Rev. Wilkes, middle, leads a prayer & voter registration drive (photo: @andrewjwilkes)
Jamaica needs development that benefits long-term residents, workers, and the families of Southeast Queens. Development is a multidimensional process. At best, the process not only supports real estate firms, but also expands the availability of affordable housing opportunities and family-sustaining jobs that pay a living wage. Although we applaud the efforts for improving Jamaica, we are concerned that current plans are not going far enough to guarantee equitable development of jobs and housing for local families.
Under the Bloomberg administration, New York City witnessed rezoning to facilitate development in industrial neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City. With that process came the escalation of rents, leases, and the overall cost of living. While some individuals benefited from this process, wide scale displacement of residents and the local workforce occurred, especially among people of color. In 2007, under the same administration, 368 blocks of downtown Jamaica were rezoned for higher-density development, meaning more units of housing, office, or retail space for the broader community of Southeast Queens. As the economy crashed in 2008, much of the anticipated development was stalled, but a real estate boom is kicking in now with estimates of more than 3,000 units of housing in the coming years. As faith leaders of Southeast Queens, we're lifting up our voices to ensure that our community promotes equitable development of job and housing opportunities for individuals and families whose labor makes this area such a vibrant constellation of neighborhoods.
We recognize and appreciate the contributions of other voices to this conversation. Participants who created the "Jamaica NOW" action plan, for instance, have championed valuable – and viable – ideas for improving Jamaica. The plan intends to do three things: increase quality jobs and small business support; promote commercial growth and economic development; and improve livability for both residents and visitors. Already, the beautification of Rufus King Park is making a difference in the recreational and cultural life of Jamaica. The plan, however, doesn't specify a comprehensive vision for equitable development. Without such details, our concern is that modestly inclusive projects will benignly, but mistakenly, be heralded as successes and the best we could do for our communities.
Two examples illustrate our concern. Let's start with the NYPD lot development project on 168th and Archer Avenue. The city's Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act defines a "living wage" as just $11.50 per hour and notably applies to construction workers on this project because the property is receiving more than $1 million in subsidy from the city Economic Development Corporation. However even if two members of a family were working full-time, with no vacations, at this wage they would still be ineligible for the affordable housing within the project because they would not make enough to meet the income threshold accorded by the zoning of the area.
Another example drives from the de Blasio administration's plan to rezone East New York. In that community, the administration recently announced a plan for 50 percent of new housing to be affordable at neighborhood-based incomes, yet in Jamaica we are talking about just 20 percent of affordable housing being produced – and that only within a smaller "special inclusionary zone" in which the builders are only required to build if they take additional subsidy. Yet even this 20 percent is not truly affordable - a family of three would need to make at least $62,150 to be eligible for the housing, while the median income in Community Board 12 representing Southeast Queens is $50,857 per year.
Given the dynamics outlined above, our question is: what can be done differently? How can we ensure that we advance equitable development in Southeast Queens, that we build it right in our community?
Three ambitious, yet achievable goals stand out for our community, congregations, and city. First, we can lift up the moral imperative of our faith traditions to make the case for equitable development. Our religious traditions teach us that laborers deserve to be paid; that what's done in the dark – negotiation of terms and deals – should be brought into the light; that attending to the weighty matter of justice is central to our convictions and congregations. Second, we can use city subsidy and the leverage that it brings to infuse parity into the production of affordable housing. Instead of settling for developments whose housing is 80 percent market-rate and 20 percent affordable, we can pursue an even division of residential opportunity: 50 percent market-rate and 50 percent affordable for local residents. Third, we can ensure that strong legal protections prohibit harassment and displacement among tenants living in downtown Jamaica and surrounding communities.
We celebrate the resurgence of downtown Jamaica and the surrounding community. In many respects, this resurgence is a belated recognition of the tremendous legacy and potential of Southeast Queens. We invite you to join us as we learn, pray, and take action together for a renewed call for equitable development in Southeast Queens tonight, Tuesday, at 6:30 p.m. at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York. Our best days await us, and we look forward to continued collaboration with elected officials, labor unions, congregations, and other community groups to create deeply affordable housing and family-sustaining jobs in our neighborhoods.
Rev. Andrew Wilkes, the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York
Bishop Joseph Williams, Christ Church International
Pastor Brian Ellis Gibbs, Queens Baptist Church
Father Jeffry Dillon, Christ the King & St. Mary Magdalene
NEW YORK (AP) — Uber cars can continue to be a growing presence on the streets of New York City now that an agreement has been reached between the ride-hailing company and the city.
Just before a City Council vote that could have capped the number of cars Uber can have on city streets, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration announced late Wednesday that Uber agreed to a four-month study on the impact of the cars on the city's traffic and the environment.
The agreement contrasts sharply with the legislation the council was set to vote on Thursday, which called for a 1 percent cap on the San Francisco-based company's growth within New York City during a yearlong study. Uber has steadfastly opposed any cap, and the company and City Hall had traded increasingly nasty barbs over the past week.
Under the deal, the city will not cap Uber's growth during those four months. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a growing number of public officials who had been calling for the council to delay the vote, instead cheered the agreement. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that the study will be passed Thursday but no longer carry a cap.
The surprise arrangement also included a commitment to turn over far more data to the city on the location and duration of its rides. The company also agreed to discuss working toward making more of its vehicles handicap-accessible and contributing to the region's mass transit network.
"The city received a willingness on the company's part to make sure there was no effort to flood the market with dramatically increased rates of growth," said First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris, who is in charge at City Hall as de Blasio returns from a conference at the Vatican. "The company eventually agreed to what we've been asking for a while."
"We are pleased new drivers will continue to be free to join the for-hire industry and partner with Uber," Josh Mohrer, Uber NYC's general manager, said in a statement. "Together, we can build an even better, more reliable transportation system."
The $40 billion company has become a dominant force on the streets of New York, dispatching 25,000 cars — up from under 100 just four years ago — compared to 13,000 of the city's iconic yellow taxis.
Uber rider Kryzsztof Anton of Queens said he was pleased the two sides reached at least a temporary halt on the city's plan. The Long Island City resident said he has been riding in taxis in New York for more than a decade and now always chooses Uber.
He said Uber travel is a more comfortable experience and believes the drivers are more courteous and polite because they are being rated by the customer.
"It's a completely different experience," he said. "I'm a big fan."
In pushing for a cap, the de Blasio administration cited concern over increased congestion on Manhattan's clogged streets. When talks broke down last week, sniping between City Hall and Uber reached a frenzy with the ride-hailing service launching an expensive TV ad campaign that depicted the mayor as too influenced by the yellow taxi industry, which ranks among his biggest donors.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Albany lobbying firm Ostroff-Hiffa & Associates covered the vehicle lease on a Range Rover for Matthew Libous. It did not cover that lease. A previous version also stated that Ostroff-Hiffa & Associates is defunct, which is correct, though Albany firm Ostroff Associates still exists.
The deputy majority leader of the state Senate was tossed from office Wednesday by a federal jury that found him guilty of lying to federal investigators about his efforts to secure a job at a law firm for his son.
The felony conviction — prompting his immediate expulsion from the Legislature — marked an end to the long political career of Sen. Tom Libous, R-Binghamton, who was first elected to the chamber in 1988 as the handpicked candidate of then-Majority Leader Warren Anderson.
The 62-year-old lawmaker, who has battled prostate cancer since 2009, was found guilty by a federal jury in White Plains in a case brought by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara.
"Public corruption is a scourge," Bharara said in a statement after the verdict. "Every New Yorker wants us to work as hard as possible to end it. But lies to law enforcement make the job of fighting corruption doubly difficult."
The case turned on what Libous said in a 2010 meeting with two FBI agents inquiring about the circumstances that led to the hiring of his son, Matthew Libous, by a politically connected law firm, Santangelo Randazzo & Mangone.
Former attorney Anthony Mangone, who was disbarred after being convicted in a Westchester County political corruption case, testified that Libous had pressed for his son's hiring by the firm. According to testimony, Libous said the firm would have to "build a new wing" to accommodate the business he would send its way.
Mangone also testified Libous wanted his son to be paid $150,000 and said $50,000 of that cost would be picked up by an Albany lobbying firm, Ostroff-Hiffa & Associates. Neither the firm nor the lobbying outfit was charged with wrongdoing. Ostroff-Hiffa & Associates is now defunct.
According to testimony at trial, Libous told the FBI agents he had no involvement in his son's hiring by the law firm, and was unaware of its relationship with the lobbying shop.
The lawmaker, who was indicted a year ago, did not take the witness stand.
On Wednesday, Bharara said Libous "told lie after lie to hide the truth from federal agents investigating corruption in Albany. Libous' lies have been exposed, his crime has been proven, and Albany will be the better for it."
Matthew Libous was convicted six months ago of underreporting income on his federal tax returns from 2007 to 2009. He was sentenced in May to serve six months in prison.
His father now faces a sentence of up to five years when he is sentenced on Oct. 30.
Libous, a former high school wrestler whose style could shift from avuncular to ferocious, has in recent years described his cancer as terminal. He missed almost all of the 2015 legislative session after undergoing back surgery that resulted in an infection.
Despite his imminent trial, the lawmaker was greeted warmly in late June when he made what turned out to be his final appearance on the floor of the chamber as a member.
Libous will perhaps be best remembered for his central role in the June 2009 Senate coup in which the then-minority GOP sprang a procedural trap after secretly securing the loyalties of two members of the Democratic conference, Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate.
The plan backfired when Monserrate's commitment wavered, prompting weeks of gridlock that ended with Espada's return to the Democratic fold.
Espada and Monserrate were both convicted on corruption charges related to their public service.
The verdict in Libous' case came less than 24 hours after Bharara's office announced new charges against the Senate's former majority leader, Dean Skelos of Long Island, in a case that also turns on accusations of a powerful father's corrupt efforts to secure a livelihood for his son.
Despite the razor-thin majority held by the Senate GOP, Libous' conviction is unlikely to upset the balance of power in the 63-seat chamber. Without him, the Senate's 31 Republicans can still count on the loyalty of Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who since election in 2012 has conferenced with the GOP.
The seat will be filled in a special election in November. Libous' Southern Tier district gives Republicans the voter enrollment edge by slightly less than 10 percent.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said: "Sen. Libous and his entire family have been through a difficult ordeal and have faced numerous personal health challenges. They will continue to be in our thoughts and prayers in the weeks and months ahead.
"The Senate Republican Conference continues to hold the majority in the Senate and we are 100 percent confident that we will win the special election in the 52nd Senate District."
Federal corruption charges against former Democratic leader Sen. John Sampson are being weighed by a jury in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
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New York's fast-food workers are on track for a raise to $15 an hour — but unlike fast food, the increase will be served up in several courses.
On Wednesday, a wage board empaneled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May to look at this sector of minimum-wage workers recommended the increase, which will affect roughly 200,000 workers statewide.
The panel's resolutions are subject to approval, rejection or modification by acting state Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino, though an outright rejection is highly unlikely amid the considerable praise Cuomo heaped on the decision.
If approved, the appetizer would come on Dec. 31, with the minimum rising to $10.50 in New York City and $9.75 in the rest of the state. Annual increments would follow until the hourly wage hits $15 in New York City in 2018 and in the rest of the state in July 2021.
"This is work of value," said Mike Fishman, the labor representative on the Fast Food Wage Board, just before the three-member panel voted to recommend the increases.
The board was put together by Cuomo after lawmakers failed to raise the state's $8.75 (soon to be $9) minimum wage.
A Department of Labor official who had overseen statistical studies for the panel said that it actually costs more than the wage paid by a $15-an-hour full-time job to support a family in New York state.
Board members had struggled to settle on a clear definition of fast-food restaurants, but they decided the mandate would apply to operations which have 30 or more locations nationwide.
They also reached a geographic compromise regarding the differential between New York City and the rest of the state.
Earlier, board members said they didn't believe downstate wages needed to be higher, but in the end they sped up the rate at which the increases will be phased in for the city.
Along with Fishman, the panel included Kevin Ryan, founder of the Gilt shopping website, and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who served as chairman.
News of the pending hike, which had been sought by a variety of activists and unions, was cheered by supporters, both upstate and in New York City, where Cuomo and other elected officials appeared at a labor rally.
"This is really one of the great days of my administration," Cuomo said as he offered praise to several labor organizations, including SEIU and the AFL-CIO, for their work on raising the wage.
"There's a lot of injustice," Cuomo told the crowd, referencing the income inequality that has become a rallying cry for many Democratic politicians. "We are standing up to fight that injustice and to say we are not going to take it anymore."
In contrast to the raucous Manhattan event, a viewing party for the wage board's meeting in Albany went from joyous to deflated within seconds when it was announced the upstate wage wouldn't reach its peak until 2021.
About 50 people watched the proceedings at the offices of Citizen Action, a progressive advocacy group.
"I don't know how I feel about (a six-year phase-in), if that's what the case is," said Trivell Caruth, an Albany Burger King worker. "But at least it's still a victory."
Stacey Ellis, an Albany McDonald's employee, was more blunt. She called the delay devastating, adding that the minimum wage will need to be even higher than that by then anyway.
"I feel kind of conflicted," Ellis said. "Six years down the road is too long. We fight for $15 because we need it now, not six years down the road. We're no different than New York City — I'm sorry: I still can't pay my rent; I still can't buy my kids food; and I still can't put sneakers on their feet. This is not OK. ... It's a small victory — mainly for New York City, to be honest."
Amanda Monroe, a Colonie McDonald's employee, came to the front of the room to console a visibly upset Ellis as she finished speaking. The two hugged as Monroe told Ellis, "That's why we're going to stick together and we're going to keep fighting."
Progressive leaders also cast the announcement as a net win and a first step toward a higher wage for all sectors.
"This is a huge victory," Citizen Action Executive Director Karen Scharff.
"A year ago, we were talking $10.10 over five years. Just this past spring we were talking $10.50, $11.50 in New York City also over many years," she said. "Now we're talking $15 — and the fact that we've established $15 as the minimum that has to be achieved is a huge historic moment for this movement and for everyone in this room."
As they had previously, business groups and those representing fast-food operators criticized the looming mandate, predicting that it would lead to job cuts in the industry.
"Today's decision will hurt the very people Gov. Cuomo is purportedly trying to help," said a joint statement from the Save NY Restaurants Coalition. "Restaurants will be forced to streamline labor costs through automation and attrition or close their doors completely."
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EPHRATAH, N.Y. (AP) — Police will resume their search for the body of a 56-year-old man who is presumed to have drowned while kayaking in an upstate New York reservoir last weekend.
The Fulton County Sheriff's Office says the search for Daniel Smith of St. Johnsville started after a woman he was kayaking with reported that he had gone into the water around 8:15 p.m. Saturday while on the Donald G. Hill Reservoir in the town of Ephratah (yoo-FRA'-tuh), 45 miles northwest of Albany.
Officials say the woman had tried to help Smith but he nearly capsized her kayak. She got to shore and walked to the nearest house to call for help.
A search conducted Monday failed to find Smith's body. Police say the search will resume Tuesday.
A stage musical about impoverished street urchins that lit up Proctors last fall has received a $1 million state economic development grant, primarily because its producers were unable to take advantage of a tax credit program that premiered later than expected.
The grant to the Walt Disney Company from Empire State Development Corp. was announced Tuesday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration as part of almost $17 million in development grants around the state.
The touring production of "Newsies" held a month of technical rehearsals at Proctors in Schenectady in September and October before playing to local audiences; the road show is currently embarked on a North American tour. A surprise-hit Broadway adaptation of a 1992 Disney film that was a flop on its initial release, the production spins off an historic 1899 strike by New York City newsboys who went up against the power of press barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
The $1 million ESD grant was chased by $4.3 million from Disney to mount the show, with costs including $2.4 million for the physical production and $1.9 million in salaries, according to ESD.
The staging "created approximately 155 temporary jobs including the cast, crew, musicians, administration and other personnel in Schenectady," according to ESD's staff report, which was submitted to the corporation's board by Howard Zemsky, the new chief of the state's development arm. Sixty additional jobs were created elsewhere.
ESD does not plan to make stage musicals a regular recipient of development grants.
The factors behind this unique boon relate to last year's creation of a tax credit designed to lure the touring versions of complex Broadway shows to upstate theaters to hold their technical rehearsals — an elaborate, expensive process that results in scores of personnel and truckloads of equipment taking up temporary residence and boosting local economies.
Proctors CEO Philip Morris was the leading advocate in the artistic community for the tax credit, which was hammered out in the spring 2014 state budget negotiation. That $4 million program was originally intended to go into effect at the beginning of the 2014-15 fiscal year — a start date that would have allowed "Newsies" to be eligible.
But the enacted budget pushed opening night for the tax credit to Jan. 1, 2015.
Morris said Disney "knew they were taking something of a gamble" committing to Proctors before the credit was locked in, but "from everything we heard from our lobbyists and other people, we felt strongly that it was going to happen," he said.
The $1 million grant for "Newsies," he noted, totes up to roughly 19 percent of the show's overall production cost, as opposed to the 25 percent it could have earned under the tax credit program.
Morris said the "Newsies" grant and the credit were instrumental in keeping a homegrown business sector — the complex razzle-dazzle of Broadway — rooted in the Empire State.
"These are New York industries that have been nicked as a result of other states taking away the business," Morris said, referring to generous tax benefits for touring shows that in recent years have been offered by states ranging from Rhode Island to Louisiana.
In September, Proctors will host tech rehearsals for a touring production of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," which won a 2014 Tony Award as best musical. Local audiences can see the result of their work in performances Sept. 19 to 26.
Morris said the theater expects more shows — perhaps two a year — to hold their shakedown stagings in Schenectady in 2016 and 2017.
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DA Thompson, center, with Council Members Williams & Cumbo (@JumaaneWilliams)
During Father's Day weekend, hundreds of individuals received the gift of a new beginning. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office held a 'Begin Again' event to lift open arrest warrants related to summonses for low-level offenses ranging from public intoxication, the most common violation, to being in a park after closing. In total, 1,039 individuals from across all five boroughs attended the two-day event and 670 warrants were cleared.
The 'Begin Again' initiative is part of a larger summons reform movement that aims to make it easier for individuals to respond to summonses and ultimately, avoid arrest warrants. While the total number of summons filings in New York City has decreased significantly in recent years, the system remains strained, with a citywide backlog of over a million summonses.
In Brooklyn, District Attorney Ken Thompson's office indicated that the success of the event would lead to another in September, and that while similar events were held under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, the Father's Day weekend initiative saw the greatest number of warrants cleared in Brooklyn during comparable time periods. Other district attorneys do not appear quick to follow suit.
City leaders from Thompson to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others, are discussing summons reform.
"New York City's criminal justice system is overburdened with severely backlogged courts and millions of New Yorkers with outstanding warrants for low-level, minor offenses," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.
"District Attorney Ken Thompson's Begin Again initiative is a forward-thinking approach that tackles this issue head on," Mark-Viverito said, "enabling individuals to resolve their warrants and move on with a clean slate without the threat of impending arrest."
Thompson's office is quick to stress that warrants and the summonses that led to them were not simply dismissed wholesale, but that each individual who wanted to 'Begin Again' was given a fair hearing, with most warrants adjudicated and summonses cleared - as is the case when people show up to their summons-dictated court appearance.
While the initiative has received widespread support, some expressed reservations. "It does create a moral hazard that sends the message that people can expect such amnesties in the future," said Heather Mac Donald of The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "It's a real issue and it has to be weighed against the public good in clearing these backlogs of warrants."
By using the term "amnesty," Mac Donald gets at a key issue for critics, who say that people should follow the law in the first place and pay the consequences for breaking it and for missing any mandated court appearance. People, including NYPD Commissioner Bratton, are hesitant to give the appearance of amnesty, believing that if New Yorkers believe there are no consequences to their actions, law-breaking will likely increase.
But Dawn Ryan, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn criminal office, notes a distinction between the clearance of warrants and actual amnesty. "To me, amnesty is telling those who received the summonses that they may throw them away and forget they ever received them," said Ryan. By contrast, at 'Begin Again,' "they're still being held accountable in terms of showing up in response to the summons and having this matter resolved before a judge."
At 'Begin Again' events, those with outstanding warrants are assigned a Legal Aid attorney and brought before a judge, who hears the reason for the original summons and for not appearing in court, thus earning the warrant.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's office hailed 'Begin Again' a success and Ryan stated the event attracted so many people on its second day that the line remained open for an additional 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time. But the 670 warrants cleared barely make a dent in the 1.2 million open warrants related to unanswered summonses throughout New York City.
"It's just a drop in the bucket," acknowledged City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council's courts and legal services committee. An estimated one in seven New Yorkers have an outstanding summons warrant and with less than one tenth of one percent of open summons warrants resolved thus far through the 'Begin Again' initiative, the need for further reform measures becomes evident. "I thought it seemed to be a great success for what it was," said Lancman. "But in the scheme of things, it's not really a sustainable strategy for getting at the over one million warrants that are outstanding."
The staggering number of open summons warrants is one of the reasons why Lancman, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are among those advocating for certain low-level criminal offenses to be reclassified as civil penalties. A reclassification of some offenses would lessen the burden on the summons court system while also granting a reprieve to individuals who have committed non-violent, so-called 'quality-of-life' infractions. Proponents of such measures have argued that summonses are disproportionately issued to poor people of color and that arrest warrants resulting from failure to respond to a summons can have grave repercussions that far outweigh the original offense.
But even certain summons reform measures, it would seem, are backlogged. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "Justice Reboot," an initiative including a planned overhaul of the summons process. Among the proposed changes were a new summons form making the court appearance date more prominent, robocall and text message reminders for those with summonses, and a more flexible system allowing individuals to appear in court up to a week in advance of their scheduled court date. While these measures were originally scheduled to begin this summer, they are now slated to start in early fall.
Sarah Solon, chief external strategy officer at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, stated that the timing for the proposed reforms remains unchanged and that the measures will go into effect sequentially. "The new summons form has to roll out first, because it will collect the cell phone numbers that will allow for text message reminders and contain information about the flexible appearance dates," said Solon via e-mail. That new form will be released citywide within the next few months, Solon said, and going forward the form will collect data on an individual's race/ethnicity in order to ensure transparency in the summons process and provide important data.
The next Begin Again event is also scheduled for the fall-it will be held on September 12 in East New York. The flyer for the event - which will be posted around the borough and shared on social media as the one advertising the last one was - says, "we can help you take care of that old warrant." The literature seeks to reassure people: "over 1,000 people attended the last event," it says, followed by "no one was arrested" and "everyone got help."
Ryan said she and her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society hope other DA offices will follow Brooklyn District Attorney Thompson's lead in hosting such events.
So, apparently, does Thompson. In a July 15 letter addressed and hand-delivered to Mayor de Blasio with Chief Judge Lippman copied, Thompson urged the mayor to take the Brooklyn 'Begin Again' initiative citywide. Of the current way of doing things, Thompson wrote, "We simply cannot continue down this path any longer."
Brooke L. Williams is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter @williamslbrooke