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Effort to Organize New Residents in Gentrifying Neighborhoods Takes Advocates Into Uncharted Territory

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 12:00am

A new apartment building in Williamsburg (photo: Urban75.org)

An initiative to organize new residents in gentrifying neighborhoods is raising concerns among housing advocates. While organizers are eager to bring more people into the tenant movement, the initiative is in sensitive territory - new residents, a.k.a. gentrifiers, are so closely linked to the process of gentrification itself, which is taking neighborhoods by storm and causing considerable strife to many.

The initiative is still in its infancy but as advocates and tenants have learned of it, they've raised concerns that it could divide tenants just as a concerted push to lobby on the state's rent laws is starting. The laws are set to expire next June.

"This is very much an exploratory effort at this point - we've only had a few meetings," said Yonah Lieberman, the organizer at the Metropolitan Council on Housing that is developing the program. "Certainly, it is not our intention to divide tenants and we will revise the program to ensure that that does not happen."

The new initiative, dubbed the Neighborhood Sustainability Project (NSP), is pretty straightforward: new residents in gentrifying neighborhoods are tenants, too, and even if they are not the targets of the tactics - legal and illegal - that landlords use to force long-term low-rent tenants out, they are still concerned with rising housing costs and can bring energy and ideas to the housing movement.

Their link, however, to gentrification is something that makes new residents in these neighborhoods problematic to many who feel threatened by forces changing the city block by block. This is particularly true for those who see gentrification simply as a process of people moving to new neighborhoods; while that is not what defines gentrification, it is one of the more obvious indicators.

Gentrification is generally defined as a process of community renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into less affluent neighborhoods, which leads to the displacement of poorer residents.

"The reality is there are many bad actors involved [in the process] and they use a variety of tactics that are at best morally dubious and at worse, clearly illegal," said a housing financier who has worked in the sector for more than two decades and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The business models are sometimes premised on the idea of getting people out so that rents can be increased."

"[New residents] understand broadly that they're part of the problem, but they don't understand what the problem is," said Lieberman of the Met Council, which is the city's oldest tenant organizing group, and home to the NSP initiative. "The question is, 'How do we engage these people in the fight?'"

"It's a unique constituency," continued Lieberman, who moved to Crown Heights four months ago after a year-plus elsewhere in Brooklyn and sees himself as a good example. "And right now very few people are trying to talk to them, very few people are trying to engage with them and say, "Hey, look, here's how you get involved, here's how you fight the negative aspects of gentrification.""

But as young as the initiative may be, it is raising concerns because some advocates think it risks driving a wedge between tenants. In Crown Heights, for example, the Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU) has rallied tenants to fight against displacement tactics as gentrification has roiled the neighborhood. There, new residents have been and are members of the Tenants Union; but some fear the new initiative will pull them away or pull away potential new members - and that CHTU will lose power as a result and, worse, the opportunity to bring people together. Like other unions, tenant organizations are, after all, fundamentally about solidarity.

"With the Michael Brown and Eric Garner movement it feels like we're on the cusp of something big," said one organizer who wished to remain anonymous. "Organizing gentrifiers without engaging the long term community is not the integrative strategy our movement needs right now. We need to be coming together."

Donna Mossman, a member of the CHTU and a resident of the neighborhood for 38 years, echoed that view.

"To us, a tenant is a tenant," Mossman said. "We've made it a point to be inclusive. This is the last thing we need."

Another member - a new resident of the neighborhood - said the initiative was problematic because, at least in Crown Heights, the tenants union is as much about building community as it is about fighting bad landlords.

"I don't see how [the NSP initiative] gets us toward the goal of building up these communities," said Esteban Girón, who moved to the neighborhood about two years ago. "[CHTU] is not just about affordability - it's about getting to know your neighbors."

He added, "I'm in housing court with my landlord right now and my neighbors are supporting me ... and I've done the same for them."

To be fair, Crown Heights is a unique area for an initiative like this to be rolled out: few neighborhoods in the city have an umbrella group like CHTU, which has been highly effective since it was formed in 2013. In other areas, the initiative may be the only larger effort for new residents to join - and in areas where it is not, organizers are reaching out to the larger groups to collaborate.

"We're developing this to bring these tenants into the larger movement - not to exist independently on their own," Lieberman said. "We are working across the City to educate and engage gentrifers, who realize they are part of the problem but don't understand how or what they can do about it. Bringing them into the rent laws fight with long-term tenants is a critical piece of that.

"The CHTU has been a new and powerful force working against illegal tactics by landlords, building community and now looking to fight for stronger tenant protections." Lieberman continued. "We are not trying to replace that model in Crown Heights or anywhere else."

The new initiative is focusing on 11 gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including Crown Heights. The neighborhood is one of the more pointed examples of gentrification in the city today with regular news of increased rents and heated community meetings, and indications of uneasy relationships between the new people moving in and those who have lived there for years.

At a recent meeting of the CHTU attended by Gotham Gazette, about 40 tenants gathering in a health center's meeting room recounted a variety of typical housing issues: someone was doing drugs in the stairwell of one building, gaining entry because the front door's lock was broken; heat and hot water were scarce in another; a super was caught trying to record a meeting of tenants somewhere else. The CHTU meeting included new and old residents alike and any tension between them was not immediately evident.

A recent arrival to Crown Heights said he could see the rationale for a "newcomers" group but was not joining the effort - he said he was busy starting a tenants association in his own building. He was getting ideas and assistance from CHTU in his effort, he said.

"I can understand" that new residents have different issues, he said, asking his name not be used because he was concerned his landlord would retaliate for his activism. "In my building, when I had my first meeting, I had two newcomers and one [long-term] tenant - and the perspectives were radically different."

The long-term resident, he said, was not as upset about building conditions as the new residents.

"He was saying it's a lot better than it was 10 years ago," the organizer said. "But for us, we were just trying to get things on par with the rents being charged."

A more significant difference between long-term residents and new residents - and often the focus of organizing efforts - is the extent to which the former is subject to more harassment, buy-out offers, and other tactics landlords use to encourage or force them to leave. Some landlords consistently target long-term tenants, a problem new residents generally do not have to worry about.

Still, new residents do experience issues - if there's no heat or hot water in a building, everyone suffers, of course, and a landlord who is not making repairs might not discriminate among tenants - but they are usually paying the higher rents that landlords want them for. And landlords are not typically hauling newer tenants to housing court on bogus claims, not refusing to fix their apartments, and not offering them paltry or even moderate sums of money to move out.

Lieberman said many of the new residents signing up for the Neighborhood Sustainability Project live in unregulated apartments that have been illegally deregulated. In other words, these tenants - comprised of low- to moderate-wage workers like school teachers and employees of non-profits - need to understand that they are being charged illegal rents that can and should be challenged, he said. And doing so would contribute to preserving affordability in the city.

Along with Crown Heights, other neighborhoods where NSP is organizing include East and West Harlem, Washington Heights, Red Hook, Bushwick, and Bed Stuy.

The new initiative was also born out of concern that new residents are not being brought into the housing movement to the extent that they could or should be, Lieberman said - the long-time tenants unions, focused as they are on urgent displacement issues, simply cannot go after them.

This is a slight twist on an oft-expressed concern in the tenant movement: that it is too white, middle class and skewed toward the 50+ demographic; so, many groups try to attract and promote younger people, especially those of color. Generally, Lieberman said, the new residents NSP is attracting are young and white.

"The Crown Heights Tenant Union and organizations like it are doing important work to fight for tenants who are being actively displaced and harassed out of their homes, and NSP groups are hoping to partner with those types of organizations as a unified voice," Lieberman said. "Both types of organizing are working towards the same goal of enabling people to stay in their homes and ensuring that New York City stays affordable to all who want to live here in the future."

He continued: "One key difference between the two is about how they recruit tenants into the broader fight for that shared future. Organizations like the CHTU are educating tenants who want to know their rights to repairs, against buyouts and around going to court. Meanwhile, NSP serves as an entry-point and engagement tool for tenants who may not face the same immediate risks of displacement but want to be part of the movement fighting for affordable housing and sustainable neighborhoods. These are simply different aspects of the same fight."

The larger housing movement will not be divided because a core tenet of the new initiative is partnership, he added.

Still, some advocates are not altogether convinced. Historically, organizers have not targeted new residents, though, one said.

"When we were organizing on the Upper West Side back in the early 1980s, we didn't consider gentrifiers to be our core constituents, even though we were happy to help them with our rent clinics and other services," said Gerry Khermouch, who was active with the Columbia Tenants Union. "We didn't feel their problems had the same urgency as those of the long-time, rent-protected residents who were being ruthlessly displaced, or that their priorities necessarily were aligned with ours."

Further concern is that it could exacerbate tensions among new and old residents. The timing is not propitious: the ongoing protests against police brutality in the city have been broadly inclusive; framing any initiative as divisive is something organizers are very sensitive about to begin with and doing so now is akin to fighting words.

"This is preposterous," one told me. "We risk alienating the tenants who are suffering the harassment and other efforts of landlords to get them out."

Organizing gentrifiers is almost nonsensical, said another.

"Organizing should be transformative - how is [organizing gentrifiers] challenging the power - what power structure is that challenging?" the organizer said. "The tenant movement needs the power of young energized, people - I get that. But I think we really need more effort toward integration - it needs to be about integration and recognizing that gentrification is sort of about race."

"If we want a strong movement we need to connect all of these things," he added.

To some, targeting new residents could be key to increasing participation in the tenant movement.

"We're always talking about reaching out to new communities," another long-time organizer told Gotham Gazette. "This is another community in the city that we need to reach out to," he said of new residents.

Lieberman said the new initiative is bringing more tenants into the housing movement - almost 200 people have signed up to participate through early December. And some advocates are curious whether new residents could be mobilized as never before to renew and strengthen rent regulation laws, which are set to expire in Albany in June.

"We aren't doing this in a vacuum," Lieberman said. "Addressing race and privilege is central to the organizing."

While the city's continued housing affordability crisis makes it unlikely that state legislators will not renew the rent laws, which come up for renewal generally every five years, strengthening them is another matter, particularly because the State Senate is now more firmly in the hands of Republicans after the November elections: Republicans have traditionally opposed the laws.

"Aspects of this campaign are still evolving, but this [new organization] is something we think needs to happen," said Kenny Schaeffer, vice chair of Met Council on Housing's board and a long-time tenant movement leader. "We want to bring newer community residents into the fight to protect existing tenants from displacement by enacting stronger rent and eviction protections."

"Also," Schaeffer added, "some of the newer tenants live in de-regulated apartments. And a major part of the campaign to strengthen the rent laws in 2015 will include extending protection to these apartments, but no one's been organizing them before."

***
by Joe Lamport for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Regents seek a $2 billion school funding increase

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Add the state Board of Regents to the list of people who want a chunk of the $5.1 billion windfall in next year's state budget thanks to a series of bank settlements.

The Regents want more than $330 million to go to one-shot items that would include eliminating a funding lag in pre-K programs, helping school boards buy new electronic voting machines and help for about 10 school districts that have seen an influx of children from Latin America.

That's on top of the record operating request from the Regents who want an additional $2 billion more next year.

New York currently spends about $22.3 billion on state aid to schools, aside from the money raised from local taxes. State per-pupil spending is the nation's highest at a median $22,552 per head by one estimate.

The $2 billion request is higher than the $1.9 billion that a group of education industry groups ranging from the teachers unions to school boards association earlier said they wanted.

Despite that, Regent James Tallon, a former Assembly majority leader, urged people to look ''beyond the headline'' and consider all the changes that the state is trying to institute in the education field.

The biggest part of the increase would be a $1.2 billion rise in basic "foundation aid'' which would include an effort to catch up from the reductions instituted after the 2008 recession. Tallon stressed that he hoped that increase would be configured to help poor or needy districts that were hit particularly hard.

Other components included a $251 million increase for universal prekindergarten, with the bulk, $180 million, going to upstate and pre-K districts.

This year's budget includes $340 million for pre-K but $300 million of that goes to New York City, which early on was pushing for such programs which were a priority with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Other requests include $80 million to backfill the $700 million, five-year Race to the Top federal grant which runs out in June.

To get Race to the Top dollars, the state had to agree to implement a teacher evaluation program, which is still being finalized.

Tallon stressed that the final sum is ultimately up to the governor and legislature. "We don't have a role in that final decision," he said after the Board of Regents approved his request.

State aid in the current budget rose $1.1 billion from the year before.

The Regents request would be in addition to the $2 billion in school technology and building funds that voters in the form of a bond issue in November.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Campaign finance investigators OK'd

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

The state Board of Elections on Monday speedily approved a resolution conferring "special investigator" status on Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman and three former law enforcement officers who have been hired to handle campaign finance probes.

Sugarman's office, an independent unit within the board's operation, was created in the spring in the ethics deal that brought about the end of the Moreland Commission panel on public corruption. The special investigator status is needed to allow her and the three staffers to conduct searches in the state Department of Criminal Justice Services' databanks.

In November, the four commissioners — two Democrats, two Republicans — balked at the resolution as written, and instead gave the designation to Sugarman alone, effective only through the board's next meeting.

An hour into Monday's session, the commissioners turned to new business. Sugarman was asked if she wanted to comment on the resolution's return.

"We discussed it at two prior meetings," she said, "so I would just, uh — "

"So moved," said Republican Commissioner Greg Peterson, whose concerns about the newly designated investigators carrying weapons derailed the initial consideration of the resolution in October.

The resolution was approved with no further discussion.

"Thank you," Sugarman said.

Democratic Commissioner Douglas Kellner expressed concern that the enforcement office, which according to statute couldn't begin operations until September, was building up a backlog of cases of alleged noncompliance with the filing requirements of election law.

Sugarman assured him that the new process would ultimately result in a higher level of compliance, and told the commissioners that her next order of business would be addressing the boxes full of past uncollected court judgments levied against violators.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Bus trips planned to bring downstaters to New York ski areas

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Wilmington

A visitor to Whiteface ski center from, say, New York City, Long Island or New Jersey can get quite a surprise when coming upon the mountain for the first time.

It looks like a bit of Switzerland or maybe the Rockies has been moved to upstate New York, with steep craggy ski trails jutting skyward in a dramatic fashion.

Indeed, with a vertical rise of 3,216 feet, Whiteface is the tallest ski area east of the Rocky Mountains.

In strictly top-to-bottom terms, it's taller than places like Vail, Colo., which has 3,041 feet, not to mention storied Vermont resorts like Stowe at 2,132 feet.

The trouble is, Whiteface's location, some five hours from New York City, has been a barrier when one considers that the Catskills, southern Vermont or the Berkshires of Massachusetts are closer to the state's population centers.

At two hours away, even Montreal is closer to Whiteface than New York City is — and it's not uncommon to hear French spoken in the Whiteface lodge or on the ski lift lines.

The folks at New York state's Regional Olympic Development Authority, which operates the state-owed Whiteface as well as the Gore Mountain and Bellyeare ski areas, have long been aware of that distance.

And while nothing can shrink the mileage, the state this year is launching charter bus packages to northern areas like Whiteface and their southerly cousins at Gore in North Creek and West Mountain in Queensbury, Catamount in Hillsdale, Greek Peak near Cortland, as well as Catskill resorts like Hunter, Windham and Plattekill.

It's part of an effort to develop more package bus tours year-round.

The Whiteface effort is starting slowly, with just one package trip Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 ferrying skiers from downstate.

But tourism operators say they see potential.

"The appetite is there,'' Andrew Lynch, vice president of Hampton Jitney, the Long Island charter firm that is running the I Love NY trips, said of the desire for bus trips to the mountains.

Looking at bus trips also makes sense demographically, given the aversion of millennials, or those born starting in the early 1980s, to driving or even owning cars, organizers said.

A lot has been written about how this generation is more urbanized and prefers mass transit to cars. But members of this group still seek adventure, which is where the buses come in.

"If you look at the younger customers, the millennials, many of them don't have cars,'' observed Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group. "They definitely have an interest in getting out, so these charter trips have sweet spots.''

"A lot of people don't own cars," said Scott Brandi, president of the Ski Areas of New York, who agrees that millennials represent an untapped market.

ORDA officials also note that for drivers, much of the trip to Whiteface from points south is along I-87, a well-maintained divided highway that also serves as a major New York City-to-Montreal thoroughfare.

"It's an easy, one-shot route," said Lauren Garfield, Whiteface's sales and marketing manager.

"It's actually a lot easier," Brandi added, comparing the trip to Whiteface with trips to resorts in northern Vermont.

Whiteface is about a half-hour from Northway Exit 30.

Distance or not, there's no shortage of enthusiasts who make their way to Whiteface or other slopes, especially when the snow is flying.

There is an interesting phenomenon at work here, too.

A winter storm can trigger a "snow day'' in which schools cancel classes, presumably due to travel difficulties, but skiers make it to the slopes regardless.

That was the case Wednesday, when about 1,000 people, including lots of local high school kids, converged on Whiteface.

The fresh blanket of snow, atop a good layer of machine-blown base, was in keeping with the kind of cold, snowy weather that has hit much of the Northeast so far and which has made ski operators and enthusiasts smile.

Not even a power outage dissuaded skiers at this rugged mountain.

Around noon, the local power company, New York State Electric and Gas, had to shut off the electricity for repairs in a nearby location, but that didn't stop the skiing.

Staffers with flashlights and cellphones lit the way to the lodge's basement restrooms and lockers while lift operators outside fired up the backup diesel motor to run the mountain's Face Lift.

After all, no one wants to stop skiing on a powder day, regardless of whether they came from the next town over or spent a few hours on I-87.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Police ponder their tactics

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

New York

In the days after a grand jury declined to bring charges against a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said he expected the large-scale protests that followed would eventually "peter out."

The police department, reflecting that view, has taken a hands-off approach, monitoring the marchers as they block roadways and bridges but making few arrests. The tactic has brought praise from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But instead of fading away, the demonstrations have grown, with largest yet on Saturday drawing more than 25,000 people to the streets of Manhattan. And, in a worrying sign for the police, they have grown more confrontational during the past week.

At least five officers have been assaulted by protesters — including two lieutenants on Saturday during a nighttime melee on the Brooklyn Bridge. Earlier on Saturday, on Madison Avenue and 28th Street, a group of protesters surrounded a pair of traffic agents in a marked New York City Police Department car and smashed the rear window and a side window.

De Blasio called the eruption of violence "beneath the dignity of New York City."

Now, it has the police department facing an "operational dilemma" in its laissez-faire handling of the demonstrators, the majority of whom are nonviolent, said Stephen P. Davis, the deputy police commissioner for public information. Top police commanders are to meet Monday.

"How do you allow the larger group to continue while at the same time prevent the instigators from getting what they want?" he said Sunday. "Last night is going to have to require some re-evaluation of how we're doing it."

On Sunday, police arrested a 29-year-old adjunct instructor at the City University of New York on felony charges in the assault of the two lieutenants during demonstrations about police killings of Garner and other unarmed black men in New York City and elsewhere.

The police said the man, Eric Linsker, had been at the center of a clash on the bridge Saturday evening as protesters began throwing objects from the walkway onto the officers who were escorting marchers in the roadway below.

Police said the lieutenants observed Linsker attempting to throw a trash bin over the side of the walkway and moved to arrest him. But a group of protesters prevented the arrest, police said.

"The two lieutenants were assaulted by numerous protesters, resulting in injuries to both of them," said James P. O'Neill, the chief of department.

None of the alleged assailants were arrested on the bridge, but police said the lieutenants were able to hold onto a backpack that one of the assailants was carrying. From that backpack, detectives were able track down Linsker early Sunday, the police said.

In addition to two counts of assaulting a police officer, Linsker was charged with misdemeanor reckless endangerment, riot, resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and possession of a small amount of marijuana, a violation. He was also charged with attempted robbery because several protesters tried to strip the officers of their police radios, authorities said.

Categories: State/Local

Upstate-downstate divisions put to the test

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Is New York state hopelessly divided between big city dwellers swilling coconut water after yoga class and rural upstaters kicking cow patties off their work boots?

Not at all.

But behind the silly stereotypes about New York City and upstate lie real demographic, political and cultural differences. The contrasts have played out recently on controversies over gun control and whether to allow "fracking" for natural gas, as well as in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's geographically imbalanced re-election margin. The differences have given rise to complaints up north that upstate taxpayers are subsidizing New York City's poor or that upstate voices are not heard in Capitol corridors dominated by downstate politicians.

It has even fueled secession movements.

"The state of New York really should be two separate states," reads a web site www.newamsterdamny.org, run by advocates of creating an autonomous region called "New Amsterdam" north of Westchester County. "The views of people who live in the upstate and downstate areas are very different."

The rifts are real, but not all the stereotypes stand up to scrutiny. Here's a look at some long-standing upstate-downstate issues.

One state, two votes

The split between upstate and downstate seemed as wide as ever on Election Day.

Cuomo last month racked up about three-quarters of the New York City vote in his re-election, but was outpolled over most of upstate by Republican challenger Rob Astorino, according to unofficial results.

The dynamic is nothing new. Democrats running statewide in the past have depended on New York City and its suburbs to make up for Republican-leaning areas upstate.

But analysts caution against seeing a monolithic upstate conservative vote. The largest upstate cities have Democratic mayors, and Cuomo won the counties that are home to Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany.

Even if you sawed off New York City, there would still be more registered Democrats than Republicans in New York state.

Bright lights, big money

Upstate secessionists take note: New York City is more sugar daddy than sponge when it comes to state coffers.

State personal income tax payments from New York City and the downstate suburbs account for a share of statewide collections above their percentage of the population, according to a 2011 study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Business tax revenue also tends to come disproportionately from the downstate area, according to the report.

This is less a case of hardworking city folk subsidizing upstate residents and more about the concentration of wealth around the city combined with the state's progressive income tax structure. There's also more business activity downstate.

New York City does have a higher share of poor people and so takes a disproportionate share of Medicaid money. But overall, the percentage of state expenditures to the city is less than its share of population.

Without city money, an independent upstate would have tighter purse strings.

"On balance, it would have to spend less," said Donald Boyd, co-author of the study.

A voice in Albany

New York's budget and major state policies are negotiated behind closed doors by the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly. All of them are from downstate, fueling the old complaint about upstate interests are ignored in Albany.

New York City is home to 43 percent of the state's population and it can be the 800-pound gorilla at the Capitol — like when budget talks this year were dominated by the city's successful quest for pre-K funding.

But it's not like other areas are ignored.

Governors have been sensitive to the needs of their constituents statewide at least since the days of the old Erie Canal up to today's "Buffalo Billion" economic development plan.

In the Legislature, no measure gets through without the backing of the Republicans, who will hold a slim majority in the state Senate next year. And the Senate's Republican conference consists mostly of upstate lawmakers. The GOP even picked up some upstate Senate seats in November.

Whither upstate

New York state is home to more than 19.6 million people. Currently, a little more than a third live north of Westchester and Rockland counties.

But the state's slow population growth has been driven by New York City. Many upstate cities and rural areas with struggling economies have had stagnant or diminishing populations. There are some growth areas, like Saratoga County. The area benefits from a mix of economic engines that includes horse racing, Skidmore College, manufacturing and a computer chip manufacturer.

The trick for New York's leaders is to replicate that mix in other upstate areas.

Categories: State/Local

Tiny house movement makes big gains

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Syracuse

A Syracuse nonprofit group has proposed building town houses for the homeless that would cost less than $14,000 each. Why so cheap?

In part, it's because the houses would be tiny. Each house would be 12 feet wide and 14 feet long — about the size of a garden shed.

Across town in the Hawley-Green neighborhood, two entrepreneurs are planning a similar venture with tiny houses, but not for the homeless. This time, the target market is young urban professionals or empty nesters.

Cindy Seymour and Laura Serway, the owners of Laci's Tapas Bar, tell the Syracuse Post-Standard they plan to build six 400-square-foot houses on a single city lot in their neighborhood. Each homebuyer would have the option to add a 200-square-foot loft, Seymour said.

The houses are expected to sell for $70,000 to $85,000, Seymour said. She already has verbal commitments from four potential buyers.

Seymour and Serway, doing business as Laci's Real Estate Ventures LLC, are still shopping for a building lot and figuring out how to comply with zoning rules.

Likewise, A Tiny Home for Good Inc. is looking for a location to build its tiny houses for the homeless.

Both ventures illustrate the growing appeal of tiny houses, which beckon to a wide variety of people who view traditional housing as a waste of money, energy and space. Fueled by the housing bust and the economic recession, the market for tiny homes has been gathering steam for several years.

Any house less than 500 square feet is "tiny" by American standards, but many tiny house aficionados move into spaces one-quarter that size. Some tiny houses are built on trailers, like mobile homes. Others are stationary.

Volunteer groups across the nation have latched onto tiny homes as affordable housing for the poor that can be built without government subsidies.

Carmen Guidi, who owns an auto body shop several miles outside Ithaca, donated seven acres of land near his business and spearheaded the development of Second Wind Cottages, a cluster of 320-square-foot houses that shelter formerly homeless men. The first seven cottages were completed in January 2014.

Tiny-house initiatives to help the homeless have sprouted up in other cities including Eugene, Ore.; Olympia, Wash.; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wis.; and Huntsville, Ala.

In Syracuse, A Tiny Home for Good, a new nonprofit group, recently asked the Greater Syracuse Land Bank to donate a vacant lot on the Near West Side for the development of three side-by-side tiny town homes for the homeless.

The group estimated the total cost for three homes at under $40,000 — or less than $14,000 each. Each house would contain 168 square feet of living space — a single living room/kitchen, a bathroom and a sleeping loft.

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Last week, it was the Regional Economic Development Council awards. This week, the big news in economic development will be the state Gaming Facility Location Board's casino recommendation reveal on Wednesday.

And that's not all that's going on. Take a look at what else is in store for the week ahead:

MONDAY

• The state Board of Regents meets in Albany from 9 a.m. until 5:45 p.m. The Regents are scheduled to go into executive session for about an hour and 15 minutes almost immediately.

• Former state Sen. Joseph L. Bruno and Rensselaer Regional Chamber of Commerce President Linda Hillman take part in an informal conversation event at the Hilton Garden Inn in Troy. Registration and lunch is at 11:30 a.m.; the program kicks off at 1 p.m.

• The state Thruway Authority board meets at noon at Thruway Authority headquarters, 200 Southern Blvd., Albany.

TUESDAY

• The state Board of Regents meets in Albany from 8:45 until 11:30 a.m.

WEDNESDAY

• The Assembly Local Governments, Real Property Taxation and Cities committees hold a joint hearing on budget implementation at 11 a.m. in Roosevelt Hearing Room C, Legislative Office Building, Albany.

• The state Gaming Facility Location Board reveals its recommendations for the best upstate casino projects at 2 p.m. in Meeting Room 6 of the Empire State Plaza. The meeting will be open to the public, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis. It will also be streamed live at the state Gaming Commission's site, http://www.gaming.ny.gov There are 16 proposals for casinos in the three upstate regions — Capital, Southern Tier and Catskills — still under consideration. In the Capital Region, gaming halls have been pitched in Rensselaer, East Greenbush, Schenectady and Howe Caverns.

FRIDAY

• The Assembly Labor and Insurance committees hold a hearing on the proposed workers' compensation fee schedule at noon in Hamilton Hearing Room B, Legislative Office Building, Albany.

— Casey Seiler, Matthew Hamilton and NYSNYS.com

Categories: State/Local

Thousands protest police killings

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 1:07am

Washington

Thousands of protesters marched across the country Saturday — past the White House in the nation's capital, along iconic Fifth Avenue in New York and in the middle of Nashville's honky-tonk district — to call attention to the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police and urge lawmakers to take action.

Chanting "I can't breathe!" "Hands up, don't shoot!" and waving signs reading "Black lives matter!" the demonstrators also staged "die-ins" as they lay down across intersections, and in one city briefly blocked an onramp to an interstate.

"My husband was a quiet man, but he's making a lot of noise right now," said Washington protest marcher Esaw Garner, widow of Eric Garner, 43, who died in July after being put in a chokehold by New York City police during an arrest for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.

"His voice will be heard. I have five children in this world, and we are fighting not just for him but for everybody's future, for everybody's past, for everybody's present, and we need to make it strong."

Organizers had predicted 5,000 people would be at the Washington march, but the crowd appeared to far outnumber that. They later said they believed as many as 25,000 had shown up. It was not possible to verify the numbers; Washington police do not release crowd estimates.

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, called the demonstrations a "history-making moment."

"It's just so overwhelming to see all who have come to stand with us today," she said. "I mean, look at the masses. Black, white, all races, all religions. ... We need to stand like this at all times."

Joining the Garners in Washington were speakers from the family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed in Ohio as he played with a pellet gun in a park, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped organize the marches.

"Members of Congress, beware... we're serious," Sharpton said. "When you get a ring-ding on Christmas, it might not be Santa; it may be Rev. Al coming to your house."

Several speakers asked the crowd to chant, "I can't breathe." Garner, 43, had gasped those words before his death. Some protesters also wore those words on shirts. Other speakers called for a chant of "Hands up, don't shoot," and protesters also waved signs reading "Black Lives Matter!"

Just before the crowd marched to the Capitol, the rallying was interrupted briefly by more than a dozen protesters who took the stage with a bullhorn. They announced that they were from the St. Louis area and demanded to speak.

"This movement was started by the young people," said Johnetta Elzie, who ultimately was allowed by rally organizers to speak.

Organizers called the interruption unnecessarily divisive. But some in the Missouri group, mostly in their 20s, said they were disappointed and found the rally staid and ineffective.

"I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show," Elzie said.

Protests — some violent — have occurred around the nation since grand juries last month declined to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Brown and Garner. Before the crowd started marching, Sharpton directed, "Don't let no provocateurs get you out of line. ... We are not here to play big shot. We are here to win."

Categories: State/Local

What's the NYPD doing with an LRAD?

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 12:00am

An LRAD being used by NYPD on Dec 3 (photo: @PeoplesHistory)

While the protests following the non-indictments in Ferguson and Staten Island have been disruptive, they have been mostly non-violent and clashes with police have been minimal, with the notable exception of the injury of two NYPD officers on the Brooklyn Bridge on the night of December 13.

However, on December 5 officers attempted to disperse a small march in Midtown using a new tool in crowd management, a long range acoustic device (LRAD).

LRADs have two primary functions: first as a long range communication device and second as a dispersal tool, emitting penetrating and piercing tones at high decibels.

LRADs were developed for the military following the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 in Yemen. The purpose of the device was to ward off potential attackers before they could get close enough to an intended target to strike. The device has also been used at military checkpoints to communicate with and deter threatening vehicles.

The use of LRADs as a speaker may have some justification in crowd control. Best policing practices call for enhanced communication between demonstrators and the police. While this should be done face to face and on the ground as much as possible, there are situations where the police should notify crowds of their risk of arrest or of being subjected to use of force. Such crowds should be told where to disperse to and how. LRADs might be able to help with this since they can be heard over the shouts of crowds, unlike many conventional sound systems. However, we don't really know what if any harmful effects this function might produce, especially for people with existing hearing problems.

The dispersal function is similar to tear gas or water cannons. It is intended to be a less lethal use of force that can be used as an alternative to baton charges or other more extreme measures. Their use might be appropriate in dealing with a violent crowd attempting to storm the UN or other location where force might be necessary to prevent property destruction or injury. The effect, however, is usually rather crude. Like with tear gas, flash bang grenades, and riot control projectiles, the dispersal brought about by LRADs generally is disorderly and can lead to collateral property destruction and injury to onlookers and innocent by-standers. They should be used only as a last resort, in place of relying on higher levels of force.

The question of whether an LRAD is preferable to tear gas, projectiles, or flash bangs depends on balancing effectiveness in reducing violence and property destruction versus potential injury to protesters and onlookers. The problem is that we don't have very good evidence about the potential harmful effects of this relatively new and untested technology. There have been reports of related injuries leading to a legal settlement from LRAD use in Pittsburgh in 2009 and a ministerial report in Canada raised significant concerns about their health effects.

If we knew for sure that the dispersal function had no long term health consequences, then it might be preferable. If, however, there is a risk that those with existing hearing problems, and even others might experience medium to long term problems, or if psychological or cognitive functions are disrupted, then the costs may be too high. In the absence of clear evidence we should err on the side of caution.

One of my major concerns is that like with tasers and much military hardware, there is strong temptation for "mission creep." Often these devices are obtained under the pretext of very restricted uses in extreme and highly unlikely circumstances such as terrorist attacks or snipers. However, once departments have them, there is a tendency to use them in additional ways that make life easier for police but endanger the public.

Tasers can be life savers, but they can also be torture devices when used improperly. LRADs have this potential and we saw something like this when they were used during the Garner protests in New York. A few individuals in a larger group threw some things and the police used the dispersal function against the whole group on a Midtown street with no real plan for managing their dispersal. Other less dangerous methods could have been used and the effect on an already dispersed group was just to splinter them, making it harder for police to track them and leaving open the opportunity for random property destruction. Generally, this technology should not be used on a few troublemakers in an otherwise peaceful protest and it should not be used on more broadly violent crowds unless there are limited alternatives and a plan for managing an angry and disorganized splintering of the group.

Last week a group of lawyers sent a letter to the NYPD asking them to clarify their policies about the use of this technology. So far there has been no official response. There needs to be much greater transparency about the plans to use such intensive riot control tools. In fact, the NYPD also owns water cannons, and there has been no public discussion of their appropriate use either. It's time for the City Council to step in and hold hearings about the proper uses of riot control equipment in the New York.

***
Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to hte Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale

Categories: State/Local

Report: Solitary Confinement Violating Human Rights of Youth

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 12:00am

Mayor de Blasio at Rikers Island (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

Minority youth inmates in New York prisons are disproportionately subjected to solitary confinement, which has disastrous effects on their physical and mental health and is a violation of their civil rights, says a new report by the New York Advisory Committee (NYAC) to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The report, released by NYAC on the steps of City Hall on Thursday, highlights numerous issues with the use of solitary confinement, which became a widespread prison management tool in the U.S. starting in the mid-1990s. New York alone built 10 facilities between 1998 and 2000 solely dedicated to extreme isolation. Inmates can be confined for 22 to 24 hours a day for weeks or even months in "Special Housing Units" (SHU), the official term for isolation cells measuring six-by-eight square feet. The report estimates that at any given time 4,500 inmates are kept in solitary confinement in New York.

The larger issue, however, is the effect this confinement has on younger inmates among the prison population. New York's judicial system treats anyone 16-years-old and above as an adult, and even those as young as 13 in cases of serious felonies. The report, recommending that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to 18, says that a greater proportion of youth are subject to solitary confinement. Between 90 and 95 percent of those youths in these prisons are children of color, the report says, making a case for both age and race discrimination. There is an active "Raise the Age" campaign in New York that is likely to pick up on the report's findings.

Citing the stunting effects this punitive practice can have on physical, mental, and social development, the report recommends that it no longer be used for inmates below the age of 25. At Thursday's press conference releasing the report, NYAC Chair Alexandra Korry called the practice "an abomination." "It's punishment, not rehabilitation," she added, stressing that it exacerbates mental illness among vulnerable youth. "You don't go in mentally ill, but you certainly come out mentally ill," she said.

Among the report's recommendations, the committee calls on the Department of Justice to push New York's prisons and jails to implement changes in policies. Besides doing away with the practice of solitary confinement entirely, it recommends a review of existing isolation cases, rehabilitative measures including counselling, alternatives to isolation, training of corrections officers, and regularly reporting data on solitary confinement.

The release of the report comes the day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Rikers Island prison facilities, specifically focused on juvenile detention. At the visit, "Mayor de Blasio and Department Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte...announced the end of punitive segregation for adolescents in New York City jails," accoding to a press release from the Mayor's Office. "As of December 4, the Department of Correction had moved all 16- and 17 year-old inmates out of punitive segregation and ended the practice as a form of punishment for the youngest inmates at the nine operational jails on Rikers."

As for the NYAC report, there was some internal disagreements on the report's findings. Committee member Robert Paquette disagreed with the methodology and stated in his dissent, "The report does not represent, in my view, 'objective and comprehensive investigation' in a 'bi-partisan' fashion." Another member, Peter Wood, said the report is based on "invalid premises" and it's recommendations are "deeply flawed".

However, all committee members agree there is a problem that must be addressed. As the report's background section notes, "Despite having only five percent of the world's population, the United States has almost 25 percent of its prisoners, with one in every one hundred American adults behind bars," with rates of incarcerating accelerating in recent decades as a result of the War on Drugs. To boot, the report says, "This enormous increase in the American prison population has disproportionately affected racial minorities and youth. Specifically, as of 2012, more than 60 percent of the prison population were people of color."

Read the report here.

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@SamarKhurshid

Categories: State/Local

Three Years In, New York Ethics Commission Still Looking to Find Footing

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 12:00am

JCOPE meets in February, 2014 (photo: John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

Over the past three years, a string of indictments of New York State legislators has been front page news, as has Gov. Andrew Cuomo's scuttled Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. All the while, New York's actual ethics monitoring organization has barely been mentioned, and the agency itself has made just a peep.

Albany watchdogs say that some of that silence may come from the commission's ingrained secrecy, but others insist it is due to the fact that JCOPE, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, was originally delivered as a flawed entity - and purposefully so, designed not to do its stated job.

On December 12th 2011, just more than three years ago, New York State's Joint Commission on Public Ethics unceremoniously took over from the defunct Commission on Public Integrity.

A skeleton crew of staffers was unsure whether they would keep their jobs when the new commission was announced - legislative and gubernatorial appointees had a slew of possible conflicts of interest from close relationships to legislators to having recently worked for the people who were appointing them. The commissioners' names and credentials were announced by a late evening press release ensuring their unveiling got minimal coverage that day. And so on.

Three years later, JCOPE appears to be making strides toward becoming a consistent regulatory body, but watchdogs remain concerned that the law creating it, flawed to begin with, continues to constrain.

Insiders say that the search for commissioners was an ugly one, with talented recruits turning down requests to serve for fear of a position that would surely be rife with scrutiny but bear little reward. JCOPE does boast commissioners with impressive resumes, though.

Since its creation JCOPE has seen staff turnover and controversy over the independence of its investigations. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara subpoenaed JCOPE records - reportedly looking for a list of all the complaints the agency had received; Bharara has repeatedly made clear he has no faith in Albany to police itself.

Despite consisting of 14 commissioners it only takes three votes to block a JCOPE investigation. The commission can institute civil penalties, but it has to refer its findings to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is made up of appointees by State Assembly and Senate leaders. JCOPE's investigations and their results are private and the body itself regularly goes into executive session during sensitive debate.

"They got off on the wrong foot," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Their secrecy combined with a legislative veto sends the wrong message about accountability and prevents them from being effective." Horner also noted that a number of the governor's appointees previously served in his administration.

JCOPE's rules were negotiated by the Legislature and governor to ensure "fairness" and prevent political witch hunts, but good government advocates say the rules significantly handicap the agency from investigating and disciplining violations of the state's ethics laws.

However, some Albany watchdogs insist that JCOPE has begun to have an impact on the culture in Albany thanks to rules that require statewide electeds, legislators, and government staffers to submit financial disclosure forms that are designed to serve as a check on conflicts of interest. Legislators have fought tooth and nail against increased disclosures that would require those who serve as attorneys to disclose their clients.

The financial disclosures handled by JCOPE have shed the first real light on the outside income of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is a trial lawyer for a firm and also runs his own private practice. Silver has disclosed making more than $650,000 doing private sector legal work in his latest disclosure. There has been concern for years that Silver's clients could have sensitive issues pending before the Legislature, but he is not required to reveal those clients and refuses to do so.

JCOPE also conducted its first-ever investigation of a sitting legislator in state history when it looked into the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal. JCOPE referred its findings to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which eventually fined Lopez $330,000.

"I think the Vito Lopez report was very encouraging," said Rachael Fauss of good government organization Citizens Union. "They could have looked at the case more narrowly, but they did find violations of the public officers law."

Fauss said Citizens Union supports changing JCOPE's voting process to make it more transparent and "less political." The organization issued recommendations last year that include allowing a supermajority, or a vote of 9 of the 14 members, to trigger an investigation. Barring that change Citizens Union recommends having JCOPE disclose when three members of one party vote to block an investigation supported by the majority of the commission. Either of those changes would require legislative action, which seems unlikely given that it would reduce legislators' ability to control the commission.

Fauss also wants to see lobbying data and financial disclosure information presented in a standardized format on JCOPE's website so that it will be easier to analyze and spot trends. There is some indication that the commission is early in the process of revamping its lobbying database to make it more user-friendly.

David Grandeau, former head of the state's now-defunct State Lobbying Commission, made a snoring noise when asked about the commission's record. Fittingly, Grandeu now represents lobbyists who have business in front of the commission and insists that JCOPE is made up of "lackeys" who aren't qualified and motivated to pursue major instances of corruption.

He also points to the case of David Ellenhorn, a counsel at the Attorney General's office, who JCOPE found took a free ride on a chartered jet from an opposing attorney. Ellenhorn had refundable airfare paid for by the State but did not request permission to take the jet trip or a refund for the unused ticket. JCOPE settled the case with Ellenhorn rather than institute a penalty. Grandeau characterizes the case as a disturbing "slap on the wrist" for what he sees as a clear lapse of ethical judgement. Grandeau was directly involved in the case, though, filing the complaint against Ellenhorn.

"It comes down to four simple words," said Grandeau."It's the people, stupid." Grandeau insists that despite the push for increased financial disclosure, journalists, watchdogs and commission members fail to use the information that is readily available. "Everyone talks ethics reforms and more disclosure but once we get more disclosure they don't do anything with them."

Horner said he believes JCOPE commissioners sign up in good faith but become quickly frustrated by a set of rules that leaves them hamstrung.

A source close to the commission pointed out that despite departures much of the original commission is still intact, even while members work full-time jobs, have families, and perform their duties only receiving meager per diem reimbursements from the State.

Aside from the Vito Lopez case, JCOPE's findings have solely been against low-level state officials and employees. One case found that Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers gave confidential information to a potential vendor. In another, a CUNY professor was fined $65,000 for steering the State to buy research software from a company he covertly owned.

According to JCOPE's annual reports the commission resolved more than 25 investigations in 2012 that resulted in settlements and penalties totaling $40,000. In 2013, it reported reviewing more than 300 potential investigations and resolving another 25 enforcement actions that resulted in $52,000 in fines. And in 2014 the commission reviewed over 200 possible investigations, concluding 15 enforcement actions that resulted in $450,000 in penalties.

It is unclear past the Lopez case what kind of impact JCOPE has had in regard to the Legislature. Has it acted as a deterrent of any kind?

While the commission has faced criticism for not adding more scalps to its trophy case supporters point out that JCOPE has had to do the work of actually putting guidelines in place for disclosure and exemptions.

However, there is concern among watchdogs that JCOPE is restrained by regulations and interference from both the executive chamber and the Legislature. "Why is it the commission went for 6 months without an Executive Director?" asked Horner of NYPIRG.

Turnover at the Executive Director position in JCOPE helps explain the concerns of Horner and others.

Ellen Biben was named executive director of JCOPE in February 2012. She left her position as Cuomo's inspector general to take the job. She then resigned in May of 2013 as a slew of legislators were indicted. Biben was replaced six months later by Letizia Tagliafierro who worked for Cuomo during his time as attorney general and later when he became governor as director of intergovernmental affairs.

***
by David King, Albany Editor
@DavidHowardKing

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that JCOPE has indeed posted the results of its Vito Lopez inquiry on its website and to note that Letizia Tagliafierro is still the ED. It has also been updated to reflect David Gandeau's involvement in the Ellenhorn matter and to more carefully phrase the subpoenaing of JCOPE records by Bharar's office.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundaiton, sister organization of Citizens Union

Categories: State/Local

Casino winners to be revealed Wednesday

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 2:07pm

Albany

New Yorkers have to wait only four more days to find out who will win casino licenses.

The state Gaming Facility Location Board, which has been charged with recommending the projects that should receive the up to four upstate gaming-hall licenses, will hold what's expected to be its final meeting at 2 p.m. on Wednesday in Meeting Room 6 at Empire State Plaza.

The agenda, released Friday, includes "Consideration of Recommendations of Gaming Facility Applicants for Gaming Commission Licensure."

The meeting will be open to the public, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis. It will also be streamed live at the state Gaming Commission's site, http://www.gaming.ny.gov.

There are 16 proposals for casinos in the three upstate regions — Capital, Southern Tier and Catskills — still under consideration. In the Capital Region, gaming halls have been pitched in Rensselaer, East Greenbush, Schenectady and Howe Caverns.

— Casey Seiler

Categories: State/Local

Thousands march in New York City against police killings

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 1:07am

NEW YORK (AP) — Chanting "I can't breathe" and carrying signs saying "black lives matter," thousands of people marched up New York's Fifth Avenue on Saturday as part of a day of protest centered in the nation's capital over the deaths of unarmed black men by police.

Saturday's outpouring of demonstrators followed a series of protests over the last several weeks since grand juries decided against bringing charges against white police officers in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

Members of the Brown and Garner families joined the Rev. Al Sharpton on Saturday and tens of thousands of others in a march down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue.

In New York, Rich Alexandro, 47, carried a handmade sign with dozens of names of people who died in encounters with police who were never charged.

"It just seems like the cops are Teflon," Alexandro said. "There's no justice."

Police in Garner's death say he was resisting arrest and was put in a legal arm-hold before he fell to the ground and began complaining "I can't breathe." The officer in Brown's death said that Brown was combative and tried to get his gun; he said he feared for his life when he shot the 18-year-old teenager who some witnesses say was raising his hands apparently in response to the officer's commands.

Donna Carter, 54, marched with her boyfriend, whose teenage son was shot and killed by police in the 1990s while carrying a toy gun.

"It's good to see people of all colors here to say enough is enough," said Carter, who is black. "I'm a parent and every child that's killed feels like my child."

Family members of people killed in New York City police encounters going back decades also were among the demonstrators. They included Iris Baez, whose son Anthony Baez died after he apparently was placed in a chokehold in 1994.

Protesters started in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and headed toward midtown. Organizers said they planned to circle back downtown and end the march at police headquarters in lower Manhattan.

Categories: State/Local

Prosecutors: 3 solicited teens for NYC sex parties

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 1:07am

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City couple and a single mother have been charged with soliciting girls as young as 12 for sex parties.

Documents filed in federal court in Brooklyn accuse Brian Adams, his wife, Shandale Franklin, and Tatiana Daniel of using Facebook to recruit girls between the ages 12 and 15 to have sex with older men at a hotel and a club.

The papers say the girls were told in online conversations that they could make up to $800 a night and that "doctors, lawyers and maybe teachers" would be in attendance. It's unclear from the court papers whether the parties ever took place.

The three defendants are being held without bail. There was no immediate response to messages left with their lawyers on Saturday.

Categories: State/Local

A Working Solution for Homelessness

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 12:00am

Members of the Doe Fund march in the Veterans Day Parade (photo: @TheDoeFund)

In a December 11 Gotham Gazette editorial advocating for more supportive housing, a program director from the Goddard Riverside Community Center made a bold statement: "The number one cause of homelessness[...]is a lack of affordable housing." That's a clean explanation for one of society's most vexing problems, but it's not true.

If housing was the answer to homelessness, we would have solved this crisis a generation ago. Homelessness isn't a state of being; and it's not a condition that people must live with and manage, like diabetes or cancer. It's an outcome. In a small fraction of the cases, it's the result of a serious disability that precludes a person's ability to work. But to say that all—or even most— homeless people require subsidized housing implies that they as a "group" are incapable of supporting themselves. And that line of reasoning is offensive to advocates like me, who know this population and have served them for decades.

Permanent supportive housing is our responsibility to provide for people who are profoundly disabled. But it also requires enormous and unending support from taxpayers. What happens when programs change, budgets get cut, and the money runs out? The homeless people warehoused in supportive housing are back on the streets, without any of the tools they need to live independently. To make supportive housing possible and sustainable for those who really do need it, we need a strong city with a strong workforce.

Any way you slice it, the answer to both our growing homelessness crisis and our need to build supportive housing is work.

The city, the state—the nation as a whole— has to recognize the dignity and potential in our homeless and long-term unemployed populations. We need programs that address not just a bad outcome, like homelessness, but the complex web of barriers, behaviors, and circumstances that have produced it: education, skills and experience gaps, vocational training and workforce development, substance abuse treatment, and reentry support for the formerly incarcerated.

When my husband and I started our work thirty years ago, people told us there was no way to put the homeless to work. They were lost causes; they would never be able to support themselves. They were simply "too lazy, or too crazy."

We can all agree that that's a disgusting statement. But is it really so far from dismissing all homeless people as permanently disabled? I can think of at least 21,000 individuals who would beg to differ; they're just some of the people we've served over the last three decades. They didn't come to our organization for a free house. They came to us for an opportunity: to work, to grow, and to support themselves and their families—for life.

Ms. McCullough of Goddard Riverside is right: the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Let's start by recognizing their dignity and abilities. Then, let's give them the hand up they deserve, one that frees them from homelessness forever; not a handout that keeps them trapped, right where they are.

***
Harriet McDonald is the Executive Vice President of The Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing, paid work, job training, and supportive services for the formerly homeless and incarcerated.  Find The Doe Fund on Twitter: @TheDoeFund

****
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Small Town Ethics Could Have Big-Time Fracking Impact

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 12:00am

Zephyr Teachout speaks to an anti-fracking crowd (photo: @FrackAction)

With major announcements expected on hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) and casino sighting in New York expected imminently, watchdogs are warning that small town officials are not subject to tough enough ethics and disclosure laws and could be hiding major conflicts of interest.

"By the end of the year, we should have positions on both that are clear," Cuomo told Susan Arbetter on The Capitol Pressroom Monday, referring to fracking and casino locations. "We'll start the new year with major decisions under our belt."

A special commission is set to announce casino locations on Wednesday, Dec. 17, while the fracking decision is said, by Cuomo, to be coming once a Department of Health report provides the governor with clarity on the dangers of allowing the practice. Cuomo was dogged by anti-fracking activists throughout his re-election campaign and his primary opponent, Zephyr Teachout expressed vehement anti-fracking views.

A report by The New York Public Interest Research Group called "Drilling Down: Local Fracking Decisions Highlight Failures in New York's Municipal Ethics Laws" looks at how municipalities that passed pro-fracking measures may have been influenced by public officials with conflicts of interest. NYPIRG's report found that multiple local officials had leases with oil companies that would pay out if fracking becomes legalized in their region.

Blair Horner of NYPIRG told Gotham Gazette that he has a meeting set with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office to discuss extending the state's disclosure and conflict of interest standards to municipalities. "The Governor himself has expressed concern about ethics laws for municipal officials," said Horner. "So we hope to start with him."

NYPIRG's report cites a quote from Cuomo's 2010 policy book "Clean Up Albany."

"With all the obvious potential for conflicts of interest and significant sums of taxpayer money at stake, the current laws regarding municipal ethics are both weak and frequently unenforceable," Cuomo wrote.

In June of this year a state Court of Appeals Judge ruled that municipalities can ban fracking by using zoning laws. The ruling came after a couple of towns had moved to ban the practice and it empowered municipalities in an unprecedented manner. Now local governments had control of the implementation of major state policy.

On Wednesday, the New York City Council will see legislation introduced to ban fracking in the city, according to the Epoch Times.

Meanwhile, this summer local governments played a major role in attracting or fighting off casino proposals as the state went through the process of actually locating casinos after the legalizing them in 2013.

The support of local governments is important to casino and fracking interests because it sends a message that the projects are popular in localities, but also because town infrastructure is used heavily when a casino is built or fracking is implemented.

Towns and local officials have been the target of both anti-casino campaigns and the lobbying efforts and promised cash of pro-casino groups. Even municipalities abutting areas targeted for casinos have been offered millions of dollars by casino groups for their support.

NYPIRG's report found that the state's disclosure laws have a loophole that exempts lobbyists from reporting efforts to lobby local officials in municipalities with fewer than 50,000 residents.

NYPIRG further details a list of local officials who had a financial interest in the promotion of fracking while they voted for pro-fracking resolutions.

Horner and the report's author Russ Haven told reporters that the Town of Sanford in Broome County is a "poster child" for the need for reform. They said the town supervisor had gas leases for his personal and business properties and that the town itself holds a lease.

The town supervisor of Windsor worked for a major oil and gas company for 32 years and had a gas development lease on 30 acres worth of property in the town.

Horner argues that towns don't have the financial resources to police ethics and properly weigh the arguments made by monied interests.

Local meeting laws need to be strengthened, Horner says, with meetings being videotaped and made available online. He adds that towns need boards of ethics to oversee conflicts.

NYPIRG is itself opposed to fracking, citing safety and health concerns, among others. Horner told reporters that he thinks pro- and anti-fracking groups should have to disclose their lobbying efforts and expenses and that he expects that local governments will be expected to weigh in on an increasing number of issues from wind energy to casino siting. "At the very least they should be subject to the state's ethics laws," Horner said.

***
by David King, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

Protesters of police killings march on DC

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 12/16/2014 - 6:07pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of protesters marched down iconic Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday, arriving at the Capitol to call attention to the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police and call for legislative action.

"What a sea of people," said Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. "If they don't see this and make a change, then I don't know what we got to do. Thank you for having my back."

Also speaking were civil rights leader The Rev. Al Sharpton and family members of Eric Garner, killed by an officer in New York in July, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed in Ohio as he played with a pellet gun in a park.

"Members of Congress, beware we're serious ...," Sharpton said. "When you get a ring-ding on Christmas, it might not be Santa. It may be Rev. Al coming to your house."

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, called it a "history-making moment."

"It's just so overwhelming to see all who have come to stand with us today," she said. "I mean, look at the masses. Black, white, all races, all religions. ... We need to stand like this at all times."

Several speakers asked the crowd to chant, "I can't breathe." Garner, 43, had gasped those words before his death while being arrested for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Some protesters also wore those words on shirts.

Other speakers called for a chant of "Hands up, don't shoot."

Just before the crowd marched to the Capitol, the rallying was interrupted briefly by more than a dozen protesters who took the stage with a bullhorn. They announced that they were from the St. Louis area and demanded to speak.

"This movement was started by the young people," said Johnetta Elzie, who ultimately was allowed by rally organizers to speak.

Organizers called the interruption unnecessarily divisive. But some in the Missouri group, mostly in their 20s, said they were disappointed and found the rally staid and ineffective.

"I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show," Elzie said.

Protests — some violent — have occurred around the nation since grand juries last month declined to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Brown and Garner. Before the crowd started marching, Sharpton directed, "Don't let no provocateurs get you out of line. ... We are not here to play big shot. We are here to win."

Then, blocks of tightly packed people moved through the city. Organizers had predicted 5,000 people, but the crowd appeared to far outnumber that.

Politicians and others have talked about the need for better police training, body cameras and changes in the grand jury process to restore faith in the legal system.

Terry Baisden, 52, of Baltimore said she is "hopeful change is coming" and that the movement is not part of a fleeting flash of anger.

She said she hasn't protested before but felt compelled to because "changes in action, changes in belief, happen in numbers."

Murry Edwards said he made the trip to Washington from St. Louis because he wants to make sure the momentum from the movement in Ferguson reaches a national stage.

"This is the national march," Edwards said. "We have to get behind the national movement."

Sheryce Holloway, a recent graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, attended a smaller gathering outside Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington ahead of the main rally. She said she also has been participating in protests at her alma mater.

Holloway said the goal of the protests is "ending blue-on-black crime. Black lives do matter."

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the march was peaceful. She mingled with the crowd and said she wanted to show solidarity with the marchers.

"This is one of the most well organized events I've seen," Lanier said.

The march was sponsored in part by Sharpton's National Action Network, the Urban League and the NAACP.

While protesters rallied in Washington, other groups including Ferguson Action conducted similar "Day of Resistance" movements all around the country.

Online:

Justice for All March http://nationalactionnetwork.net/march-police/

National Day of Resistance: http://fergusonaction.com/day-of-resistance/

Categories: State/Local

SantaCon celebrants asked to rein it in

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 12/16/2014 - 1:07am

New York

You'd better watch out. You'd better not fight. Better not be a lout. And SantaCon's telling you why.

The annual holiday flash-mob-meets-pub-crawl is reining itself in for Saturday's New York City festivities, which fall on the same day as a planned protest over killings by police.

SantaCon organizers have retained a noted civil-rights lawyer to advise on the do's and don'ts of public gatherings, and leaders met with police Friday. Expressing respect for the demonstration, they're instructing participants to stick to bars that welcome them and party inside instead of on the streets.

"It's more important this year than ever to pace yourself, watch out for your elves and stay safe," their website warns, adding that bad behavior may mean no event next year.

It's a sobering message for SantaCon, which has faced mounting pressure from politicians, police and community groups as it grew from hundreds to thousands of costumed participants in roughly a decade.

The exact itinerary wasn't being announced until Friday night, but the event was set to start at 10 a.m. and hit bars in the Hell's Kitchen area and nearby mid-Manhattan.

"Hopefully, tomorrow will be a very positive event, and then we can build on that to have a transition" to a better-received SantaCon, said lawyer Norman Siegel, a former New York Civil Liberties Union leader. He said if all goes well, participants plan to apply next year for a permit to walk in the street, rather than on sidewalks they've been lambasted for crowding.

Fans say SantaCon is lighthearted communal fun that tweaks the nose of Christmastime consumerism. Participants are urged to bring gifts to hand out or prepare performances, and organizers say last year's event raised about $60,000 for charities.

Categories: State/Local

Mid-Hudson region wins $83M in funding

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 12/16/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

The state gave away its smallest pot of Region Economic Development Council funding to date on Thursday, though the top winner was awarded the same amount as last year's No. 1.

The Mid-Hudson region, which runs from just south of the Capital Region to New York City's northern border, walked away from the annual awards ceremony at The Egg with $83 million for 118 projects that include the development of a LEGOLAND theme park resort. Getting the short end of the stick was Western New York, which took home $59 million for 69 projects that include the development of a National Comedy Center.

In all, $709.2 million was divided among the 10 councils, which is the smallest total amount to date. $785 million was doled out in 2011, but that amount has stepped down incrementally each year since.

While some eyebrows were raised over the $60 million the Capital Region received, officials were methodical in pointing out that though the REDC sweepstakes is a competition in which those with the best proposals score the biggest awards, there are no losers.

"It doesn't go by population," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said after the ceremony. "It is a competition. It is how good the plan is."

For a fourth consecutive year, New York City received some of the lowest funding of any of the 10 regions. The city's $61 million award will go toward 71 projects.

So why was the award low again? Cuomo pointed out that perhaps the city doesn't place as much of a focus on finishing first.

"It is a bigger deal for other parts of the state, because this is a lot of money relative to every other region than New York City," he said. "New York City already has a lot of economic development. They have a big budget."

As for those other regions, Long Island ($82 million), the Finger Lakes ($81 million), the Southern Tier ($81 million) and Central New York ($80 million) were named top performers behind the Mid-Hudson region.

The award amounts have become noticeably smaller since the first two years of the competition. While last year's top winners also received $83 million, awards of more than $90 million were handed out in 2012 and pots of more than $100 million were given out in 2011.

Though the awards were not overshadowed, they did share the spotlight with outgoing Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos all paid their respects to the former Rochester mayor, who will leave the administration at the end of the year to head the Rochester Business Alliance.

Duffy's voice quavered as he praised Cuomo in his farewell remarks.

"Every now and then they'll say Bob Duffy is the official cheerleader-in-chief," said Duffy, who received a gold-tipped shovel as a parting gift. "If you knew my mother and know my wife, you'd realize I don't do anything I don't want to do. ... I do what I believe in. This man, I have believed in since day one in office."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local
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