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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 →

Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ from Superstorm Sandy

8:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Fleshman / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Three months have passed since Hurricane Sandy battered New York and trashed the New Jersey coastline, and she hasn’t left. She’s still stalking the landscape strafed with mold and broken homes, and local activists worry that the government’s promises of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding will flood the storm-battered regions with further political turmoil.

Beyond the initial trauma of power outages and waterlogged houses, longer-term struggles still loom over communities like the Rockaways and the Staten Island coast. With recovery funding finally trickling down from Capitol Hill after weeks of gridlock, activists hope the resources won’t be exploited by predatory businesses and politicians, but rather channeled toward creating more inclusive, healthy communities.

In some ways, the grassroots recovery advocates have gotten a head start. Many of the early relief efforts have been radically volunteer-driven, and the Occupy Wall Street offshoot Occupy Sandy has often proven more effective and efficient than the bumbling “official” response by FEMA and other authorities. But how will the Occupiers fare in the impending scramble for contracts, grants and loans while businesses, organizations and government agencies all try to impose corporate visions for reconstruction on the storm-ravaged landscape? Read the rest of this entry →

Reluctant to Hire the Unemployed? Too Bad, Says NYC

8:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Originally posted at In These Times

How do you get a job without experience? How do you get experience without a job? And so it goes for millions of people trapped in a dismal cycle of joblessness.

On Wednesday, New York City took a step to help unemployed workers out of that spiral. The City Council approved a groundbreaking measure to bar employers from using unemployment status as a deciding factor in reviewing job applicants. It would also outlaw job advertisements that make explicit reference to employment status itself as job criteria. By updating the city’s anti-discrimination policies, the legislation would enable individuals to file complaints or sue if they are “available for work, and seeking work” and have been unfairly denied consideration simply because they’re out of work.

The bill, passed by a 44-to-4 margin, is just a modest action against the crisis of chronic unemployment. But it draws a line against a relatively invisible form of discrimination fueled by the Great Recession. According to the latest employment statistics, the number of those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more has remained stubbornly high, constituting about 39 percent of the unemployed. In New York City, where unemployment is particularly severe, an analysis by the think tank Fiscal Policy Institute found that in 2012, about half of unemployed residents spent more than six months seeking work. The average duration of unemployment in 2012 topped 40 weeks in New York City. Women, blacks, and workers in older age brackets have been especially hard hit.

Read the rest of this entry →

At ‘Urban Uprising’ Conference, Activists Reimagine the City Post-Sandy

10:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

“occupy sandy. 520 clinton avenue.” (bondidwhat via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Disaster has a way of concentrating the mind. And Gotham has always had its share of it: whether it’s a slow-burning disaster like the epidemic of income inequality, the endemic scourge of police brutality and racial profiling, or the chronic deprivation of healthy food in isolated neighborhoods. Superstorm Sandy churned all of these elements of urban chaos. But in its wake, the storm has laid bare new pathways for innovations, and new frontiers for struggles against inequality.

The undercurrent of these contradictions ran through a conference this weekend dedicated to “designing a city for the 99%,” a possibility made more real and urgent in the storm’s aftermath. Urban Uprising, held at the New School and the CUNY Graduate Center (where this reporter is also a graduate student), brought together academics, legal experts, organizers and urban ecologists to broach fresh questions about organizing communities: how to harness the energy of Occupy and channel it into direct, localized campaigns; how to balance environmental renewal with economic development; and how to reorient debates on food policy away from apolitical consumer interests and toward the connection between food justice and fighting poverty.

The post-Sandy recovery process colored discussions of one of the main themes: “reimagining the city,” which focused on cultivation, both literal and figurative, of a new urban landscape.

David Harvey, a City University anthropology and geography scholar, has long argued that the Left must learn to organize at the level of the city. His work on the links between urbanization and capitalism helped invigorate the “Right to the City” alliance, one of the groups that organized the conference. During the conference, Harvey noted the ways in which community initiatives like Occupy Sandy are reclaiming urban space for popular struggle. “In a way,” Harvey said in an interview with In These Times, Occupy Sandy is “spreading a political message by a different route. And therefore, Occupy has not gone away. It’s moved into the boroughs… It is therefore a commitment to a different kind of lifestyle, a different kind of on-the-ground politics which in the long run may be just as important as the symbolic politics of Zuccotti Park.”

A broader political backdrop to the discussions was the looming security state that has crystallized over the past decade, putting communities under both economic and political siege. Groups like the Immigrant Defense Project and the Los Angeles Community Action Network described struggles against the militarization of policing around the country, as well as the growing transformation of local police into agents of immigration enforcement, counterterrorism and drug wars. Read the rest of this entry →

Post-Sandy Relief Workers Toil in Tough Labor Conditions

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

ConEd employees and other relief workers in New York City face dangerous environmental conditions and exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (Dan DeLuca / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, residents of storm-battered communities from Coney Island to Long Beach are still living with darkness, squalor and a growing sense that they’ve been abandoned by official response teams (notwithstanding valiant grassroots volunteer efforts).

But as public frustration mounts, the emergency responders, manual laborers and utility workers on the front lines have their own frustrations. Many are laboring under precarious work conditions while their own neighborhoods still struggle to recover from storm damage.

In places that are still lacking utilities–including many public housing units that had their services preemptively shut down as a protective measure–a wave of anger is beginning to crest. The Long Island Power Authority in particular has come under fire for leaving tens of thousands customers still powerless as of November 12. And New York Daily News‘ Denis Hamill recently reported on the lonely struggle of Far Rockaway residents. When asked about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) providing clean-up assistance, Cynthia Torres complained,“They never came once to see how we were doing when we were living for 10 days in the pitch dark with no phones, no hot water, no heat, no cable, sometimes no drinking water or food, no nothing. Two NYCHA guys came today for the first time since the storm.”

Storm-hit New Yorkers have voiced frustration at the “chaos” of ConEd’s response, particularly poor-to-nonexistent communications with customer service.

But the workers leading the power restoration are similarly frustrated by what they see as an underlying crisis of an eroded, overwhelmed workforce. Following the storm, Local 1-2, the utility workers union that led a groundbreaking labor standoff at ConEd last summer, issued a statement suggesting that exasperated customers should understand that the damage exceeded official estimates and was far beyond workers’ capacity in the immediate term: “if you think a repair crew is slow to get to your area, please keep in mind that we are just like you, and that we are seeing things that have never happened before. It is that serious.” Read the rest of this entry →

Civil Rights Groups File Complaint Over New York’s High Stakes Tests

7:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, which signed on to the complaint about race and class bias in secondary-school entrance exams, holds a press conference to protest public school defunding and closing in underserved areas. (New York City Coalition for Educational Justice)

Originally posted at In These Times

Every year, New York City middle-schoolers subject themselves to a grueling academic ritual that could make or break their educational futures, or so they’re told. The 2.5-hour multiple-choice Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) serves as the sole gateway to a suite of elite public schools—particularly Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical. The kids who make the cut tend to be disproportionately Asian and white; Latino and black students are vastly underrepresented.

Civil rights groups are now waging a legal challenge accusing New York City’s education authorities of tying the elite tier of schools to an arbitrary test that effectively perpetuates inequality. The complaint was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College on behalf of a coalition of civil rights and community groups.

The backdrop to the legal controversy is a growing rebellion against high-stakes standardized tests, which some say perpetuate racial and socioeconomic equity in urban schools. The SHSAT is separate from the state’s standardized test system (which is designed to comply with federal education reforms), but, as a gatekeeper to educational opportunity, raises similar concerns. Read the rest of this entry →

ConEdison Puts New York’s Power at Risk During Heat Wave with Lockout of Workers

12:20 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

John Knefel via Alternet

Originally posted at Alternet

As the summer heat seared New York City, tensions between the city’s major electricity company and its union reached a boiling point over the weekend. By Monday, a meltdown in the talks over pensions and benefits left thousands of Consolidated Edison utility workers suddenly frozen out of their jobs. The lockout, a classic anti-union tactic, had paralyzed both the negotiations and the livelihoods of some 8500 union members. But that afternoon, scores of locked out workers assembled outside ConEd headquarters near Manhattan’s Union Square to show they would keep the heat on their boss.

Mario, a 55-year old worker at ConEd’s East River Generating Station, wasn’t shocked by the lockout. “It’s corporate America. A lot of greed, a lot of arrogance,” he said. “Blame the unions, blame the workers, take their benefits away, and just keep increasing their bonuses.”

As of Monday, ConEd was operating on an emergency staff, with about 5,000 “managers” replacing the locked-out workers. The company promised to maintain “essential operations,” though fears of electricity breakdowns loomed large as scorching heat blanketed ConEd’s millions of customers across the five boroughs and Westchester. There were no catastrophes immediately following the lockout, according to local news reports, but outages hit some neighborhoods, and a substation fire in Brooklyn injured a manager.

Local outlets reported that talks with the union,Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 stalled early Sunday morning, hitting a major impasse on the issue of pensions. The union said it was kicked out following a dispute over protecting workers’ retirement and health benefits, though ConEd claimed it was open to extending the talks, as long as the union agreed not to strike without first giving the company “advance notice”. The union blasted the move to constrain its striking power, noting that this concession would undermine its leverage during negotiations.

Debbie Thomas could have used some advance notice. The customer service representative would normally have gone to work at the headquarters but found herself stuck outside on Monday, standing with her fellow union members at the demonstration and getting ready to tap temporary unemployment benefits as she waited for a contract deal. 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 →

Ground Zero Workers May Get Cancer Coverage, But the Health Disaster Remains

9:54 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

WTC 9/11

(photo: slagheap/flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times

More than a decade after the Twin Towers came crashing down, the disaster still weighs heavily on the bodies of workers and survivors. A federal panel’s recent decision on cancers related to 9/11 could bring some long awaited relief, as well as new challenges for sick survivors of Ground Zero.

The panel’s analysis may open a channel for covering various forms of cancer through the healthcare fund of the federal Zadroga Act, which offers compensation for sicknesses resulting from the disaster. Though the multi-billion dollar fund won’t expand without further congressional action, the panel’s decision is a boost for survivors who had previously met resistance from lawmakers who were reluctant to include cancer care in the program, fearing the potential financial liability.

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health called the decision a breakthrough. “It is the preliminary and necessary first step to including a whole range of people who are suffering from various types of cancer, and essentially opening the door to medical services and compensation,” he said. But he added, “There are number of unanswered questions that still remain,” including challenges people may face in applying for compensation, through a process constrained by the legislation’s five-year time frame and pending federal guidelines on the review process for health claims.

Since 9/11, emergency responders and other survivors have been plagued with health problems associated with dust and pollutants surrounding the “Ground Zero” site. Advocates say the health problems were aggravated by the government’s failure to provide protective gear and other safety measures following the disaster. Read the rest of this entry →