate effect ...on communities of color in NYC." 


Their research found "affordable" housing (AH) created through programs like IZ "are really a Trojan horse designed to convince communities to accept zoning that creates up to 80% market rate housing and that's what causes displacement of longtime residents and businesses," DePaolo explains. IZ can cause significant losses in affordable units because once there's a luxury upzoning, "the surrounding areas become absorbed." 


Not unlike in the previous segment about East Harlem, DePaolo details his own similar experience with non-profits who have been bought by elected officials, including those dependent on "the Speaker's trough."


These groups are supposed to be representative of the community as a whole "but we found that's not really the truth...so they come out with this plan that was based on a so-called community plan, but its very destructive because of the density promoted [with] no discussion about bringing in 70-80% luxury housing" and its impact. 


Ed: Notice the pattern here, a pattern that has repeatedly worked for big real estate and for the politicians for whom they've bought and paid. Throw in their enablers--the media, certain non-profits, even some tenant organizations--and you can clearly see why we are where we are.


In addition to the inevitable displacement, DePaolo describes how such tax abatements deleteriously effect both the tax base and the city's ability to expand the necessary infrastructure to accompany the incursion of people coming into a given neighborhood once rezoning occurs.


Authored and compiled by academics and urban planning and policy professionals, Zoned Out evolved over the course of a year because they saw a glaring lack of useful tools available for communities to effectively fight back, DePaolo said.


The book is based on a series of recent case studies like what happened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the 125th Street Harlem rezoning, good examples of what DePaolo calls DCP's "piece meal" myopia--a complaint echoed throughout NYC communities, and a reason why DCP has been accused of being a facilitating agent  for developers not a planning agency.   


Key recommendations include calling for a return to community-based planning and enforceable plans, something residents in both Chinatown/LES and East Harlem attempted to do but were summarily dismissed by the city. 

DePaolo explains according to the city's charter, community input is supposed to be considered when a rezoning is on the table--but it's not required, so neighborhood demands and concerns are routinely ignored. Furthermore, because the city tends to rely on the same company for the requisite Environmental Impact Study, their analysis tend to be somewhat generic and superficial.


The disparate impact on minority communities caused by zoning could be a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, DePaolo maintains. And it's something even former President Obama acknowledged. The outgoing-administration issued a handbook in which it describes how development is rarely uniform. Not 
spreading development more equally to include affluent areas is becoming an increasing problem because it now almost exclusively affects low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

These passages best summarize everything:

When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, any new development tends to be [disproportionately] concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods, raising market rents within neighborhoods experiencing rapid changes while failing to reduce housing cost growth region-wide.  As rents rise region-wide in response to insufficient housing supply, this displacement is exacerbated. 

Lowered region-wide barriers to new housing development would lead to more equitable distribution, allowing neighborhoods to retain character and resources as they evolve, while facilitating effective affordable housing preservation options by preventing excessively rapid change that generates displacement and dislocation.


To be sure, there are portions in this report with which I have major disagreements--there are times it seems like it was written by REBNY and its lackeys. Still, it's an important acknowledgement, one DePaolo says he's not seen before.

*****

A recent article ran in an outlet for whom I have written for more than a decade, after my initial posting about the impact of programs like 421a and IZ. 


A number of EAP readers raised the question of timing, but given the obvious amount of work that went into the aforementioned piece, there's no doubt in my mind it's purely coincidental.


Having said that, I do have some problems with the article--written by a talented and diligent journalist. For one, the comparison to other cities is like comparing apples to oranges because we have a highly successful system of rent regulations so the equations aren't equal from the outset. (Credit to the fact this was one of the few articles dealing with NYC land use I'd seen in a long while that didn't blame such regulations for all the city's affordable housing woes.)


I also have a real problem with any article focusing on the impact of the mayor's housing plans which relies on an entity that has done little but legitimize those policies (and previous similar ones)--NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. 


This would be the same Furman Center that is the once and future home of de Blasio's outgoing Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) commissioner--Vicky Been. To me, that automatically undermines any credibility it could possibly have. And by the way, I reported 2+ years ago Been wasn't working out all that well because of her lack of practical experience--that she was in way over her head.

Plus, Been's return further ties the administration to NYU--a concern for many since the beginning of de Blasio's term. Remember, the-then public advocate and future mayor supported NYU's controversial expansion plans.

Next, the fact that Been's replacement is a former NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) official who became de Blasio's commissioner of Small Business Services (SBS) agency, then left SBS to return to EDC as its CEO and president raises SO many more issues, and she's not mentioned. 


Most significantly, EDC has never ever been sympathetic to either preserving the city's long-standing small businesses or towards existing affordable housing stock.  EDC traditionally loves mega-projects which usually push out both. 

Instead, the well-connected brain trust of insulated elites (or as I like to call them, that cluster fuck of entitlement) would rather spur creation of minute amounts of vaguely affordable units, especially if it means a private developer can make a lot of money in the process. It's hardly a stretch to say there are few who work at EDC or sit on its board who understand or care about real New Yorkers and the struggle to exist in a city which no longer even pretends to want them anymore.  And it's precisely the kind of 'leaders' at entities like EDC who have created this scenario.

interviewed Maria Torres-Springer several years ago upon her SBS appointment--she seems like a lovely woman. But she had no small business experience; similarly, she has no background in affordable housing or any housing at all--a fact omitted in the article.

Granted, the two point people in de Blasio's administration tasked with "affordable" housing also have no such experience. But, one can at least make the case outgoing DCP chair, Carl Weisbrod, and DM Alicia Glen have tangential experience in real estate per se, and its financing. (Personally, I don't buy it, and there are very specific reasons why the mayor picked these two people and not anyone from the pretty generous pool of candidates in the city and state who did and do.)


But to run not one but two city agencies without any direct background in either except that amorphous government experience at EDC, well, that's something.

Look at last month's EDC press release announcing Torres-Springer's move to HPD:
MTS comes to HPD with deep experience securing affordable housing and working directly with communities on holistic neighborhood planning. As president of EDC, and before that as the Mayor's SBS commissioner, Torres-Springer has created and advanced transformational projects, including the re-imagining of Spofford, a former juvenile detention center in the Bronx as a hub for the arts and affordable housing. She has been the administration's leader in developing the Downtown Far Rockaway Neighborhood Plan, which included $90 million in neighborhood investments and affordable housing to serve both the lowest-income New Yorkers and those in the middle class. Torres-Springer will build on Been's legacy of protecting neighborhoods and developing record numbers of securely-financed affordable homes in increasingly challenging economic times.

Now, do the math: MTS became SBS commissioner in January, 2014. She returned to EDC in July, 2015. She was named HPD commissioner in January, 2017. That's about one and a half years at each, but you wouldn't know how short the time frame was based on the release! She's apparently accomplished virtual Robert Moses-level achievements, and he served in government for some 40 years. 

Next, parse the wording in the release: without trying to sound harsh, it seems to me she was little more then a gopher for the administration. Furthermore, affordable for whom,  the perennial question? Just because housing to serve "the lowest income" is mentioned, it doesn't make it so. Based on both the administration's and EDC's track records so far, I'm inclined to believe someone included this reference for lip service.

Finally, they have the chutzpah to tout Vicky Been's "legacy of protecting neighborhoods?" This from an agency who still has difficulty recognizing landlord harassment and enforcing existing laws? I'm sure the residents in all of the de Blasio targeted neighborhoods for rezoning will have a great laugh at that one, while landlords continue to systematically target any and every regulated tenant using any methods necessary. After all, the chances of getting caught and then punished are minuscule, and whatever fines landlords have to pay if they do get caught are less than the cost of doing business ie harassing tenants. As has been the case since the days of Rudy, it continues to be a win-win for landlords.