Posts by Author: Samantha Maldonado

Freelancers Recovering Stolen Wages Under New NYC Law

Backstage at New York City Fashion Week 2018. Makeup artists were among those who filed complaints under the Freelance Isn't Free Act, the first law of its kind in the United States, giving protections to freelance workers against late payment or nonpayment. (Credit: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

It’s been a year since the Freelance Isn’t Free Act went into effect in New York City. A new report from the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency charged with enforcing the new law, shows the law’s early impact.

Thanks to the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, freelancers in New York City recovered $254,866 in payments over the past year, with an average recovery of $2,039 per complaint. Sixty-one percent of the time, freelancers recovered payment within 90 days of complaining.

The first law of its kind in the country, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act gives added layers of protection to New York City’s estimated 400,000 freelancers. It requires contracts for services worth at least $800 and payment within 30 days of service unless otherwise specified in the contract. Under the new law, the Office of Labor Policy and Standards within the Department of Consumer Affairs is a freelancer’s ally in city government, available for consultation, conflict resolution and preparation in bringing cases to civil claims court.

“We saw a problem, the law is a solution and we think it’s working,” says Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas. But, she added, “the numbers are still low and we want to see them go up if the need is there, and we think it is.”

According to the department’s report, “Demanding Rights in an On-Demand Economy,” freelancers and employers made nearly 300 inquiries about the law over the past year, and the department received 264 complaints from freelancers alleging violations. The vast majority — 98 percent — of complaints from freelancers to the agency involved alleged payment violations, most for contracts under $2,000.

“There’s a real epidemic of nonpayment in the freelance community. Smaller [nonpayment or late payment] claims are routinely happening and are adding up and really impacting people’s income,” says Caitlin Pearce, executive director of the Freelancers Union, which campaigned for the bill, working with NYC Council Member Brad Landers. “The results show that this law has been a tremendous success, and when freelance workers have protections, they’re doing better.”

The law was designed to incentivize employers to settle disputes quickly and out of court, while also encouraging freelancers to seek legal help. For example, the law prohibits an employer from retaliating when freelancers exercise their rights under the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. The law also mandates that the employer must pay double the amount of payment owed plus damages and lawyers’ fees if a freelancer brings a suit to civil claims court and wins.

According to the report, 21 percent of payment violation complaints resulted in payments after an initial consultation with the Office of Labor Policy and Standards; while 77 percent of complaints resulted in payment after the office sent an official notice of the complaint to the party accused of a violation. Of the five suits filed in civil court by freelancers, in three cases the freelancer and accused party reached settlement before the first court date. In the other two cases, the freelancers received judgments in their favor and were currently awaiting payment at the time of the report’s release.

The law still faces challenges, especially when it comes to who so far has been able to access the rights it recognizes. The Office of Labor Policy and Standards estimates 150,000 freelancers in New York City experience late payment or nonpayment every year.

“If the person has an important job, it’s easy to find a lawyer to sue your employers,” says Favio Ramirez-Caminatti, the executive director of El Centro del Inmigrante and El Centro’s Community Job Center on Staten Island. But that’s not possible for the day laborers and domestic workers, he says, who make $120 to $180 per day on the days when they have jobs.

Freelancers who contacted the Department of Consumer Affairs regarding the Freelance Isn’t Free Act didn’t necessarily reflect the diversity of freelancers in New York City, demographically or in terms of industry. They tended to be white, English-speaking, and highly educated. They made $17,500 more per year than the average New York freelancer, and 46 percent who filed complaints were between the ages of 18 and 29, an age group representing only nine percent of the city’s freelance population as a whole.

Seventy-two percent of those who filed complaints worked in the arts and entertainment industries, including hair and make up artists, camera operators and video editors. The agency also saw complaints from IT specialists, computer programmers, journalists and photographers.

“I think there’s still some people not aware of this and they can benefit in using it,” Ramirez-Caminatti says. “It’s a process to educate people about the law and explain why it’s better for the people working freelance and also for the [employers]. It’s clear what their responsibility is.”

To that end, the Department of Consumer Affairs and its partner organizations plan to launch public awareness campaigns and on-the-ground outreach to target freelancers under-represented in the report, including both documented and undocumented immigrants, who can be hesitant to reach out to government agencies. The outreach efforts will focus, too, on employer education, ensuring they understand the legal risks they’re exposed to if they do not comply with the law.

“There’s always pushback every time there’s a new law that imposes additional requirements on employers,” Salas says. “We try really hard to provide employers with the tools they need to comply with law.” For instance, the agency provides templates for contracts.

Overall, the city’s goal is to use the Freelance Isn’t Free Act to elevate standards across industries, eliminating the norm of businesses routinely paying freelancers late or not at all. Looking ahead, advocates are hopeful that New York City will serve as a model for how legislation can protect freelancers in other cities, where chapters of the Freelancers Union are organizing to pass similar laws.

“We want to send a message that we are actively enforcing these laws, not just responding to complaints, but being proactive,” Salas says. “We want to create a culture of compliance.”

 

There’s Good Besides the Bad and Ugly of Public Housing

The buildings may be crumbling but the people living in public housing are strong, contributing to their neighbors' and their city's well-being. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Pamela Phillips grew up in the New York City Housing Authority’s Manhattanville Houses in West Harlem, and has lived in Marble Hill Houses in the Bronx for nearly two decades. She raised two kids, put them through college and completed her own master’s degree in urban policy analysis and management at the New School, all while living at Marble Hill Houses.

It was during grad school, as she listened to her classmates discuss policies and theories about NYCHA (pronounced “nye-cha”), as the public housing authority is known, that she realized most of the narratives she heard about public housing were negative, one-dimensional, and shaped by outsiders — as opposed to any of the 400,000 residents of public housing in NYC, nearly one out of every 20 New Yorkers.

“I was discouraged that I was never able to read enough of the good that does go on,” says Phillips. “In terms of mainstream media, when you say ‘public housing,’ that doesn’t conjure up positive perceptions or images around the community or the residents. It’s kind of soul-diminishing to constantly hear that where you live has this stigma attached to it.”

Phillips, 54, who has been working at Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women for almost a decade, is trying to change that perception. She started a storytelling project called “Changing the Narrative,” which compiles memories from NYCHA residents, past and present. A project website containing audio clips, photos and written stories will launch soon.

She explains that many of the stories compiled by Changing the Narrative touch on nostalgia and fondness for the glory days past, but much of what makes her feel at home in Marble Hill actually hasn’t changed over time.

“When it’s nice outside, you might catch a couple of girls, one’s sitting on the top of the bench and the other’s sitting between her legs, she’s cornrowing her hair,” she says. “I still see that going on, which says to me there’s continuity and a lot of communal traditions we keep carrying down and passing along.”

Phillips isn’t the only NYCHA resident frustrated with the way public housing has been portrayed. Recent news coverage has focused on heat and hot water outages during the winter, rats, leaky roofs, mold and questionable lead inspections. In March and April alone, Governor Andrew Cuomo, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and Mayor Bill de Blasio visited five NYCHA developments between them and all decried the conditions.

Although many residents and advocates don’t dispute the problems shown — and in fact, they appreciate the attention toward so many longstanding issues — they don’t necessarily think the general public is getting the full picture of what it’s like to live in public housing.

“It’s not to say we don’t have those problems, but there are other things going on and we have to find a way to navigate those issues and find a way to live and be,” Phillips says. “There’s so many good things and people around here.”

“There’s a fine line between highlighting deficiencies and not losing sight of the value,” said Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a professor at New York Institute of Technology author of “Public Housing that Worked.” Bloom points out that news coverage tends to emphasize the most horrific examples to generate concern, but that can also skew perceptions.

Charlene Nimmons, 54, a longtime resident of NYCHA’s Wyckoff Houses in Brooklyn and the executive director of Public Housing Communities, a nonprofit, points out that not all NYCHA developments experience the extent of problems that others do, and she was worried that sometimes coverage of the issues could be misleading.

“I don’t think that you go into someone’s home and you start peeling plaster off the wall and you think, ‘Oh, this is so devastating,’” says Nimmons, explaining she thinks its demeaning to families who live in those units. “Ask those families, are you eating, are you working, are your children are going to school?”

Nimmons would like to see more emphasis on the resiliency of the people who put up with the condition of their housing while working to make their communities better. “Even though we’re having these struggles, the people that live in these houses are troopers. They are survivors. They are innovative,” Nimmons says.

Plus, she likes her home and feels comfortable in it.

“Where I live is prime,” she says, listing the stores within walking distance, multiple train lines and diverse neighborhoods surrounding her.

Michael Rosen previously worked at NYCHA in capital projects and property management for more than a decade. He thinks that those who do not live in NYCHA may not account for the good quality of life many residents have.

“I somehow wish I could bring others with me when I used to do [inspections] because there are just so many people living really satisfactory, happy lives in NYCHA buildings,” says Rosen. “If you were inside these units, you would never know that you’re in public housing, and that’s the way it should be.”

Ana Vazquez, a parent coordinator at P.S. 30 and a resident of NYCHA’s Adams Houses in the Bronx, agrees. Her two-bedroom is cozy, and its windows overlook the East River and the Manhattan skyline. There’s a flat-screen TV in her living room and a bright red washing machine in the kitchen. Her cat and Pomeranian scurry around the floor.

“This is my little haven,” Vazquez, 53, says. She moved into the unit 23 years ago when it was brand new.

“It’s still brand new because I keep it up,” she says. “I like my house to be nice. I have colleagues in my house sometimes. I don’t want there to be cracks in the walls.”

Vazquez keeps up her apartment — painting, removing mold, getting rid of roaches — because she says NYCHA doesn’t do a good enough job. Although she’s made some effort to leave Adams, the affordable housing she applied for still isn’t as affordable to her as her current rent, which she says hovers around $1,000 per month (most public housing residents pay 30 percent of their monthly take-home pay in rent, per federal public housing rules).

Besides, she’s invested in the community through the Adams Tenant Association. The members of the association advocate for residents, take children and seniors on trips, host fish fries and Thanksgiving dinners and pass out school supplies during back-to-school season. In other developments, members of tenant associations help connect residents to jobs, host voter registration drives and organize ever-popular Family Days, where current and former residents come together.

Ramona Santana has lived in Adams Houses for 45 years and been a member of the tenant association for 15 years and counting. She volunteers at the N. SHOPP Leon Neighborhood Senior Center, also in the Bronx, and her face lit up when she spoke of the activities there: dance and exercise sessions, painting classes led by museum educators, trips to the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden, dominos and bingo. On Valentine’s Day, the center held a celebration for two couples who renewed their vows on their 64th and 58th wedding anniversaries.

“My mother used to go there, and I guess that’s why I’m so attached to the center,” Santana, a senior herself, says. “When it comes to the seniors, I’m there.”

She has an eye to beautifying the outdoor area behind the senior center and requested fellow tenant Hector Rivera plant a rosebush there.

Rivera, 61, has spent the past eight years as a volunteer groundskeeper back at Adams Houses. He says he’s spent about $50,000 and about 40 hours a week planting and maintaining shrubbery, trees, flowers in the property’s courtyards. He says he’s installed more than 15 birdhouses and birdfeeders in the trees.

“I do it to improve the neighborhood, to have people see something better,” Rivera says, pointing out the hydrangeas starting to bloom: “Wait until another month.”

As president of the Adams Houses tenant association, Ronald Topping is keenly aware of the challenges facing the residents, but he’s not content sitting and waiting for things to get fixed.

Topping, 59, walked around the grounds of the development alternately gesturing towards what was wrong, including the rats running around and garbage cans that were too small — and what was improving, such as fixtures with dog bags on them and a basketball court that would soon be updated.

“I want to see the neighborhood empowered,” he says.

 

Streamlining the Public Housing Repair Process for NYC

Construction at Ocean Bay Houses, a public housing community in Queens, NYC.  (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Last week, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency at the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, announcing an additional $250 million in funding to address its tenants’ needs, he also granted the agency to the authorization to use design-build.

Design-build is a streamlined process in which one entity handles a project’s construction and design services under a single contract, instead of splitting the two functions into seperate contracts (known as design-bid-build). The process has the potential to halve the time it takes to replace boilers and make other repairs. At NYCHA, replacing boilers requires manufacturing the actual boilers. Without design-build, the process can take two to three and a half years.

“It’s not going to Home Depot and purchasing a boiler—as easy as that sounds, we wish we could,” said New York City Council Member Vanessa Gibson during the City Council Committee on Public Housing’s preliminary budget hearing in mid-March.

At that hearing, Gibson, who chairs the Council’s subcommittee on capital budget, expressed some uncertainty about the NYCHA’s ability to use design-build if given to the agency.

“Design-build will not help if we don’t know what to do with it,” she said at the hearing. “If we are supporting design-build authorization, we just want to make sure NYCHA has systems in place to use it in an effective way.”

Reached last week, Gibson says she remains concerned about the agency’s capacity for using design-build well. But she’s happy and relieved that the state authorized the process for NYCHA, and she looks forward to working with the agency over the next few weeks.

“We really want to make sure they have the staffing they need,” she says. She hopes the agency can emulate the successes that the Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation have had using design-build as NYCHA makes in not only repairing boilers, but to fixing roofs and elevators, removing mold, and completing capital work.

Design-build lends itself better to certain types of projects more than others, but how much of an impact design-build can make at NYCHA — and whether the agency would be able to integrate the process into its workings efficiently — remains to be seen.

“NYCHA has the expertise to determine which projects would benefit from [design-build], and they should use it for those projects,” says Michael Rosen, who previously worked at NYCHA in capital projects and property management for more than a decade and now works at Breaking Ground, a supportive housing organization. Authorization for design-build, he says, allows the agency to use a tool available to others around the country.

As Next City has reported previously, twenty-five states authorize the use of the design-build process by all agencies for all projects, and another 17 states allow it to be widely used, according to the Design-Build Institute of America. New York is one of just eight states that limits the use of design-build — in New York’s case, to five agencies: the Transportation Department, the Environmental Conservation Department, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the New York State Thruway Authority and the New York State Bridge Authority — and now, the New York City Housing Authority.

While Rosen cautioned that design-build is not a silver bullet to solving all of NYCHA’s problems, it can certainly help to cut through the bureaucracy on the most urgent repairs. “I think people are going to be disappointed when a boiler project still takes time or isn’t reduced by that much because of design-build alone,” he says.

Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, recognizes design-build as an important ability for NYCHA to have, but warns of its limits in light of NYCHA’s capital needs. “You’re not going to allow NYCHA to do design-build and then suddenly they’re able to fix everything with the money they have,” Doulis says.

Design-build can allow construction to begin earlier than in a traditional process, called design-bid-build, because the design and construction phases occur simultaneously.

“The benefit of design-build is that it can dramatically decrease change-orders because the architects, the engineers and the contractors who are going to build it are all kind of working together very early on,” Doulis explains.

Actual cost and time savings of design-build vary depending on the project. “In most cases you find savings in both,” she says, “because time is money, and the longer projects go on, the longer the overruns go on.”

Currently, the firm MDG Design & Construction is coordinating a boiler replacement project at NYCHA’s Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway, Queens. The project is part of the $3 billion post-Hurricane Sandy grant from FEMA. In the aftermath of Sandy, the development’s boiler system needed a complete overhaul. Before the storm, Ocean Bay operated on a primary loop system with a central boiler plant in the basement of a central building serving all 24 buildings in the complex.

While the project didn’t quite use a formal design-build process, it does illustrate the potential of having the firm doing construction on a project involved in the earlier design phases of a project. MDG, overseeing the project, proposed an alternative design that would decentralize the boiler system by putting prefab boiler rooms on each building roof.

MDG Principal Nicola DeAcetis says that a true design-build process can make for lower costs and quicker project completion — in part because it would avoid a bid awarded to a contractor who low-balled the bid and expects to increase the profit with change-orders, which are costly and time-consuming.

“In this [design-build] process, the contractor assists with design development and submits a price proposal before the drawings are complete,” he says. “Usually, we work in tandem with our selected contractor and obtain a guaranteed maximum cost.”

While this designer-contractor collaboration within a design-build process can be more efficient, a traditional design-bid-build process accounts for checks and balances, according to Brian Loughlin, who previously worked at NYCHA in construction and real estate and is now at the firm Magnusson Architecture and Planning. In bid-design-build, an architect’s design checks against the construction contract.

“Part of the reason why the public procurement process has been stretched out the way it is … to make sure you’re paying for exactly what you think you’re paying for,” Loughlin said.

Without that check and balance system, design-build could pose a greater threat of mismanagement.

Cuomo addressed the need accountability within the design-build authorization. He stipulated that an outside consultant, whom he would select along with the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Speaker Corey Johnson and the NYCHA Citywide Council of Presidents, would oversee the construction process and related city funds.

The appointment of an independent manager gave Gibson more confidence that design-build’s impact at NYCHA. “Residents of NYCHA have lost faith in the process and the system,” Gibson says. “We have to do something better that could be different, give them the expedited services they deserve and need.”

NYCHA did not respond to requests for comment.

 

The Facts Behind the New York City Facts

A LinkNYC Kiosk on the street in Queens, NYC. (Credit: DanTD via Wikimedia Commons)

Berry Villegas walks his dog at least twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. Along the way, Villegas scopes out the silver LinkNYC kiosks. These 10-foot-tall, silver monoliths have replaced sidewalk payphones in more than 1,300 locations throughout the five boroughs. The kiosks provide free WiFi and calling functions and allow users to charge their phones.

Villegas looks to the gleaming, 55-inch screens on either side of the kiosks, seeking new additions to a series of numbered New York City facts, rotating among the paid advertisements, event listings, weather updates and transit alerts. If Villegas, 44, comes across a fact that strikes his fancy, he posts a picture of it on Instagram.

His family and friends back in Florida, where he lived before moving to the city in June, now know that there is a superhero supply store in Brooklyn (fact number 139), that New York City gets 15 times more snow than the South Pole each year (fact number 206) and that Martin Hildebrandt opened the United States’ first tattoo business in New York City in 1870 (fact number 304).

“Those are just things that stop you in your tracks and you go, huh, I didn’t know that,” Villegas says. “It’s nice to not just see someone selling me a phone plan or a movie trailer. It’s nice to see just facts.”

That’s the intention of Amanda Giddon, the woman behind the facts. Giddon works at Intersection, the company that manages the LinkNYC kiosks (soon to expand the network to Philadelphia). In addition to their primary functions, the kiosks host advertising and more than 50 other content campaigns, such as news headlines, information on how to sign up for health insurance, a series of comics, and the facts. The ads are on track to generate half a billion dollars in revenue over the next 12 years — enough to cover the cost of the LinkNYC kiosk services.

Giddon, 24, grew up in the New York suburbs, and still remembers the sense of awe she felt every time she rode the train thirty minutes into the city — a feeling she still experiences.

“Through this work, I’ve definitely re-connected with the city in a new way,” she said. Her interest in historical New York led her to recently pick up Jennifer Egan’s novel “Manhattan Beach.” She is eager to try Enoteca Maria, an Italian restaurant in Staten Island that features the cooking of a different grandmother each night. She heard about the restaurant during her fact research.

Giddon kicked off the NYC Facts campaign in early 2017, right when she started at Intersection. Before then, she’d been working in digital media for almost two years, after graduating from Duke University in 2015.

“My goal with this campaign is to really make New Yorkers feel like tourists and tourists like New Yorkers,” Giddon says. “The strategy is making [LinkNYC kiosks] a beloved member of the community and making life more enjoyable as people navigate the city.”

As of this writing, Giddon has curated 349 facts and rolls out new ones on a weekly basis. The Intersection communications team gives the facts a quick review before the they go live. What makes a good fact? “It’s something that can surprise and delight even the most seasoned New Yorker who’s lived decades in the city,” says Giddon, “And also can arm consumers with things they want to share with their friends.”

It can be a challenge, especially if you’re trying to surprise long-time New Yorkers. Giddon spends a few hours a week fact-hunting, which gives her an opportunity to follow her curiosity. From perusing Broadway.org, she learned that only five of the 40 Broadway theaters are actually on Broadway. According to data from Grow NYC, Greenmarket farmers travel an average of 90 miles between their farm and the city. She found that New Yorkers bite 10 times more people than sharks do worldwide while reading a Time magazine article. When FiveThirtyEight published a report on elevators in New York, the fact that 18 percent of the city’s adult population could be riding in elevators at a time caught Giddon’s eye.

A partnership with the National History Museum’s StarTalk Radio resulted in a series of celestial-themed facts. Giddon also worked with the Department of Records to create a series of historical photos displayed on kiosks in the neighborhoods where the photos were originally taken. Her plan to attend the Women’s March inspired a group of facts about women’s history and the suffrage movement in New York, all on display during the event.

Giddon keeps track of her facts on a spreadsheet and estimates that about two-thirds of the facts in her collection haven’t been published. Sometimes coworkers and friends will suggest facts to include, but Giddon must verify the facts before publishing them. Giddon finds the facts about firsts, such as the origins of the first Cappuccino or Manhattan cocktail, to be the most difficult to pin down.

“People feel so strongly about New York culture and history that I make it my duty to make sure we’re putting the right stuff out there,” Giddon says with a laugh, adding, “If something is wrong, we totally will get called out on it.”

 

Big Philly Employer Adds New Benefit for Bicycle Commuters

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia last week announced that it will add a bicycle commuting reimbursement to its employee benefits package beginning in January 2017. This means that for regular bike commuters, expenses like tuneups, new bike lights and replacement handlebars will be covered for up to $20 per month or $240 per year.

Thanks to the federal Bicycle Commuter Act, employers can offer the bicycle benefit on top of a salary without being considered taxable income. Ken McLeod, the state and local policy manager of the League of American Bicyclists, describes it as “a tax-preferred wellness incentive, a program that employers would invest in for employee health.” It could also be thought of as a reward for sustainable behavior, and can take the form of reimbursement checks, vouchers to local bike shops, or, as Penn will offer, a direct deposit separate from an employee’s regular paycheck.

Although the IRS sanctioned the bicycle commuter benefit in 2009, it hasn’t been widely adopted. A handful of smaller employers in Philadelphia offer the benefit, but neither City Hall nor the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia have data on how many or which ones — nor do they have programs to promote the use of the benefit. The League of American Bicyclists is the unofficial authority on the benefit, offering resources for employers, and for employees, who often push for the benefit to be offered in their workplaces, which is true in Penn’s case.

The university’s adoption comes after nearly seven years of requests. In the two years following the passage of the act, Sadie Robinson, the chair’s assistant in the Department of Genetics, along with David Barnes, a professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, separately reached out to the administration to ask for the bicycle commuter benefit and to inquire why it wasn’t offered. Soon after, they connected and organized the Penn Bike Commuters with Penn students, faculty and staff. Eventually, Barnes and Robinson were invited to join the university’s Bicycle Planning Committee, a group of Penn constituents including staff and administrators that reviews issues of regulations, resources and infrastructure at Penn, and is responsible for much of the progress made around bicycling culture on campus. In both groups, cyclists pushed for the bicycle commuter benefit.

Barnes says the university’s official responses always underscored its commitment to a green campus and highlighted how it had supported bicyclists in other ways. Penn “added bike repair stations on campus, supported National Bike to Work Day, and assisted in bringing three Indego Bike Share stations to campus,” according to Brian Manthe, Penn’s director of business services.

Manthe says that in the time between the first requests and now, Penn was figuring out how to pay for new administrative costs to manage the program, and whether to use an external provider or deploy new internal infrastructure. “We weighed those costs against other … transit investments we were making over that same time period and accordingly deferred our participation,” Manthe says. The recent implementation of Concur, a university-wide expense management system, now allows Penn to track expenses for the bike commuter benefit cost effectively.

It’s worth noting that the monthly allotment of the bicycle commuter benefit is significantly lower than that of parking or public transit benefits — which may suggest that, to employers and others, bicycling is an inferior form of commuting in relation to driving or taking public transit, or using a subsidized company car. But for Barnes, getting the bike commuter benefit wasn’t so much about the amount of money. “It was about the principle,” he says.

Adding bicycle coverage to parking and public transit benefits is a step toward equity among all commuters by legitimizing bicycling as a mode of transportation. “[Bikers] deal with a lot of cultural aggressions,” Robinson says. “When that is your daily experience and then you have an employer who doesn’t recognize your mode of transportation as being a safe and viable one, it’s really discouraging.”

Recipients of the bike benefit are barred from receiving both the bike benefit and a parking or public transit benefit in the same month — an aspect of the legislation that doesn’t reflect the reality of many employees’ commutes, but one that can make offering the bike benefit a bargain for employers.

“For every person biking, that’s one person not using the parking or transit benefit, which costs more to provide,” says Ben Hammer of Harvard University, which has been offering its employees the bike commuter benefit since 2013 and is a comparable size to Penn. At Harvard, the cost of paying a third party to administer the bike benefit in addition to the benefit cost of $20 per month per bike commuter is far cheaper than building parking space. Employers benefit in other ways when employees are incentivized to commute by bike (and keep their bikes in better working order). Quality Bicycle Products, a Twin Cities-headquartered bike part supplier that offers its employees robust benefits for commuting by bike, counts that among wellness efforts that led to a 4.4 percent reduction in healthcare expenses from 2007 to 2011.

For Robinson and Barnes, it’s about time that Penn recognizes its bicycling employees with this reimbursement. Along with improving infrastructure like bike lanes and providing amenities such as showers and reliable bike parking, the bicycle commuter benefit is part of greater initiative to make biking safer and more feasible for employees. As the biggest private employer in greater Philadelphia, Penn’s move may also serve as a model for other large employers.

 

Philly Walks Tricky Path to Better Sidewalks

A woman walks along a sidewalk in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

One of the most walkable U.S. cities, Philadelphia recently secured $2.67 million of federal funding to be spent on five community-based, nontraditional projects that will enhance safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit riders.

While each of the projects is important, only one directly addresses what is arguably the most basic of infrastructures for pedestrians: sidewalks. A survey by Feet First Philly, a pedestrian-advocacy group sponsored by the Clean Air Council, found that the top pedestrian complaint in the city is poorly maintained sidewalks, whether cracked, broken into chunks, pushed up by tree roots or completely missing. These sidewalks pose a safety issue for all pedestrians (especially those with limited mobility).

So why are Philadelphia’s sidewalks in such poor condition, and why isn’t there public funds allocated to repair them? Legally, sidewalk repair is the responsibility of homeowners, but historically, enforcement of upkeep has been thin. The Streets Department can issue one-time notices to owners over disrepair, which might come with a nominal fine, but there is essentially no follow-up. City law outlines a process for the Streets Department to get sidewalk repairs done without having to pay for the repairs itself. That model, according to License and Inspections (L&I) Commissioner David Perri, formerly of the Streets Department, is convoluted and outdated.

Perri has floated an informal proposal for L&I to take over the enforcement of sidewalk maintenance. The department would be able to issue formal violations to property owners with sidewalk defects, which would fall under L&I’s property maintenance code. If ignored, those violations would become part of the record for each property.

“Pennsylvania law requires the seller to provide certificates from local jurisdiction of any known defects on the property,” Perri says. Any violations would be discovered at the time of any real estate transaction, and the mortgage company, buyer or insurance company could insist that the defect be corrected, as part of a “point of sale strategy.” Already effective in cities like Pasadena, California, this strategy would allow property-rich but cash-poor sellers to complete repairs as property changes hands. For sidewalks that can’t wait for a sale to be repaired, Philadelphia Councilman Mark Squilla suggests L&I would have the authority to make the repair and lean the cost of the repair against the value of the property.

Both Perri and Squilla want to hold accountable those who can afford to repair their sidewalks, and they foresee no differences in enforcement whether the property owners are residential homeowners or owners of income-generating property, such as businesses or apartment complexes. “Commercial areas generate the most pedestrian traffic, so the risk of injuries on a broken sidewalk is increased,” says Perri. “There is no reason why they can’t maintain sidewalks; it’s the cost of doing business.” Strategies to assist low-income residents are in the works, and some see general taxpayer money as part of the repair solution.

“I think [sidewalks] should be part of the money we spend on transportation,” says Dennis Winters of Feet First Philly, “because people who walk are transporting themselves on their feet.” Winters would like to see public funds going toward sidewalk repair on a wider scale. In Los Angeles, the city has full responsibility for sidewalk maintenance, which has proved financially burdensome. Last spring, the city settled a class action lawsuit over dangerous sidewalks filed on behalf of people with disabilities by pledging to spend more than $1.3 billion on sidewalk repairs and improvements. Such a lawsuit would be disastrous for a cash-strapped place like Philadelphia. In contrast, San Jose’s 50-50 cost share program offers a model of how the cost of sidewalk repairs could be split between property owners and city, but that’s not quite a viable option in Philadelphia, whose already slim infrastructure budgets are stretched thin.

Some property owners, on the other hand, don’t understand why their private property is the city’s business.

“I would wonder why the city would have any liability at all. The sidewalk is my property. I’m reliable for keeping it smooth. If someone trips over my sidewalk, they sue me,” says the president of the Center City Residents’ Association, Chuck Goodwin, who voiced concerns with the Perri and Squilla’s ideas. “We’ve essentially decided that private people own these sidewalks and are responsible for them. I’m a little puzzled where the municipal liability is.”

The liability is actually two-tiered: The property owner is responsible if someone sues after an injury due to poorly maintained sidewalks, but the city has secondary responsibility because sidewalks are public infrastructure. This inextricable link between private property and public use underscores the complete streets ordinance, which ensures that city streets accommodate all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users or motor vehicle drivers. Complete streets — and the ADA-compliant design standards created to go with initiative — emphasize safety for everyone, including the elderly and those with disabilities, and its upkeep requires buy-in from various stakeholders who are responsible for different parts of the street.

Perri and Squilla’s sidewalk maintenance proposal is garnering much enthusiasm and gaining momentum through the conversations already happening. However, there’s still a long way to go before anything’s in bill form for city council. Issues remaining include determining responsibility for sidewalks abutting vacant or abandoned property; enforcing the repair of sidewalks for which the city is responsible; assisting low-income property owners; and compelling property owners to make repairs in a timely manner.

As Jane Jacobs wrote, sidewalks are places where children can learn “the first fundamental success of city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.” The way we go about maintaining our sidewalks exemplifies her point too.

 



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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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