NEWS AND ISSUES
December 2011 Community Report
The following is a summary of some of my office's activities since my last community report:
Demanding a Statewide Prohibition on Fracking
As you may know, I have been fighting for a statewide prohibition on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) since 2008. While I am truly proud of the work that environmental advocates, elected officials and concerned residents and business-owners from Upstate and Downstate have accomplished – passing the first statewide moratorium on fracking in the nation, raising awareness about the technique's devastating impacts, and mobilizing immense opposition to its use in New York State – I am deeply concerned that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation continues to move forward with its ill-conceived plan to permit this dangerous drilling. New York must learn from the mistakes of states that already allow fracking and set an example for those that do not. On November 30, I joined actor Mark Ruffalo, environmental advocates and many other elected officials and community activists in a press conference held by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Frack Action outside the DEC hearing on fracking to demand that the agency withhold all permits for this dangerous drilling method. After the press conference, I delivered testimony to DEC highlighting a number of serious flaws in the agency's proposed regulatory program on fracking and calling for the establishment of criminal penalties for both intentional unauthorized discharges of the slurry of toxic chemicals known as "frac fluids" and for acts of negligence. Please see my testimony here.
Seeking Justice for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse
The tragic, decades-long, systematic cover-up of childhood sexual abuse by institutions and persons in positions of authority is well known, and was only underscored by the recent Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University scandals.
I was struck by the November 29, 2011 New York Times editorial ?Reporting Abuse,? which rightly contended that college administrators need to contact law enforcement authorities immediately when they receive allegations of criminal conduct. However, as I noted in a letter to the editor published on December 8, 2011, there is a marked contrast in how law enforcement authorities in Pennsylvania and New York may respond to such allegations. The State of Pennsylvania has powerful tools to investigate aggressively and criminally charge those responsible for covering up abuses. New York does not. Since 2003, I have introduced legislation that makes it a felony for mandated reporters to systematically fail to report abuse. It is also clear that the list of those mandated to report abuse needs to be significantly expanded.
Further, as a passionate advocate for the prevention of childhood sexual abuse as well as for redress and closure for adults living with its traumatic scars, I have long sponsored legislation that would create a one year window period to allow past survivors of sex abuse to come forward with claims regardless of when the abuse occurred. While this model has been successfully implemented in California, here in New York powerful institutions with even more powerful lobbyists have aggressively fought my legislation and kept it from even coming out of committee.
Sadly, the Penn State and Syracuse University incidents once again raise the question: How many abuse scandals will be tolerated before the New York State Legislature gets serious about the issue and passes meaningful legislation?
Announcing a Tenant Bid for Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village
On November 30, I, along with New York City Councilmember Dan Garodnick, New York State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer joined the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village (ST-PCV) Tenants Association (TA) and Brookfield Asset Management in a press conference announcing their partnership on a tenant-led bid to purchase the development with the goal of maintaining it as a haven for middle-class New Yorkers.
Tenants in ST-PCV have fought for years to take control of their own community and this partnership is one step towards the long-term preservation of ST-PCV's financial stability, long-term affordability, and special character for both present tenants and future generations of middle class New Yorkers.
While I know the ST-PCV TA and Brookfield still have much more work to do to finalize their proposal, I am encouraged that so many ST-PCV residents have already signed a "Pledge of Unity," supporting a tenants' bid. It is important for ST-PCV's special servicer, CW Capital, to see that residents are united in their desire to provide real value for the development's creditors while preserving ST-PCV's open space, improving maintenance and upkeep complex-wide and ensuring permanent affordability.
Opposing the Proposed St. Vincent's Redevelopment
On November 30, 2011, I joined with New York State Assembly Member Deborah Glick to submit testimony to the New York City Planning Commission opposing approval of the Rudin Management Company's application for redevelopment of the St. Vincent's Hospital campus unless significant modifications are made. We echoed many of CB2's concerns, including a strong objection to the use of excessive height and bulk allowed to the former hospital for its public purpose as the basis for constructing a luxury condo development larger than the site's current zoning would permit. We also faulted the applicant for failing to include significant community benefits – like a new public school and affordable and/or special needs housing – that ought to be associated with a project of such a large scale and that requires so many discretionary actions. Please see a .pdf of our testimony here.
Protesting the Eviction of Five Low-Income Chelsea Families Due To Rent Law Loopholes
In early November, I learned that five low-income Chelsea families faced imminent eviction from their long-term rent stabilized apartments because their landlord, Gary Brown, was exploiting the so-called "owner occupancy" provision in New York State's rent laws, which permits landlords to evict tenants if they plan to use the units for themselves or their immediate family. Mr. Brown, president of the infamous illegal hotel chain Furnished Quarters, claimed he would be using the five apartments plus another unit in the building that had been kept vacant, to create a single luxury duplex apartment for his own use. Of course, I and other tenant advocates suspect the rent-stabilized apartments will actually be renovated and also used as illegal hotel rooms.
In response, I joined New York State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Tenants and Neighbors, Housing Conservation Coordinators (HCC), Chelsea Coalition on Housing, and the West Side Neighborhood Alliance in holding a rally on November 6 to call upon Mr. Brown to have the decency and compassion to allow these tenants to stay in their homes. Tragically, despite our efforts, including enlisting last-minute additional legal support for the tenants, a Housing Court Judge allowed the eviction to proceed. On November 8, when the New York City Marshall began to carry out the eviction order, I went to the building at 221 West 16 Street to slow down that process so that last minute legal appeals could be made and to ensure that tenants were given as much time as possible to pack their belongings and secure alternate living arrangements.
While I am devastated that we were unsuccessful in our effort to save our neighbors' homes, I was proud to see our community come together to help those facing eviction. I am especially appreciative of the work HCC and the Clinton Housing Development Corporation (CHDC) did late into the evening to find housing for the one tenant who did not have post-eviction housing lined up.
We must continue to monitor the activities at 221 West 16 Street and push for enforcement of New York's illegal hotel law. Furthermore, this case demonstrates the urgent need to expand and strengthen rent regulation. As a State Senator who represents one of the most cost-prohibitive districts in the State, I believe that every unit of affordable housing is precious and I will continue the fight to maintain and expand our desperately needed affordable housing stock.
Opposing Old Law Tenement Variance Requests At 514-516 East 6 Street
Earlier this month, I submitted testimony to the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) in opposition to an appeal by the owners of 514-516 East 6 Street seeking reinstatement of New York City Department of Buildings permits that allowed an enlargement of that residential building. I have previously testified twice before the BSA against approval of those vertical extensions and my original reasons for opposition – circumvention of the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law and failure to comply with fire safety and egress requirements – still stand. Please see my testimony, in which I urge the BSA to uphold its original ruling and deny the applicant's appeal, here.
Later in the month, I sent a letter to the BSA opposing a separate application by the same building owners for a zoning variance to legalize existing vertical enlargements and excess apartments. Please see my letter here.
Testifying before the City Council in Support of Increased Fines for Illegal Hotel Operators
On December 13, I presented testimony before the New York City Council's Committee on Housing and Buildings regarding Introduction 404, which relates to the fines for illegal conversions from permanent residences to hotels. I have been working, along with advocates and my colleagues in government, for close to a decade to combat these "illegal hotels" which create hazardous conditions for short-term visitors and permanent residents alike. In 2010, the New York State Legislature passed legislation that I co-sponsored that clarified that Class A multiple dwelling residential buildings may only be used as long-term residential housing. Then-Governor David Paterson signed this bill into law and it went into effect on May 1, 2011. Regrettably, despite the new law, illegal hotels continue to proliferate in my district and across the city.
Under the current fine structure, a building's owner may be assessed a one-time fine of $800 regardless of how many illegal hotel units he or she operates. Considering that illegal hotel rooms may rent out for several hundred dollars a night, and there are often multiple rooms being used in this fashion, an $800 fine is a laughable punishment that a landlord could easily write off as a cost of doing business. By allowing fines to be issued for every unit used illegally, with compounding fines for repeat offenses, Introduction 404 would establish penalties that are sufficient to compel lawful conduct. I applaud Council Members Gale Brewer and Speaker Christine Quinn for this bill and am hopeful that the Committee and ultimately the Council will pass this vital piece of legislation. Please see my testimony here.
Standing Up for Tour Bus Guides
On November 29, 2011, I joined dozens of licensed New York City tour guides and representatives of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 225 in a rally to save the jobs of more than 100 Gray Line tour bus guides at risk of being replaced by pre-recorded narration. The guides are currently negotiating a new contract with Gray Line New York, which, according to the union, has said it wants to automate operations and keep only a small number of its unionized guides for private group tours.
As I said at the rally, live guides not only sell tourists on New York with their personalities and individual stories but they also make tour buses safer for passengers and the communities they drive through. And, of course, a recording cannot answer tourists' questions or give real-time commentary on the colorful characters who populate our streets.
I am particularly concerned that Gray Line is allegedly using New York City Local Law 15 of 2010, introduced by New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer, which requires a five-year phased-in implementation of headphone-limited sound reproduction systems in all open-air sight-seeing buses, as a pretext for laying off live tour guides. I advocated for that law, which was designed to eliminate the disruptive noise that emanates from loud speakers on many tour buses without depriving customers of commentary from their tour guides. It in no way provides a legitimate basis for eliminating such guides.
Tourism is an incredibly important part of New York City's economy. We can and we must have reasonable and thoughtful statutes which support the industry – and its employees – while improving the living conditions of residents. I continue to call upon Gray Line to engage in good faith negotiations with TWU Local 225 and to keep it full fleet of tour guides gainfully employed and promoting our city.
Rallying in Solidarity with SEIU 32BJ Commercial Building Workers
On December 14, I joined thousands of commercial building workers represented by SEIU 32BJ and their supporters at a rally to demand a fair contract from the Realty Advisory Board (RAB). The contract for the more than 22,000 workers expires on December 31 and the RAB has proposed a two-tier wage and benefit structure for new hires that would effectively create a second class of workers. As the commercial real estate industry has seen record profits, especially in the past quarter, I cannot support a contract that would put the interests of the 1% before that of the 99%. On December 1, the union members voted to call a strike if the contract negotiations did not progress and I will continue to stand with the 32BJ members who keep our office buildings clean and running well in their struggle for a fair contract.
Commemorating World AIDS Day
Every December 1 since 1988, World AIDS Day has been observed around the globe. As New York State's only openly-HIV-positive State legislator, and as the representative of a district that has one of the highest rates of known HIV infections in the country, HIV/AIDS is, for me, a daily concern. However, I recognize the importance of World AIDS Day in helping to bring the HIV/AIDS pandemic – and what each individual can do to bring an end to it ? into focus for the wider public.
To mark World AIDS Day 2011, I joined Watchful Eye, a community-based organization focused on getting people tested for and educated about HIV/AIDS, and its partner New York City Faith in Action Coalition at a Meet the Leaders Lunchtime Chat. The organizations and particularly Watchful Eye's tireless founder Divinah ?Dee? Bailey have been key allies in the fight to increase HIV testing and prevent new infections. The more we talk about HIV/AIDS, and the more we encourage HIV prevention and voluntary testing, then the more we remove the stigma surrounding it, and the better we are able to reduce new infections and treat those living with the disease.The leaders and members of 504 North Star Democratic Club have been true partners in my efforts to make New York a more accessible and just state. I firmly believe that access is justice and justice is access. We have won major battles in my twelve years in the State Senate but there is much more work to do. I am confident that with 504 North Star Democratic Club's continued advocacy, I will be able to achieve many more victories for those who too often lack a voice in the halls of government and for all New Yorkers.