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No Room of Their Own for New Yorkers in Need

5:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Many of NYCHA’s apartment buildings, like this Red Hook development, were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. (Shelley Bernstein / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The city that never sleeps may become the city where the poor can’t afford a place to sleep. While New Yorkers are used to battling astronomical housing costs and wedging themselves into closet-sized studios, hundreds of thousands of working-class residents have somewhere to call home thanks to the city’s public housing system. But now that already faulty system is facing a new assault from real estate developers.

In late July, New Yorkers from low and modest-income neighborhoods gathered at Pace University in Lower Manhattan to air their grievances against the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA.

Displaying signs proclaiming “Housing is a Human Right” and “Save Meltzer Park,” many in the crowd came to speak out about day-to-day struggles like rising rents and deteriorating buildings. But the focal point of the protests was the city’sproposal to lease 14 parcels of NYCHA land, scattered on eight housing complexes across the city, to private developers. Many housing activists fear the plan would pave the way for even more assaults on the city’s embattled public housing system and enable real estate financiers to consume more and more public-owned and community-oriented spaces.

Rose Clifton, who is pushing 80 and serves as Resident Association President of Brooklyn’s Park Rock development, came to the protests to voice frustration with inadequate funding and neglected repair needs, like mold and floods, in addition to an overall sense that the city was neglecting poor tenants even as they struggle with the rising rents. Unlike the city’s unregulated private rental market, NYCHA housing is largely geared toward lower-income households, with rents set according to residents’ ability to pay (based on a federal formula that adjusts costs around a threshold of about 30 percent of income). But Clifton said even with government support, housing costs still put a squeeze on tenants.

Under NYCHA’s rent rates, Clifton said, “The more money you make, the more they take. There’s people in there paying $1,000… [This] housing used to be for low-rent people.”

Still, despite Clifton’s sense that costs are rising above what her neighbors can afford, the city’s public housing system remains an increasingly isolated bastion of low rents: tenants pay an average of $436 per month and the average resident household income is roughly $23,000 a year.

The pro-business administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg points out to disgruntled tenants that the agency itself is strapped for cash. Earlier this year, the deficit kamikaze of federal sequestration blasted a $200 million hole in NYCHA’s budget. Though the City Council has sincepledged some funds to shrink the shortfall to about $150 million, the infusion is aimed at just keeping basic community facilities open and staffed, including dozens of NYCHA-run senior centers.

On top of the heavy cuts, NYCHA faces a groaning backlog of hundreds of thousands of repair requests, with many families waiting years for basic sink and electrical repairs. Last year, Superstorm Sandy heaped even more damage onto already dilapidated buildings. Read the rest of this entry →

New York Wants to Boost Food Manufacturing, but Will Communities get a Raw Deal?

10:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(afagen via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Under the reign of New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has issued millions of dollars in business development subsidies to beleaguered urban neighborhoods, meant to create new jobs and promote entrepreneurial spirit. Now the NYCEDC is teaming up with Wall Street to give loans to local food manufacturers, but activists who have examined the city’s development track record smell something fishy.

The NYCEDC’s new loan fund grew out of a partnership with Goldman Sachs, which is running a glossy nationwide campaign to pump seed money into small businesses in several cities. The initiative seems geared toward incubating foodie-friendly startups, conjuring up images of rooftop-grown honey and specialty cupcakes. No loans have been awarded yet, but the program’s eligibility criteria appears to target small- to medium-scale food manufacturers that have four to 100 workers and annual revenues between $150,000 and $7,000,000, and can demonstrate “difficulty obtaining credit from traditional sources.” The agency’s website spotlights honors for charismatic local entrepreneurs, like boutique kimchee and artisan bagel makers.

Community groups say they welcome efforts to foster small food businesses, but are wary that the program will offer more hype than real development for a city that’s hungry for good, steady jobs. Labor advocates who have been organizing in the local food sector know that many local producers, even if they’re smaller than industry behemoths like General Mills, are not necessarily much kinder to their employees. Read the rest of this entry →

Sex Workers and Cabbies Swept into New York’s Anti-Prostitution Dragnet

1:45 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: craigCloutier via flickr/Creative Commons

Cross-posted from In These Times

Two quintessential cliches of New York City street life are heading into more trouble with the law: yellow cabs and prostitutes. To combat the sex trade, the city is pursuing pimps via taxi. But some civil rights advocates fear the measure targets the wrong kind of traffic.

The newly signed legislation aims to punish cab drivers who abet prostitution, with a focus on those who “knowingly engage in a business of transporting individuals to patrons for purposes of prostitution, procuring and/or soliciting patrons for the prostitution, and receiving proceeds from such business in collaboration with traffickers and pimps.” The law imposes new criminal penalties, including fines or the loss of a license, for various forms of “promoting prostitution” while using the taxi.  It also mandates trainings to inform drivers about the legal consequences of “facilitating sex trafficking” and about social services available to trafficking victims. The evidence of cabbies’ involvement in the sex trade is anecdotal at best—there was recently a high-profile trafficking case in which livery cab drivers were nabbed in connection with “brothel on wheels.” But the ubiquity of taxis, popularity of paid sex services, and lack of parking space in the city has apparently led lawmakers to focus on yellow cabs as a critical link in the crusade against trafficking.

The reality of sex work in the city involves far more than dramatic stereotypes of pimps, johns and their drivers. First, advocates for sex workers point out that prostitutes are not necessarily trafficking victims, and that the language of the legislation threatens to blur the line between voluntary prostitution and trafficking, which generally involves coercion and economic exploitation. Read the rest of this entry →

While Schools Sink, NYC Teachers Get Slammed in Shame Game

9:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: www.justseeds.org

Cross-posted from In These Times.

If ensuring the quality of teaching in public schools were a perfect science, you’d think that officials would have figured it out by now: since the enactment of the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind law, teachers have been measured, graded and ranked by all kinds of metrics, from demographic trends to standardized test scores. And yet we can’t seem to find that elusive numeric solution to the crisis in public education—possibly because complex social problems can’t be reduced to averages and bell curves.

But the fuzzy math hasn’t stopped New York City from publishing data reports for some 18,000 public school teachers: ratings based on convoluted performance measurements measures for reading and math classes in the fourth through eighth grades.

While officials pit the public’s supposed “right to know” against teachers’ privacy rights (a similar political controversy exploded in 2010 over teacher data for Los Angeles schools), the data hasn’t done much to enhance public understanding of what’s going on in the classroom. Many educators and parents are confused or angered by data that are, according to news reports, riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Though the “value added” ratings are supposed to account for some social disparities, the teachers union and other critics decry the methodology as critically flawed. The figures are further muddled by seemingly arbitrary variance in ratings among schools, as well as massive margins of error (dozens of points in math and reading scores).

Methodological gaps aside, the major problem with the data is an ethical one: the idea of “naming and shaming” teachers as a way to spur school improvement. Karen Fine, a teacher at Manhattan Public School 134, commented on New York Times’ Schoolbook website: Read the rest of this entry →

Ten Years On, Sick Ground Zero Workers Still Without Proper Care

6:07 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Bob Houlihan. Creative Commons.

This weekend, the public will mourn a site of loss, recasting the painful memories and haunting fears that still hover over the aftermath at Ground Zero. But the people who worked and breathed that tragedy in the days and months following September 11 won’t be at the primary commemoration ceremony for the families of victims. The Mayor’s decision to limit the attendees by excluding the 9/11 first responders is an unnerving metaphor for an unhealed scar of 9/11. Many of the rescue and recovery workers who labored at Ground Zero have been plagued by a metastasizing medical crisis, aggravated by chronic political failure.

This week, 9/11 firefighters and police chiefs rallied to demand changes to the rules governing compensation for health problems tied to poisonous air and debris at Ground Zero. They want federal funds to support treatment for cancer, which is currently omitted from the primary legislation covering Ground Zero-related medical needs. For years, researchers have been uncovering fresh evidence of widespread and devastating illnesses afflicting a large portion of people exposed to the aftermath; ongoing health issues range from crippling lung and breathing problems to post-traumatic stress disorder. But adequate funding for 9/11 workers has often been ensnared in political gridlock, not to mention the general incompetence of the healthcare system.

The UK Guardian reports that new research could trump politicians’ concerns over potential cancer liabilities:

Cancer treatment has been specifically excluded from federal health funding, with officials arguing there has been insufficient evidence to prove any direct link between the toxins present at the site and the disease.

But last week the results of the first large-scale study, published in the Lancet, found that firefighters who were involved on the day of the attacks and in the weeks that followed had a 19 percent higher risk of contracting cancer.

The study looked at 9,800 male firefighters, comparing those present during and after the attacks with those who were not involved.

Beyond the study’s findings, there’s disturbing anecdotal evidence of cancer and various other problems, like gastric ailments and the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis. No one knows what the long-term effects are, but whatever the fate of these responders, there are about 15,000 people currently receiving treatment who will need answers soon. Read the rest of this entry →