Those Darn Kids…

Emi Wang

The Atlantic Terminal mall in Brooklyn, developed by Forest City Ratner, has begun enforcing a long unheeded restriction that groups of four or more teenagers under 21 years of age are not allowed to hang around the premises unless accompanied by a parent. The restrictions are promoted as a bid to improve safety and prevent the formation of disruptive crowds, but in practice, it appears that security guards have been turning away groups even smaller than four, and the policy certainly advances the specter of discrimination.

As private establishments, the Atlantic Terminal and other shopping centers that have enacted similar measures are well within their rights to enact these sorts of restrictions. However, malls are private enterprises that also function as key public spaces utilized by the masses. Even in New York City, and particularly for kids from the area or the neighboring high schools, malls operate, and are designed to operate, as more than just shopping destinations. They are formulated as places of leisure and entertainment, open to the public. And yet operated by a private owner, the courts have declined to recognize these functions and enforce government oversight. Malls are appealing for precisely this reason, providing a flavor of the public with the controlled order of the private, and it is this uneasy blend that the Atlantic Terminal’s recent policy has thrown into stark relief.

Paladino Dismisses Manhattan and Brooklyn

John Petro

The New York State Republican candidate for Governor has made it know that he doesn’t care much for New York City. Or rather, he doesn’t like Brooklyn or Manhattan.

First complaining about the traffic in these two boroughs, Paladino went on to insult the residents of Manhattan, calling them “smug, self-important, pampered liberal elitists.”

Well, besides traffic jams and “liberal elitists,” Brooklyn and Manhattan also have:
• One in five of all New York State residents.
• One-fourth of all state income.
• Over one fourth of all businesses in New York State.
• One in three jobs in the state.

Dismissing liberal Manhattan and Brooklyn may make political sense for a Tea Partier, but doesn’t make much economic sense for the state.

Why New York Needed the Federal Fiscal Relief – And Should Get More

Amy Traub

The fiscal relief bill signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday will unquestionably benefit New York City and other states and municipalities across the country. At a time of sluggish job growth and straight-jacketed local budgets, the bill will help cities and states to maintain critical public services, especially funding for education. By passing this legislation, Congress has acted to mitigate the impact of the crippling recession on America’s children and on our long-term economic prosperity, which relies on an educated workforce. Yet praise for the new law has been muted. The state and local support it provides will help to prevent the recession from getting worse – yet it is far from enough. Opposition from the right forced legislators to limit the size of the bill, hamstringing the nation’s economic recovery. Mayor Bloomberg and other city and state officials should continue to make the case for additional federal support.

First the good news: The new law will direct $200 million in education aid directly to New York City and will provide $400 million in additional support for the city’s Medicaid program. In New York State as a whole, the law will enable 8,200 teachers to stay on the job in our classrooms.

Had the legislation not passed, cities and states across the country would have laid off more workers, more services would be lost, and additional taxes would be raised to cope with budget shortfalls. Consider those services first: as Paul Krugman pointed out in his powerful recent column, the lights are already going out in America. Classroom are more crowded, over-stretched fire companies are responding more slowly to emergencies, dangerous bridges go unrepaired, smooth and efficient roads are turned back into gravel. In New York we already see transit cutbacks, shorter library hours and shuttered senior centers.

Pundits and politicians on the right have tried to portray fiscal relief as nothing more than a giveaway to teachers and the other public employees who work to keep our communities running, but the reality is that the loss of public services has a powerful immediate impact on our quality of life and the nation’s future. Thankfully, the law passed by Congress will soften some future impacts in New York and nationwide. Yet even as he hailed the new federal aid to the city, Mayor Bloomberg warned of continuing revenue shortfalls that may leave him calling for more cuts in the next year.

The bill is also important for helping to sustain state and city spending and employment that provides vital support to the private economy. Wall Street economists, no liberals themselves, find that state and local spending cuts are a drag the nation’s economic growth. In short, cutting city and state spending kills private sector jobs, and maintaining some of that spending, as the fiscal relief bill does, preserves them It’s no wonder that the Economic Policy Institute projects the legislation will save more than 300,000 jobs, keeping not only teachers and police officers, but employees of the local businesses they patronize out of the unemployment line. As the U.S. Conference of Mayors notes, “This money will save jobs, and is an important first step in strengthening our nation’s economy.”

But the emphasis is one the “first step.” As we struggle to recover from the loss of millions of jobs, saving 300,000 positions is not good enough. Preserving employment for 161,000 teachers is necessary but not sufficient for cities facing layoffs of 500,000 employees in the coming years. It’s telling that the U.S. Conference of Mayors moves directly from praising Congress and the President for passing critically needed aid to calling for passage of the Local Jobs for America Act, which would more adequately address the devastating employment and budget consequences of the deep national recession. Rather than resigning themselves to killing jobs and slashing services to deal with the city’s continuing budget deficits, Mayor Bloomberg and New York City’s leaders should join the U.S. Conference of Mayors in demanding the support our communities genuinely need.

Postscript: A misguided focus on deficits and tax cuts also drove legislators to seek funding from a deplorably source, redirecting money from future food stamp benefits to pay for the budget relief our communities need now. This trade-off between our schools and hungry families should not have been necessary. Congress should act to restore funds for food stamps as soon as possible.

Hooray for Albany? Legislature Acts to Boost Working People and the Economy

Amy Traub

Griping about Albany is always in style: pundits denounce late budgets, lax ethics rules, and special interest shenanigans. And they’ve got a point. But in the end-of-session frenzy, state legislators are also taking far more positive action: raising workplace standards for some of the state’s most exploited workers, many of whom (no surprise) live and work in New York City. By lifting pay and strengthening protections for low-wage workers, the new legislation will also promote economic recovery.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights gets the most ink, and for good reason: once it’s signed by the governor, this landmark law will be the first in the nation to set basic labor standards for household employees like nannies, caregivers and housekeepers. As I noted in an earlier post about the measure, the bill

guarantees basic workplace protections like overtime pay, the chance to take at least a day off every week, coverage under employment discrimination laws, advance notice if a domestic employee is about to be fired, and minimal paid sick time and vacation. It would apply to 200,000 domestic workers in New York currently subject to the whims of their employers when it comes to these fundamental rights.

But a law doesn’t need to be the first in the nation to be effective at protecting New Yorkers on the job. The Wage Theft Prevention Act, passed in slightly different versions by the State Senate and Assembly and awaiting reconciliation, follows the footsteps of successful legislation in Miami-Dade County and in states from Washington to Wisconsin. The bill strengthens incentives for employers to comply with the wage and hour regulations already on the books by stiffening penalties for cheating employees out of wages, encouraging workers to come forward, and providing new avenues for investigating and prosecuting wage theft cases - and ensuring violators will pay up. The need for this legislation is vividly highlighted by research revealing that in New York City alone, an estimated 586,000 low-wage workers a year see a portion of their pay stolen by employers, losing an aggregate $18.4 million every week as a result.

Finally, Albany is acting to make good on the promise that the state government shouldn’t undermine the pay of private sector employees. By clarifying standards that require service workers employed at public agencies to be paid the prevailing wage for their job category, janitorial staff and security guards at massive utilities like Con Edison will see their wages and benefits rise to match the standard paid to other local workers in their industries. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

Together, these three bills will increase workplace protections for nearly 800,000 working New Yorkers, adding to the security of their families. And while the legislation includes critical safeguards on issues like employment discrimination and adequate time off, the bills also provide an increase in pay for some the lowest paid workers in New York. By putting money in the pockets of working people, they will boost local businesses and contribute to the state’s economic recovery.

While critics carp that the bills will be “burdensome” to business and could harm job creation as a result, the facts are against them. Business is on its way to recovery: corporate profits jumped 44% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to a year earlier. Yet growing profits have not prompted a comparable increase in hiring. Small businesses, meanwhile, continue to report that the biggest factor harming their profitability is weak sales and a lack of customers. Putting more money into the hands of people who will spend it, as these bills do, will encourage the consumer demand that spurs companies to hire.

Columnist Errol Louis at the Daily News notes that the state legislature “racked up a number of solid achievements that will increase opportunity and fairness for working people.” He’s right. And all of New York stands to benefit. Governor Paterson should sign the three pro-worker, pro-economy bills as soon as they hit his desk.

Negotiating Land Use

Emi Wang

Though it remains unlikely that the Charter Review Commission will recommend major changes come November to New York’s complex Uniform Land Use Review Process, the recent debate that has emerged in issue forums that will continue to be held throughout the summer between the city, developers and community advocates suggests that there is much room for discussion. A seven-month review process, ULURP governs the procedure through which the city examines potential zoning changes and development projects, involving community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

The current chairwoman of the Planning Commission asserts that the current process functions just fine, and sees no reason to make adjustments. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tom Agnotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College, has emerged as the most vocal proponent of initiating significant changes to the city’s land use approach. He argues that in order for community boards to have real power, they must have the proper resources (increased funds and staff) with which to grapple with complicated land use decisions. He also contends that urban planning in New York City occurs in fits and starts, and not as a result of comprehensive projects.

Agnotti’s proposal that makes the most sense, and that has the most room for consensus, concerns not ULURP itself, but instead what occurs outside of its official purview. In addition to developments that bypass ULURP completely, much of what is presented to the land use review process has already been decided. Fearing that projects could be completely derailed in the middle of the seven-month evaluation, developers meet with public officials and community advocates before ULURP is legitimately commenced. As a result, the agreements that materialize occur out of the public eye and beyond the reach of the city’s land use regulations. The environment review portion, as well as the community benefits agreements that are often brokered between developers and neighborhood organizations, are hammered out with little transparency. By the time that official negotiations begin, the major decisions and blueprints have already been decided. While ULURP may amend various aspects of a development, it very rarely rejects a project entirely. This, surely, is one aspect of the process that we can all agree warrants another look.

Tortured Logic for Suffering Cities

Amy Traub

Who needs jobs and public services when you could be shuttering libraries and cutting pay at the Parks Department? That’s essentially the question the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas asked in an absurd recent opinion piece in the New York Post. As the Senate finally moved to introduce its version of the Local Jobs for America Act, investing billions of dollars in local job creation, Gelinas insisted that New York and other cities would be better off without the support.

Her twisted logic? Stimulus legislation hurts American cities because it allows us to maintain public services we depend on but might someday need to raise taxes to continue.

All the “temporary” stimulus did was let the politicians off the hook: No need to make politically tough cuts to get the fisc under control; just keep increasing outlays as if financial bubbles would keep saving us forever.

Given that city budget crises across the country are a product of the nation’s deep recession, it would take a few years of strong economic growth – not “financial bubbles” – to set most municipal budgets right. But why help cities through the roughest economy in decades when you could be closing senior centers and health clinics? It’s as though these “tough cuts” were valuable in their own right, instead of devastating to communities.

As if keeping day care centers open weren’t enough, Gelinas argues that extending a lifeline to American cities has another “negative” effect. “Obama and Congress took away the leverage City Hall and Albany would have had over intractable labor unions.” In other words, suffering is good for our cities because it encourages us to squeeze the sanitation workers and destroy teacher pensions, another move that’s supposed to be intrinsically valuable. In fact, it may be intrinsically valuable, if your goal is to undermine government.

As I argued in an article in the July 5 issue of the Nation:

It’s a short step from lambasting public workers to rejecting the very idea of public goods and services—and of government itself. With the nation still reeling from the harm caused by underregulated markets, conservatives are using city and state budget crises to call for across-the-board privatization, entrusting unaccountable private companies with an ever greater share of the public good.

Paul Krugman has deftly debunked the arguments that budget deficits somehow prevent the federal government from supporting local communities and igniting the economic recovery we need. But critical steps to create jobs could be derailed by even less logical arguments that tap into myths of overpaid public workers as part of a right-wing anti-government campaign. This tortured logic needs to be exposed as well.

New York Finally Puts a Lid on Health Insurance Profiteering

Amy Traub

Yesterday Governor Paterson signed a bill giving New York the power to review increases in health insurance rates in the individual and small group markets. If insurers are raising rates higher or more quickly than is warranted, the state could veto increases before they take effect. The legislation will be a boon to small businesses in New York City and across the state, which currently pay sky high premiums to cover their employees.

The legislation is particularly timely now, as Pennsylvania’s insurance commissioner claims he has found evidence that health insurers in that state have been hiking rates not because of the growing cost of providing health care but simply “to pad revenues before federal health reforms are fully implemented.” Whether or not insurers are playing the same tricks right now in New York, a roll-back of the Pataki-era deregulation that sent insurance rates soaring is long overdue. Here’s what I wrote about the subject in 2005:

Imagine this: your insurance company wants to charge you more for health care, but they can’t do it until you get a chance to look at their finances and see if the extra cost is legit. They can’t do it until they hold a public hearing where you can tell the corporate bigwigs exactly what that extra cost will mean to you. And they can’t do it unless our public officials sign off. As we heard at DMI’s Marketplace of Ideas event on Monday that’s exactly what Assemblymember Pete Grannis is trying to accomplish in New York

According to Crain’s New York Business, State Insurance Superintendent Howard Mills also wants this ability to regulate health insurance rates. Crain’s is surprised that an appointee of the generally anti-regulation Pataki administration would suggest new rules for insurance companies. But Mills recognizes it’s both good politics and good policy.

It’s good policy because health insurance rates in New York are out of control. Premiums hikes are in the double digits year after year and HMO profits keep going up. What’s more, New York already regulates other kinds of insurance. When insurance companies wanted to raise their premiums for workers’ compensation by a whopping 29.3 percent last year, the State Insurance Department took a look at their books and said it wasn’t warranted. Employers across the state benefited when their insurance costs remained steady. Those of us struggling to afford health insurance should get the same opportunity.

As for the good politics: how would you feel about a public official who had successfully taken on the insurance companies and kept your rates from going up?

So why did it take so long for New York to move on this matter of good politics and good policy? Lobbying and generous campaign contributions by health insurers and their allies is the easy (and correct) answer. Yet they still needed someone to make the tortured case that, in fact, reining in insurance rates would actually be bad for New Yorkers. I have to admit, I enjoyed puncturing the Manhattan Institute arguments against this sensible regulation (here and here).

About Time: New York’s Domestic Workers May Finally Get Rights on the Job

Amy Traub

Is scrubbing somebody else’s floor “work”? How about staying up all night – every night – with another person’s colicky baby? Or helping their elderly mother shower and use the bathroom? The reality is, domestic workers like nannies, caregivers and housekeepers do some of the hardest and most necessary work around. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are able to do their own jobs and keep their families functioning only because they rely on the labor of nannies and caregivers, yet these domestic employees are denied the basic workplace protections most other workers are guaranteed. That may finally change when the New York State Senate finally votes on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (pdf) next week.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, sponsored by State Senator Diane Savino, guarantees basic workplace protections like overtime pay, the chance to take at least a day off every week, coverage under employment discrimination laws, advance notice if a domestic employee is about to be fired, and minimal paid sick time and vacation. It would apply to 200,000 domestic workers in New York currently subject to the whims of their employers when it comes to these fundamental rights. Many employers of domestic workers are excellent bosses who form warm personal relationships with their employees, but the personal stories of domestic workers collected by advocacy organization Domestic Workers United highlight the danger of making essential workplace standards contingent on the good will of employers.

As Meaghan Winter’s powerful recent article in Slate points out, even as a college-educated citizen working as a nanny for a boss she liked, she “found it hard to stick up for myself… I knew I should tell her that I needed a set salary and schedule, but I felt disposable and was afraid of confrontation.” She wished for “legitimacy and a code to rely on.” The larger workforce of largely immigrant women working alone in isolated homes where they may also live-in is still more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

As Winters also points out, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights addresses a tremendous historical injustice: when the Fair Labor Standards Act and other key workplace protections were passed in the 1930s, domestic employees and agricultural workers (also awaiting a legislative remedy in New York State) were deliberately excluded to secure the votes of Dixiecrat Senators opposed to workplace rights in occupations dominated by women and people of color. This legacy of race and gender continue to shape how domestic work is treated today. As Domestic Workers United noted in their 2006 report:

The struggle of domestic work is to be recognized as “real work.” Its historical roots in slavery, its association with women’s unpaid household labor, its largely immigrant and women of color workforce and exclusion from legal protections reinforce the notion that domestic work is less valuable than work outside of the home.

Historically, African slaves, indentured servants or hired maids performed housework. After the abolition of slavery, the paid domestic workforce became predominantly Black women until the Civil Rights movement opened doors to other occupations… [Today] Ninety-five percent of domestic workers in New York are people of color, and 93% are women.

The effort to overcome these barriers and pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights illustrates everything that is most frustrating – and most promising – about the New York State legislature. As Crain’s New York reports, “there is no organized opposition to the bill.” Yet the effort to enact it has taken years – becoming derailed most recently by last year’s coup in the State Senate. But for all Albany’s dysfunction, New York may yet be the first state in the nation to enact this precedent-setting labor reform: 72 years late, yet ahead of the pack.

The Wayback Machine

Karin Dryhurst

The Albany Project picked up a DMI video today of Andrew Cuomo’s running mate Mayor Bob Duffy talking cities back in 2007:

Cuomo’s Lieutenant: Leaving The City For The State

Harry Moroz

Back in the dark ages of December 2007 when the Great Recession was just beginning, Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy, Attorney General Cuomo’s pick for lieutenant governor, expressed concern about the federal government’s treatment of cities. He was worried that urban areas were not a priority for the Bush administration and criticized it for trying to win over hearts and minds in Iraq while losing them in urban areas at home.

Duffy put blame for the problems that he identified in many cities, including his own, on a “lack of forethought” and noted the lack of access mayors had to the White House during Bush’s presidency. Indeed, before traveling to Washington to meet with newly inaugurated President Obama after the passage of the stimulus package, Duffy released his own “official request” for federal economic recovery funds, including infrastructure and green jobs projects.

But Duffy has not simply cast stones at Washington. Stephen Goldsmith, New York City’s newest deputy mayor, highlighted Duffy’s efforts to improve the literacy rate in Rochester in a 2009 interview. And Duffy’s biggest fight, for control of Rochester’s schools, demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility for and charge of difficult challenges.

Additionally, Duffy’s perspective on cities is somewhat contentious given Rochester’s reputation for sprawl and the popular notion that “regions” and “metros” are the appropriate units of analysis for city thinkers. “There can be no suburbs without strong cities,” Duffy says. “Nobody wants to be a suburb of nothing. You have to be a suburb of something that’s really strong and vibrant.”

If elected as lieutenant governor, Mayor Duffy has the potential to bring a different urban perspective to Albany. Coming from upstate, Duffy would be uniquely situated to argue that dense, urban areas – all of them – are the most efficient places for investment. While a Cuomo administration would certainly need to keep up the pressure on the Obama administration’s urban policy efforts, Duffy, if elected, could use his experience in Rochester to create a state urban agenda for New York to address issues as diverse as lackluster state funding for the MTA, sprawl in upstate New York, and retention and creation of manufacturing jobs throughout the state.