Posts by Author: Aline Reynolds

Movement to Get Public Money Out of Wall Street Comes to Wall Street

Winsome Pindergrass addresses the crowd at a June 5 rally on Wall Street. (Photo by Aline Reynolds)

Winsome Pindergrass wants a better chance at securing financing to buy a home. At a June 5 rally in front of the New York Stock Exchange, the 59-year-old Brooklyn resident talked about how three-quarters of her monthly income goes to her $2,200-a-month rent, which has nearly doubled since 2010. She’s watched her neighbors get pushed out by rising rents.

“We don’t even recognize our neighborhoods anymore,” she said. “The affordable apartments are all gone, or they are disappearing fast.”

Pindergrass was one of dozens of residents and community organizers who were gathered in front of the stock exchange, on Wall Street, to launch the Public Bank NYC Coalition. Made up of more than two-dozen groups, the coalition is calling for the creation of a city-owned bank that would serve as the repository of all local taxes, fees, fines and other municipal revenue — in contrast with the current system in which around 20 banks are currently authorized to provide bank accounts for New York City government as well as its various agencies and affiliated entities.

“We need a public bank…here to serve and to answer to us…to keep the wealth in our communities, invest in real, long-term affordable housing, and [get taxpayer money] out of the hands of Wall Street vultures,” Pindergrass said.

As a symbolic gesture, the coalition announced the start of its citywide campaign the same day that the New York City Council was slated to adopt its $89 billion budget for 2019. The public bank coalition’s launch timing also hearkens to the city’s announcement last June that it was joining other U.S. cities in breaking ties with Wells Fargo due to the bank’s failing grade on its most recent Community Reinvestment Act examination.

Public bank advocates argued that the status quo — private banks’ storing and managing of public funds — results in taxpayer money being directed to harmful purposes such as fracking, gun manufacturing and sales, and, particularly in NYC, developers who take out bank loans to acquire rent-stabilized buildings and flip them into market-rate apartments or condos.

“We want New York City to take our public dollars out of those banks—all of it,” said Deyanira Del Rio, co-director of New Economy Project, at the June 5 rally. “And we want New York City to put that money in a public bank that is owned and controlled by the people through our government, and that is held accountable to New Yorkers and our communities.”

The coalition envisions a New York City public bank that would, “make equitable investments that support low- and extremely low-income housing, union and living wage jobs for New York City residents, democratically-controlled clean energy, public infrastructure, cooperative ownership, and small businesses, prioritizing minority and women-owned businesses and locally-based enterprises.”

Linda Diaz also spoke at the June 5 rally. She recently co-founded the worker cooperative Brooklyn Stone & Tile with five other former employees of a stone and tile firm that recently closed. The new cooperative received $700,000 in startup capital from The Working World, a community development financial institution dedicated to nurturing employee-owned businesses in low-income areas.

“It is with extreme pride that I report to you that we launched [Brooklyn Stone & Tile] in April and secured our first countertop sales in May,” said Diaz. “A great public bank in New York City should provide fair and accessible financing, the way The Working World does for workers just like us.”

A city-run bank could trigger the creation of hundreds of community-friendly financial institutions around the city that would direct funds to working-class communities, Working World Founder and Executive Director Brendan Martin told Next City in an interview.

“A public bank is like a reservoir—you’re going to need more plumbing on a smaller scale to get the water to those places,” says Martin, explaining how the Working World would be like one of many smaller water tanks that would draw from the public bank “reservoir.”

There are few precedents for a municipal public bank in the U.S. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities are considering setting up government-owned banks, as are the states of New Jersey and Michigan. Until recently, the only public bank in the U.S. was the 99-year-old Bank of North Dakota, serving as the repository of that state’s public revenues. In April, American Samoa received approval for a public bank serving the U.S. Territory, after a two-year wait.

“We have to figure out a tremendous amount of the logistics and details,” says Sarah Ludwig, co-director of the New Economy Project, in an interview with Next City. “But we have a lot of sharp, super-dedicated minds that are on this.”


The Search For Enough Green to Go Green

(Credit: Brooklyn SolarWorks)

Upwards of 6,400 rebates, tax credits, and other incentives are available to U.S. entities and households that undertake eco-friendly projects like solar panel installations or LED lighting upgrades. While the sheer breadth of options seems to be a promising sign of a greener future, navigating that labyrinth can be daunting.

As a result, some 40 to 50 percent of available funding for eco-friendly development in the U.S. is going unused, according to Texas-based sustainability entrepreneur Natalie Campos Goodman.

“That’s buckets of money sitting out there, waiting to be utilized,” she says.

The need to streamline the quest for such funding is what inspired Campos Goodman to co-found IncentiFind, which operates a publicly-available database of green incentives covering federal, state and local incentives.

In addition to its database, IncentiFind is building out a model in which anyone from individual homeowners to entire municipal governments or entire hospital systems can go to one place to find out which incentives they’re eligible to receive, to apply for those incentives, and get connected to local contractors qualified to do the work of making energy efficiency or other sustainability upgrades.

After spending over a year in heavily-polluted Shanghai, Campos Goodman — who herself suffers from asthma — wanted to make a rapid impact on the often sluggish sector of sustainability back at home.

So far, IncentiFind’s services have led to the completion of 26 projects nationwide, such as LED lighting systems, energy efficient HVAC systems, and other energy-efficient initiatives for offices and commercial uses. Together, these projects have been connected to approximately $4.5 million in incentives, many of them rebate programs, in which the businesses are reimbursed for eco-friendly investments.

Using the IncentiFind database, a care facility in Austin identified approximately $185,000 in incentives, including a $30,000 federal solar tax credit, that could help finance its new cool roof and solar panels. Meanwhile, a 100,000-square-foot commercial establishment in Dallas was determined eligible for about $180,000 in funding, between local utility incentives, a state tax exemption, and other subsidies, for planned upgrades to its HVAC and lighting systems.

So far, it’s not been uncommon for a business with a specific project to be eligible for five or six different incentives at various levels of government. In Houston, six incentives, including a monthly electric bill credit and a state property tax deduction, funded nearly the entire $126,000 cost of a hotel’s purchase and installation of solar panels. The firm that did that hotel’s installation has three or four other similar Texas-based projects in the pipeline.

Campos Goodman says about half of initial IncentiFind searches are made by small businesses, which she attributes to “a huge push in reducing the cost of doing business by going green.”

After searching the database, not all users move to the second step of verifying eligibility, for which the firm currently charges businesses a flat fee of $1,200 for muddling through the necessary information, providing an estimate of how much in incentives are available to a business, and filling out applications on behalf of a business. IncentiFind plans to charge individual homeowners $150 for a similar level of service, though that option isn’t planned for launch till later this year.

“Our goal is to not lose out on a huge, hard-to-reach, marginalized group of people,” Campos Goodman says of sustainability-minded homeowners living on modest incomes.

Additionally, municipalities and private entities can complete IncentiFind’s intake survey to provide information about benefits they offer to eligible businesses and residents that are in their catchment areas. IncentiFind can then verify and add those incentives to its database. “[Municipalities] really don’t have anywhere [else] to go to promote these incentives,” says Campos Goodman.

With a backlog of at least 100 projects seeking help with their incentive searches and applications, following a peak in the use of IncentiFind’s free search tool in January, Campos Goodman and her colleagues aim to leverage technology in order to further automate the system. “It’s not to take the human element out of it, but to expedite the process and maintain affordability,” she says.


NYC Has a Plan to Push the Pedal on Buses

As part of an overhaul of its bus system, NYC plans to add double-decker buses along express routes. (Credit: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit)

Bronx resident John Sattaur relies on city buses to go practically everywhere, including work. He takes three different buses to get to his job at the New York Public Library, which is less thanfour miles away from his apartment. On a bad day, his roundabout commute takes him an hour and fifteen minutes each way—not surprising, given that New York City buses are the slowest in the country.

“It’s a crapshoot. I don’t know what the day is going to hold,” Sattaur says of his unpredictable bus commutes.

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has unveiled a plan for a complete overhaul of NYC’s ailing bus system — including a redesign of its approximately 300 routes — that promises to improve straphangers’ estimated two million rides each weekday. The multi-year bus plan features a wide-ranging set of initiatives intended to modernize the city’s bus fleet and ameliorate service across the five boroughs.

Among the plan’s commitments: increase inter-neighborhood connectivity by modifying bus routes; give buses more priority on city streets with dedicated bus lanes; accelerate passenger boarding; step up traffic enforcement; and provide more real-time information about bus service. Zero-emissions vehicles and double-decker buses will be introduced to the existing fleet. The MTA’s NYC Transit subsidiary — led by President Andy Byford, who took the helm in January — plans to roll out these new initiatives by 2021 or sooner.

“We’re extremely happy. It’s an ambitious plan that is looking to change the way things are operating,” says Stephanie Burgos-Veras, senior organizer at the Riders Alliance, a local membership-based organization with a network of about 50,000 transit advocates. “The key component for this redesign to go well is to make sure there is a huge community engagement component, so that [bus riders] share their experiences and what it is they need their buses to do for them.”

Services that don’t require city approval or coordination will be the most feasible to implement, Burgos-Veras says. For example, the MTA can ensure that the buses’ arrivals at each stop are more evenly spaced apart by having them depart from bus depots on schedule.

Frequent bus delays have caused Eastern Queens resident Natasha Saunders, who runs a cleaning business, to utilize a ride-sharing app for getting to and from the Long Island Railroad, where she catches the train to Manhattan. She is not alone in abandoning the buses: citywide ridership has declined by 14 percent over the last decade.

“I don’t take the bus anymore, ‘cause I actually need to get to where I’m going on time,” she says.

By late 2020, the plan also promises to establish all-door boarding and to install a new fare payment system on its entire bus fleet that will allow riders to “tap and pay” using their Metro Cards or smartphones. And, over the course of this year, all new city buses and 1,000 existing buses will be equipped with digital screens that notify riders about next stops and service changes, according to the plan — something Riders Alliance has been asking to improve.

With respect to new services that require collaboration with the city’s Department of Transportation, such as expanding exclusive bus lanes around the city, Burgos-Veras worries that political hurdles could get in the way of timely delivery. Bus-only lanes could prove controversial, since private car drivers are loathe to lose their share of road space. “It is very easy for things like this to get very difficult if the mayor doesn’t stand behind it,” she says. “We just want to make sure that the city isn’t refusing to collaborate or decide to work at a slower pace than the MTA.”

Other aspects of the plan that involve the city — such as expanding transit signal priority for buses — could also take time to implement. Transit signal priority could involve using sensors to detect when a bus is approaching, causing the traffic signal for the bus to extend its green or change earlier to green; or it could involve entirely seperate traffic signals for buses in exclusive bus lanes.

When asked whether the Department of Transportation will support the bus plan’s implementation, assistant press secretary Lolita Avila says, “[The department] sees the all-door boarding, redesigning of the bus network, and tap reader components as positive steps forward, and we look to our continued partnership with the MTA on improving bus service citywide.”

To expedite additional transit signal priority, an improvement that could significantly shorten bus trips, NYC Council Member Mark Levine has introduced a bill that would require the Department of Transportation to modernize traffic lights along ten routes per year over the next four years. Modernization would include capacity for transit signal priority, shortening the wait time buses have at red lights, where they now spend an average of 21 percent of their time on congested routes, according to Levine.

Levine expects his proposed law to get a hearing later this year. “There is a huge coalition behind this,” he says, noting that the bill already has 30 co-sponsors. “We’re really optimistic that the bill will move soon, and that it will be a huge win for bus riders.”

Levine refers to the city’s current state of transportation as a “death spiral,” with the demand for public transit rising even as bus ridership drops because commuters like Saunders are choosing private cars over buses. This trend causes more congestion, which further slows down the buses.

“It’s really a parallel crisis that is no less serious than the subway crisis, but the bus crisis hasn’t been in the headlines as much as the train crisis has been,” says Levine. “[Transit signal] technology offers us an opportunity to … get into a virtuous cycle in which we reduce wait times at [traffic] lights and get people back on buses.”

The promised upgrades to the bus system can’t come soon enough for Saunders and others. “I want to see it all happen, and I want to see it happen as quickly as possible,” she says. “New York is considered the capital of the world. For us to travel like this is a disgrace. It’s embarrassing, and it has to stop.”


Charleston Park and Ride Lets Workers Save Big

Signage for the new park and ride shuttle service in Charleston. (Photo by John Keener)

Charleston resident Chaz Wendel, general manager of the Charleston Crab House, lives just a 5-minute drive away from work. He commutes by car because it is the most direct mode of travel. But metered parking near his eatery costs him a whopping $300 a month.

“Parking and driving around downtown has become quite a pain,” he says.

Charleston’s rapid growth spurt is proving to be a mixed blessing for Wendel and his fellow city residents. On the one hand, the city is raking in enormous revenues from its thriving tourism industry, which increases funding for local services and yields profits for area businesses. At the same time, the five square miles that make up Charleston’s downtown peninsula — which sees an estimated 15,000 visitors daily — is grappling with severe traffic congestion and parking challenges that cost local commuters precious time and hard-earned money.

Now, thanks to a new park-and-ride program, the “Hospitality On Peninsula Park and Ride Lot,” Wendel can commute to work free of charge. The pilot transportation service, launched this April, offers Charleston commuters daylong parking for a flat $5 at a city-owned lot in northern part of the peninsula, and a free connecting shuttle bus to and from six central-city stops. For commuters like Wendel, who live on the peninsula, the shuttle service alone is free. Users of the shuttle, which runs every 15 minutes, 21 hours a day, can track the buses in real-time on their smartphones. In addition to 170 parking spaces, the Hospitality on Peninsula Lot contains bike racks as well as a dock operated by the city’s bike rental program, Holy Spokes.

The park-and-ride service is intended to save considerable garage and on-street parking expenses for hospitality and food-and-beverage workers, Charleston’s largest workforce. In a 2017 College of Charleston parking survey, 40 percent of the 500 hospitality workers reported that they live in West Ashley, which is about ten miles from the city center. Approximately 80 percent of respondents reported that they drive alone to and from work, and nearly 30 percent of them spent more than $100 on parking costs each month. Garages in downtown Charleston charge an average parking rate of $8-$16 per day.

“I think [the park and ride] is a really good idea,” says Ben D’Allesandro, who owns and runs a local pizza shop with his brother in downtown Charleston. “Economically, workers could save a whole day’s worth of parking, and the headache from using the meters and dodging meter maids.”

Wendel plans to use the service on a regular basis. “Just being able to go to the [bus] stop, jump on, and not have to deal with the stress of traffic or parking is pretty amazing,” he says.

Finding a free spot among the mere 400 or so coveted parking spaces in the city center is like winning the lottery, according to Charleston City Council Member Mike Seekings, a main player in spearheading the park-and-ride program. Seekings also chairs the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), the government entity that operates the new service and is currently covering its $75,000 monthly operating cost.

“It is a wrestling match every day to get in and out of the [area],” he says. “The whole idea of [the park and ride lot] is to get a safe, efficient, convenient way to move people on and off the peninsula with a system they can rely on and can afford.”

John Keener, owner of three downtown Charleston restaurants (including the Crab House) and president of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, thinks that the new program will increase work opportunities for Greater Charleston residents who would otherwise find it a hardship to access the peninsula daily. Roughly one-third of Keener’s 250 employees drive to and from their jobs—and, of these 75 workers, Keener hopes that at least half of them will use the park & ride service.

“That would be a major win,” he said.

Keener, who lives about ten miles away on Johns Island, plans to make use of the park-and-ride service himself from time to time. “It was very comfortable and relaxing when I rode [the shuttle] yesterday,” he says. “I parked my car and was driven almost to the front door of my restaurant.”

It will remain an uphill battle for the peninsula’s car-commuting workers to change their travel habits. Nearly half of the 2017 parking survey’s respondents said that a park-and-ride service would not be a transportation option for them, and one-fifth of respondents said they would not use public transportation. The negative response is likely due to the fact that mass transit is not a travel mode that Charleston residents are generally accustomed to, according to Doug Warner, media relations director of Explore Charleston, a nonprofit that promotes Charleston tourism, which partnered with the city and CARTA to launch the park and ride.

“Like many southern cities that traditionally have not had adequate public transportation, there isn’t a developed mindset of people using public transportation because it has not been available,” Warner says.

Despite this potential hurdle, Seeking says, “From watching [the park and ride shuttle] in the first four days, I have no doubt that it’s going to succeed.”

Greater incentive for the park and ride is already in place. The city recently doubled the hourly fare of metered parking spaces, from $1 to $2, as well extended its meter-monitoring hours from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. “It really makes metered spaces more for what they’re originally designed to do—they’re not supposed to serve as a permanent parking solution for someone working a shift,” Warner says.

If the park-and-ride program is a success, CARTA and the city aim to roll out the park-and-ride service to other Greater Charleston communities, including West Ashley and Mount Pleasant. Expanding and sustaining the program to include other areas around Greater Charleston, however, will surely require private-sector support, according to Seekings.

“That will have to be part of the long-term solution,” he says.


A View of Inclusionary Housing From Down Under

A recently-built affordable housing development in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan van den Nouwelant)

In Australia, less than four percent of households live in public housing — much higher than the U.S., where fewer than one percent of households live in public housing. Still, alarmed by the Australia figure, a team of Australian (and a few Scottish) housing experts set out to investigate inclusionary housing programs. Their new report, commissioned by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, details inclusionary housing programs used around the U.S. and the U.K.

The U.S. is home to more than 1,379 inclusionary housing programs, according to a different working paper from last year. Those programs were collectively responsible for the creation of 173,707 units of affordable housing. Meanwhile, the Australian researchers found, England’s inclusionary scheme has generated approximately 83,800 new affordable units between 2005 and 2016.

Australia’s use of inclusionary regulations, by comparison, has so far been limited—partly due to constraints in the country’s regional planning laws.

“We really do draw on American experience when we look at what we might do in Australia in terms of planning affordable housing,” says Nicole Gurran, the report’s lead author and a planning and housing professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design, and Planning.

Inclusionary housing programs, typically region- or city-specific, do not follow a “one-size-fits-all” strategy, says Gurran. They’re generally tailored to local planning systems and housing markets; mandatory programs are especially encouraged for residential areas that are undergoing rezoning or that are experiencing substantial infrastructure investment, since, in both cases, land values increase enough to offset the cost of producing affordable housing.

The researchers considered the dozens of cities in California that have instituted local ordinances that require developers to provide affordable housing as part of their development projects. California obliges its municipalities to offer density bonuses, which allow additional building height or floor space to developers who provide affordable housing units. They also looked at New York City, where an inclusionary housing program shifted from voluntary to mandatory in 2016.

Typically, voluntary inclusionary programs that are incentive-based yield significantly smaller numbers of new affordable housing units than do mandatory programs. In Oakland, for instance, incentive-based programs that aren’t supplemented by inclusionary requirements have proven ineffective, the study notes.

“Even in a booming market,” Gurran said, “voluntary incentives [are worth] virtually nothing.”

Two regions of Australia — South Australia and New South Wales — have begun to implement inclusionary housing programs, but they haven’t had nearly the kind of success, in numbers, as the U.S. and U.K. programs. Mandatory inclusionary zoning in South Australia, with a 15 percent target rate of affordable housing units in new residential areas, has triggered the creation of approximately 5,500 low-cost dwellings. That amount is equivalent to roughly 17 percent of the region’s overall housing supply. In New South Wales, an incentive-based housing program generated an estimated 2,000 affordable rental units in Sydney, which makes up around one percent of the city’s overall housing stock.

Unlike the U.S., Australia’s national government provides few subsidies such as federal tax credits that financially assist developers in producing affordable housing, Gurran explains. “The nonprofit- or government-funded proportion of housing development is…less than two percent of new supply,” she says. From Australian developers’ perspective, therefore, building dwelling units that are affordable for low-to-moderate-income earners can often seem cost-prohibitive.

“To get new houses up, we need that private development sector to build them,” she says. “If you require developers to build too much, they won’t build at all; and if you don’t have enough new supply, that pushes up prices across the market.”

What Gurran and her study’s co-authors hope to convey to Australian policymakers, planners, and developers is that affordable housing isn’t as financially infeasible as they may think. To the contrary, mixed-income housing development can provide developers economic stability in otherwise-volatile housing markets. “Affordable housing obligations aren’t making overall housing development unviable,” Gurran said, “as long as the requirements are predictable, known in advance, and consistently applied.”

That said, government subsidies are imperative for encouraging the creation of affordable housing, particularly for extremely low-income citizens in areas of high residential need, Gurran notes. “Inclusionary planning is not a substitute for government funding. You’ll still need some other source of grant to subsidize people’s rents or the capital costs of providing the dwelling, or both.”

Above all, the study underscores the vital role of development rules in the production of affordable housing, since market-driven housing projects alone don’t yield sufficient supplies of low-cost dwelling units.

“The idea that just increasing housing production overall will make it affordable for people of low and moderate incomes, isn’t borne out by the evidence,” said Gurran. “We do need specific policy interventions.”


NYC Looks Beyond the Classroom to Improve School Performance

Discussing public benefits enrollment with school parents onsite as part of a pilot program under the NYC Community Schools Initiative. (Credit: Public Policy Lab)

At the Academy of Environmental Leadership, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, 100 percent of the high school’s 300 or so students live below the poverty line, and 97 percent are students of color. It was at schools like this where, in 2017, the NYC Department of Education began exploring the question, “What if, alongside after-school programs, tutoring and vision clinics, schools could improve student outcomes by offering public benefits enrollment on site?”

Enrolling in public benefits might seem an obvious choice, yet in the day-to-day grind of life at the lower end of the economic spectrum, it can get lost in the shuffle of working multiple part-time jobs or having to move multiple times a year, sometimes into and out of homeless shelters. Many struggling families end up slipping through the cracks, missing out on benefits for which they are eligible — benefits that might help mitigate some of that turmoil. Academic performance suffers as a result.

“We have very consistent issues addressing hunger, homelessness, lack of access to health care, and need for immigration support and workforce development assistance,” explains Michael Hickey, director of strategy and partnerships at the NYC Department of Education’s Community Schools Initative.

The Academy of Environmental Leadership was one of five NYC public schools where the Community Schools Initiative last year piloted a public benefits enrollment program aimed to facilitate low-income students’ access to stable housing as well as to food, health care, and other essential services. Later this year, the city is rolling out that program to a wider set of schools, with the goal of eventually scaling it up to all schools under the Community Schools Initiative’s umbrella, if not beyond.

The Community Schools Initiative began back in 2014, intending to address the notable inequality between advantaged and disadvantaged students in NYC public schools. Targeting schools in neighborhoods with high poverty rates as well as schools with low rates of academic achievement, the initiative pairs each school with a nearby community-based organization that connects families with affordable housing, after-school support, healthcare, workforce development and other services. There are currently 227 schools around the city that are part of the Community Schools Initiative.

To design and scale up a new public benefits enrollment pilot program that would complement its existing model, the Community Schools Initiative brought in Public Policy Lab, a nonprofit that advances and practices public service design, applying the tools and methods of designers to solve pressing public policy challenges.

The five schools in the public benefits enrollment pilot had especially high populations of students who live in temporary housing, notes Chelsea Mauldin, executive director of the Public Policy Lab.

The five schools that hosted the onsite public benefits enrollment pilot program. (Credit: Public Policy Lab)

“The end hypothesis [of the pilot],” Mauldin says, “is that increasing families’ household incomes creates a better home environment for students, which allows them to show up to school more frequently and more ready to learn.”

The NYC Department of Education has recently been called out for an inadequate response to absenteeism among students. In an audit report released this March by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, city auditors found evidence that schools reached out to missing youths and their families on the first day of their absences in only eight percent of a sample population.

A big disconnect is that school administrators often don’t know what benefits might be out there — or even if they do, they don’t notify families in need about them.

To remedy the issue, the benefits enrollment pilot is training school staff to better identify students and families in need, while also placing local case workers who can assist these households in applying for benefits onsite at schools. The intervention tactics, implemented over a three-week period in the spring of 2017 as the first phase of the pilot program, generated a 17 percent referral rate among 90 eligible, non-enrolled households across three of the five participating schools. “What we found was, lots of parents responded,” said Mauldin.

While the remaining 83 percent of families did not complete a pre-screening process in order to be matched with a local case worker, “the results were strong enough that, if we really drill down on the strategies that seemed to be most effective, and give it a little bit more time,” says Hickey, “we can continue to build fast, [cost-effective], and [decentralized] solutions.”

The Community Schools Initiative’s goal is to eventually implement a customized version of the public benefits enrollment program in all its community schools. It is important that the services are individually tailored to each school, says Hickey, since “each community school will have a different constellation of people with different skills and relationships with local providers.”

The overall Community Schools Initiative is already showing some promise addressing chronic absenteeism, which the NYC Department of Education defines as missing more than 10 percent of school days in a given academic year. In the 2013-14 school year, students across 110 schools in the initiative were chronically absent from school approximately 47 percent of the time, according to the NYC Community Schools Initiative — a problem that he attributes to the students’ lack of adequate sustenance, housing, and other basic needs. Other potential causes are deficiencies in schools’ monitoring of attendance of chronically absent homeless students, as revealed the Comptroller’s audit report. Within the same 110 schools from 2013-2014 data, chronic absenteeism declined by 9.5 percent in the 2016-17 school year, according to the NYC Community Schools Initiative.

In the second phase of the public benefits enrollment program, which will be carried out in the 2018-19 academic year, school attendance staff will be trained to inform families of chronically absent students about public benefits for which they may be eligible.

“One of the hopes would be that getting people access to benefits programs they’re eligible for, but are not currently using, would support them in their goal of having a secure place to live,” said Mauldin. It’s believed that stable housing can, in turn, lead to better school attendance — which supports the Community Schools Initiative’s holistic approach of addressing students’ needs both inside and outside the classroom.

“You can’t expect a child who is hungry, who has vision impairment, or who doesn’t feel safe, to succeed in school,” says Chris Caruso, executive director of the NYC Community Schools Initiative. “In order for a kid to succeed, you need to address the needs of the whole child.”


Oakland Community Hub Rallies To Save Itself From Gentrification

Tenants and members of community groups in front of the 23rd Avenue building in east Oakland acquired by Oakland Community Land Trust. (Credit: Luba Yusim)

For seven years, Phoenix Mangrum had nowhere to call home. Living as a squatter, he moved from place to place, often sharing a room with others. Just last year, Mangrum, who works as a cyclist educator for Oakland-based bicycle organization Cycles of Change, finally signed a month-to-month lease for an apartment at 1232-48 23rd Avenue, in the same building as his workplace. The dream came perilously close to ending in less than a year. But it didn’t.

Mangrum is one of a handful of low-income residential tenants who, along with the social justice organizations located in the building, rallied to save their beloved home from the throes of Oakland’s gentrifying property market, sparing all of them from near-certain displacement.

“I don’t have any plans to move,” Mangrum says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world!”

The two-story building in east Oakland is home to Peacock Rebellion — an activist group that runs performance workshops by and for Oakland’s queer and trans people of color — along with three other local grassroots organizations and eight residential units. Erected in the early 20th century, the building has housed community organizations for at least 15 years, according to Peacock Rebellion’s artistic and executive director, Devi Peacock. An adjacent lot consists of a community garden maintained by Sustaining Ourselves Locally, a social justice and food justice organization that also operates out of the building.

“A lot of community organizing in the neighborhood and across the City of Oakland happens there,” says Peacock, who founded Peacock Rebellion in 2012. “The building has been in community for years, but it has not been owned by any of the groups [that use it].”

Over the years, Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program protected the building’s low-income residents from market-rate rents, though the program does allow landlords to increase residential rents by a certain amount each year. Meanwhile, like practically all commercial tenants, the four low-budget community organizations were not guarded by rent control. The building’s landlord, Ming Cheung, who owns the property and the adjacent lot, kept the rents stable, so that tenants could afford to stay.

So when, in January 2017, the tenants received an email from Cheung stating her intent to sell the building, they got very anxious about rent hikes. Fortunately, Cheung offered the tenants first dibs on purchasing the building. She promised to keep her valuable real estate off the market until as late as May 1, 2017.

Heartened by the news, Peacock met with his fellow organization leaders, along with the building’s residential tenants, to strategize about how they could keep the building and the properties out of the hands of a developer who would rather earn the highest possible rent without regard for the social and cultural significance of the building’s existing tenants.

“Our landlord…really wanted them to stay in community,” says Peacock. “So the conversation moved very quickly to, ‘We have to figure out a way to buy this building.’”

In search of a potential acquisition partner, the tenants contacted affordable housing organizations and banks, to no avail. Then they reached out to the Oakland Community Land Trust, a local nonprofit that currently owns about 20 other properties in the area. Only then did they realize that a community land trust model, built on the idea of preserving and stewarding properties for community benefit in perpetuity, was the best approach.

“It ended up being a good fit and mission alignment with what their vision was,” says the land trust’s executive director, Steve King, who worked with the tenants to acquire the real estate from Cheung.

Oakland Community Land Trust and the building’s tenants tapped multiple funding sources to secure the necessary money for the purchase.

Through a two-month online crowdfunding campaign, the tenants raised approximately $90,000 from more than 600 individual donors. With the land trust’s assistance, they also secured a $300,000 loan from the City of Oakland, a mortgage from the Northern California Community Loan Fund, and a grant from the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. Oakland Community Land Trust contributed approximately $350,000 in equity toward the real estate venture.

All told, they offered Cheung $1.5 million—$250,000 shy of her asking price, but close enough for her to accept (and still higher than the current assessed value of the property). The money raised also helped pay for mandatory building inspections, appraisals, and legal fees associated with the real estate transaction.

While community land trusts’ purchase of commercial-residential developments is not all too uncommon, the tenants’ solidarity and level of involvement in this venture was unique, King notes.

“The city and Northern California Community Loan Fund saw the urgency and the value the building had for the neighborhood and the occupants, and that was a huge boon to the overall project,” King says. “It was pretty magical, how it came together.”

The deal closed the week after Thanksgiving. Commercial tenants signed five-year,rent-stabilized leases with the option to renew twice.

As part of the deal, the tenants also came one step closer to realizing their dream of collectively owning the building. The tenants’ goal, Peacock said, is to purchase the building outright from Oakland Community Land Trust within 15 years, before their third and final five-year lease is up. In the meantime, the land trust staff will work to train the commercial and residential tenants in building management best practices.

As is customary with community land trusts, even after selling the buildings to the tenants, the trust will retain ownership of the land beneath the buildings, to ensure that the properties are preserved for community-centered uses.

“It is such an incredible feeling to know that this isn’t just preserving a queer, trans, people of color-centered space for the next 5, 10, or 15 years—we’re thinking about this for the next 100 years,” says Peacock. “When [these marginalized groups] are rapidly being displaced [elsewhere], to feel that we’re staying is a powerful political act.”

Last November 28th, the day the deal closed, one of the building’s kitchen sinks broke. The tenants’ reaction? “We cheered,” Peacock says, “because we were like, ‘Wow, this is our thing to fix now.’”


Why This Time Could Be Different for Congestion Pricing in NYC

The Riders Alliance takes a cardboard cutout of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for a ride on the NYC subway. (Credit: Riders Alliance)

It was July 2015, and an outspoken group of New York City’s transit riders were angry with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. These frustrated straphangers, members of the Riders Alliance, had just gotten word of Cuomo’s refusal to adequately fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA’s) four-year capital plan. When Cuomo ignored the Alliance’s invitation to ride the subways with them so he could witness the travel inconveniences they experience, the advocates made a cardboard cutout of the governor and took “Cardboard Cuomo” on an underground journey around the city.

“We couldn’t get actual Governor Cuomo to ride the subway with us, so we did the next best thing,” recalls John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, a citywide grassroots membership organization with a network of some 50,000 transit advocates. From creating Cuomo-centric Twitter hashtags and Instagram accounts to organizing regular rallies in Albany, Alliance members have actively been demanding that the State do more to improve a public transit system that plagues riders of all stripes with delays and overcrowding.

It seems that Cuomo is finally stepping up to the plate, as state officials consider voting on his new congestion fee proposal, aimed at reducing gridlock in Manhattan’s central business district, while also generating a dedicated source of revenue to repair and modernize New York City’s floundering mass transit system.

Previous congestion proposals have either died in the state legislature, as in the case of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan in 2008, or won only partial approval, as with former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch’s MTA Rescue Plan.

Details of Cuomo’s congestion plan are spelled out in a January 2018 report produced and released by the Fix NYC Advisory Panel, a group of government officials and community and business leaders that the governor convened in the fall of 2017. New York state legislators have until April 1 to decide if the plan will be included in the state’s 2019 fiscal year budget. While not directly a part of the state’s budgetary decisions, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has voiced his support of Cuomo’s proposal — a rare instance of agreement between the mayor and the governor.

Unlike Bloomberg’s 2007 proposal, the Fix NYC plan is divided into three phases. Phase One would focus on improving transit service and connectivity in Manhattan and around the city, and would require the NYPD to step up enforcement of the city’s existing traffic laws. The second phase would introduce a surcharge to taxi and for-hire vehicular trips in Manhattan’s central business district, once, over the course of 10 months, the appropriate GPS technology is installed in cars. Phase three would establish a zone-based pricing program — first for trucks, then for all vehicles, that travel through Manhattan below 60th Street. The report predicts that the fee system could potentially generate between one and two billion dollars annually.

“It’s a strong proposal,” says Raskin — who stressed that, for congestion pricing to work, all three phases of the plan must be carried out in full. “Any credible solution to the crisis in transit service will require modernization of some very outdated equipment —and there is no serious way to do that on the cheap,” he said. “It’s going to take billions of dollars.”

Riders Alliance members rally in Albany for state funding to repair and maintain public transportation in NYC. (Credit: Riders Alliance)

Upgrading the subway’s outdated signal technology, running more trains during rush hour, and introducing a new fleet of modernized trains should be the MTA’s priorities in deciding how to spend new funds, Raskin notes. The city’s buses also need attention, he says — for starters, there should be better police enforcement of traffic laws that keep private cars out of dedicated bus lanes.

Historically, congestion pricing in New York City has proven to be controversial, with certain elected officials and others claiming that it would place an undue financial burden on middle- and lower-income people who regularly travel into and out of Manhattan by car. Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan — a signature proposal of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC — fell through in 2008 when Democrats declined to put the bill to a vote in the State Assembly. Some state legislators deemed it a regressive tax that would financially hurt hardworking taxpayers of the outer boroughs.

Ten years later, some advocates and planners say that time is of the essence for implementing congestion pricing in order to collect funds for the city’s ailing public transit system. “It’s a plan whose time has come,” said Dani Simons, vice president of strategic communications at the Regional Plan Association, who worked on crafting the 2007 congestion plan as a communications director at the New York City Department of Transportation.

New York commuters face uncertainty as they experience the negative impacts of an underinvested subway system whose ridership keeps growing, Simons added. “If we had gotten congestion pricing passed [in 2008],” she says, “we would have 21st century subways now.”

Simons is hopeful that this new congestion plan will be approved — since, unlike last time, the Fix NYC plan originates from the Governor’s office. “A lot of the power rests with the state in terms of the legislation that is needed to enable this,” Simons explains.

Simons and about a dozen of her RPA colleagues and board members met with state legislators in Albany on March 6 to present the Association’s Fourth Regional Plan, and, in particular, discuss congestion pricing. According to Simons, while it’s too early to tell whether the state will vote for the congestion plan’s inclusion in the 2019 Executive Budget, the senators are “hungry to see some draft legislation.”

“There’s an openness, and I think an understanding now like never before, that the subways are in a crisis state,” she says.

Cuomo’s congestion fee has a good shot at getting passed, Raskin says, because the Fix NYC plan is focused on socioeconomic fairness. Countering the views of congestion pricing’s opponents, a 2017 analysis by the Community Service Society reveals that just four percent of the city’s non-Manhattan working residents commute into Manhattan by car and could be hit with the congestion fee. Fifty-six percent of outer-borough residents, meanwhile, use public transit to commute to work in Manhattan and elsewhere, according to the study. Other research shows that across the city, even in the outer boroughs, households that own cars have a higher median income than households without cars.

“The most regressive transportation policy, in a sense, is the status quo,” Raskin said, “where the poorest people in the city have to budget extra time they don’t have because of an unreliable transit system, and suffer the worst consequences when the train is delayed or the bus doesn’t come.”


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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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