The prospect of ‘Governor Spitzer’ has put a bounce in the step of nonprofit leaders across the city. To learn more about what the change of administration will mean for New York’s public sphere, City Limits Weekly Editor Karen Loew sat down for a pre-election conversation with Rae Linefsky, a nonprofit consultant specializing in workforce issues and former high-level executive in city social services agencies and nonprofits; Bryan Pu-Folkes, an attorney who founded New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights; and Denise Scott, managing director of the NYC branch of the affordable housing group Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and a HUD appointee under President Clinton.
CITY LIMITS: Let’s go around and tell everyone what your job is and what you’re working on right now.
BRYAN PU-FOLKES: I work at a small not-for-profit in Jackson Heights, Queens. The name of the organizations is NICE, which is an acronym for New Immigrant Community Empowerment. I founded this organization a number of years ago to really build bridges between diverse communities throughout New York City with a focus [on] Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst, Woodside. …1999 was the official start. We responded to an anti-immigrant billboard that was put up there blaming immigrants for traffic problems, social problems, and a bunch of us were really upset. A group formed across race, ethnicity, culture, religion and we were able to not just successfully denounce those messages in a very unified and broad voice, but we were also able to get those billboards taken down because we were able to do some investigation and saw that they violated a number of building codes. And also we were able to start saying, look, instead of scapegoating immigrants, instead of preying on vulnerable, under-resourced communities, we should be talking about the incredible contributions that these communities make, but also talking about how we can bridge the gap in critical services like health care and housing. I think the founding of this, and a lot of the work that we do now is to push for legislation and policies that we think are founded on justice, fairness, and human rights and look at the strength of under-resourced communities. …Through organizing and working together, how can we find political strength in these traditionally politically disenfranchised communities?
So that’s a lot of what we do, by looking at bills, by providing workshops, healthcare workshops, starting your own business workshops, ESL/civic literacy workshops, and I think it touches actually on the elections that are coming up in the sense that, when we talk about who we need to put in office that will best represent the interests of, let’s say, immigrant communities—who in large part can’t formally participate in the electoral process because many of them are not yet U.S. citizens and when they do become U.S. citizens it takes a generation or two before they start to vote in the same level as their citizen neighbor—we need to have elected officials that are going to be fair, be accountable, ensure that we have a fair distribution of services and resources so that people who have less of a voice still have a mechanism in place, a system in place, that ensures accountability and ensures equity.
CITY LIMITS: Apart from specific positions on specific issues…
BRYAN PU-FOLKES: Yeah, and then we can get into that also. I mean obviously we have to look at where you are on particular issues but at the end of the day if it’s still gonna be about three men in a room, heavily influenced by special interests to the detriment of public interest, then the paradigm is already flawed. So we have to get people who are willing to say, I’m gonna shake the system up. And I think we have some people who are definitely… we’re going to see some things change in the years to come.
[NICE] is a really tiny organization. We stretch our resources to the limit and we think we get quite a lot accomplished for our size. We are providing ESL/Civic Literacy classes. We’re helping many immigrants, many of which happen to be undocumented, file for back wages. … All kinds of labor violations and many of them are either uninformed or very nervous about fighting for their employee rights, their workplace rights, labor rights. And so we provide workshops for them. … What we do is we have a very unique form of teaching ESL—we teach about certain rights, immigrant rights, workplace rights, financial literacy, financial justice.
The other thing that we’re doing is we’re pushing for restoring voting rights for non-citizens in municipal elections. There’s a lot of misinformation on that issue.
CITY LIMITS: Rae, do you want to tell us what you’re all about in general and what you’re up to right now?
RAE LINEFSKY: I’ve been involved in the business, the not-for-profit business, or government business, for a very, very long time. I’ve been fortunate enough over my career to have a variety of positions, management positions, running not-for-profits, being in a position of authority in government, at the commissioner level, etc. …I see the picture in a very, very big way. And in the context of what we’re talking about now as it relates to workforce development, I see workforce development—what used to be called employment training for many, many years—as ultimately the underpinning of the ability for people to be able to live. …Clearly, housing aside for a moment, the issues of education and workforce development are totally integrated.
…Workforce development, thank goodness, people are talking about now. There has been—and should be noted, and with congratulations, the Poverty Commission—the fact that it has come up is extraordinary. …The fact that [workforce development] is being talked about is such a relief to me because for years everyone talked around it but never talked about it. The place that I come from is that you need to agree in some way what do you mean by the definition of what workforce development is. …I’m talking about the ability to be able to get a good job, keep a job, see it as for today or as a step going into the future. … We need to be able to say that our goal is a world-class workforce. So that economically the city, the state can be strong. That interchange, that focus about where is economic development and where is your workforce, has to constantly be looked at, and I think of it as a seesaw. Occasionally one becomes the priority, so for us to grow economically we will go after these kinds of jobs.
Workforce, to me, involves not only the soft skills. It also includes appropriate education. Education to me is twofold. One is the literacy side. The side of understanding what it is you’re going to need to be able to do and to learn, whether that’s how to think or it’s how to fix a machine. And the other is the ability to be able to get the certificates and diplomas that we now say are important. …The next part of that is hard skills training. The concept of hard skills training in New York City is old-fashioned. There’s an attempt these days to look at it again, but for a variety of reasons what’s offered in the city, and what is funded, which gets back go the whole issue of federal dollars, has almost always been pushed by the federal dollars.
I’ve never been someone who thinks that any job is unskilled. I think all jobs require skills, it’s just the levels of the skills that are needed there. So you have hard skills training. And then you have two other pieces that need to be looked at, and that is the variety of populations. Bottom line, no matter what population you come from, it’s still the same jobs. And so if you’re talking about ex-offenders, if you’re talking about ‘out of school, out of work’ people, if you’re talking about those that left the welfare system and are now, for many of them, in the working poor category—bottom line, if you put everybody together, it’s still: are they available and are they ready to take whatever jobs there are, and potentially the jobs to be created? … Workforce development is a larger question than here’s an open job, here’s someone who needs it, and let’s make the match.
[Now] I work as a consultant. Some of it is directly workforce related, some of it is really not, it’s really much more not-for-profit management related. But the project working with aging out foster care youth, that’s what that’s all about. The bottom line is, are they going to be able to, at the point at which they’re no longer part of the system, are they going to be able to get a job and then they join the other ranks?
CITY LIMITS: Thank you. Denise, tell us about what you do.
DENISE SCOTT: I’ve been at LISC now almost six years. So I work for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. We are a national organization and I run the New York City program as managing director and vice president of the New York Equity Fund, which basically means that I am responsible for rolling out the strategic initiative of the LISC program in New York, which is mainly centered around housing, partnerships with not-for-profits, although we also work with smaller for-profit organizations. We celebrated our 25th year last year and across that period of time we have been in collaboration in a very strategic and strong partnership with the city of New York, which has spanned four mayors, two Democrats, two Republicans, so it hasn’t changed, we’ve built about 25,000 units of housing for low-income families, mainly using the federal low-income housing tax credit. But 25,000 units, that represents over $2 billion in private investment that we have raised, that has sort of married with probably twice that amount in city capital money.
… We are at a period now where for us we just underwent our strategic planning initiative, and have come to the realization that the next era of what we call community development, but it’s really the development of the city and stabilizing neighborhoods, is not about the blighted neighborhood but about preserving affordability. And it ties very neatly into what Bryan and Rae have talked about, whether you’re talking about housing immigrant populations, or whether you’re talking about issues of the workforce, because one of the big drivers that’s impacting affordability is that incomes have not kept up with inflation, have not kept up with the rising cost of housing, and so you literally have – I think it’s over the last couple of years, housing costs have gone up by about 20%, while incomes have not, really.
CITY LIMITS: Real incomes are the same or lower.
DENISE SCOTT: Lower, because of inflation, and so you have a situation where when we’re talking about affordability, another nuance to it is that we’re not just talking about low-income families—today we’re talking about housing the workforce. So we’re talking about kids aging out of foster care, or people who are newcomers to the city and not settled quite yet in the workforce … ranging up to teachers, firefighters, and police. A city that can’t house its workforce has a problem.
And so one big component of all this has really been the fact that over the last twenty years really at the state level the governor, the state, basically has been absent as a partner with the city. At the same time as the city was escalating its investment in housing, the state was declining its investment in housing, and so the net result was that the demand for housing has gone up, the population in the city is exploding, the cost of construction has gone up and the cost of living has gone up at the same time that the state has basically had, if not a decrease, only level funding.
Various programs were funded and the level of funding was set by program, for example, for Housing Trust Fund at $25 million annually. That number has not gone up and in some years it has been under-funded and then the legislature would come in, legislators would restore it, and that’s the only way it would get to that level. So if you translated the $25 million into today’s number, you would need the funding at about $45 million to just keep up with inflation and yet, inflation is not the only consideration. There’s the issue that the demand is higher and the cost is higher and you have to do better than that, so if you haven’t even kept pace with inflation then the virtual impact is that you’ve really decreased funding to housing. It’s in that context that we have a real crisis.
Our goal has been to build housing. We now see that protecting affordability is a big issue. Defining it is one of the first steps, and we can talk a little about that. But we also have to preserve at least the gains that we have made, so preservation is a big part of the agenda. To some degree we are probably losing more units that we are actually gaining…losing them to the issue of rising costs, losing it to buildings or units that are expiring out of government programs. … [We need some] incentives to keep owners in the program for a longer time…back then, these programs were underwritten, regs were set for 20 years, 30 years, and it seemed like a long time. But we’re there today, and so today we’re realizing that it wasn’t long enough because there are many places where people will just end up unable to afford the units that they lived in.
Setting the Stage
RAE LINEFSKY: You mentioned the role of the state. Where do the feds get into this?
DENISE SCOTT: Let me talk about the state for a minute and then I’ll come back to the feds. I was going to say that there was a poll conducted and 6 in 10 New York staters say that they’re very concerned about affordable housing as a real challenge to them because of this issue of the declining value of their income. In terms of the issue you raised, Rae, about workforce development, families earning minimum wage, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the city, would have to work 132 hours a week. … While there have been a lot of housing starts in the city, many of those units have been built as condos, co-ops, and high-end rentals, so they’re not affordable to the range of the workforce that we’re talking about.
RAE LINEFSKY: When we talk about workforce development, the conversation is usually around people who are at the lower end of the economic scale. But with housing … people who, in fact, are working what would be considered to be good jobs by our standards, have the education, they can’t afford to be able to live anywhere.
DENISE SCOTT: That’s right, so affordability is, I think, the center concern that challenges everybody as it relates to what to do about housing. So what does the next governor do? In addition to work for LISC I’m also part of a coalition called Housing First!, a collaborative consortium of housing advocates citywide and now statewide focused on this whole affordable housing agenda. We represent a cross-spectrum of the housing community from bankers to intermediaries like LISC to advocacy groups of all ranks. And we basically came up with a platform—I co-chair the strategy committee for Housing First!—and we came up with a platform for the next governor and we’re basically calling on the next governor to be bold about housing, to do what the mayor has done in the city and to become a real partner with the mayor. Comparable to the mayor’s plan to build 165,000 units, $7.5 billion plan over the next ten years, we’re asking the next governor to commit $13 billion over ten years, 220,000 units of housing, with a significant component of that also focused around the preservation agenda.
CITY LIMITS: And that’s just in New York City?
DENISE SCOTT: Our request of the governor is a state-wide request, and we recognize the issues are different across the state, but certainly 220,000 units statewide over 10 years, we think, is what the governor needs to do just to get up to what should’ve been happening over the last twenty years. So it’s not even getting ahead of it, it’s really kind of catching up. So the Housing First! agenda calls for this ramp-up of resources, it calls for leadership, for the governor to second-floor someone who can lead the other agencies and sort of channel resources into housing, but understanding that housing is economic development, so it’s really someone who can get above and around and wrap up all of the related issues. At the city level, you have a [Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Daniel] Doctoroff and you have a [Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner] Shaun Donovan. You kind of need that level of leadership at the state level in order that someone can command from the governor’s office and direct resources that can have this kind of impact that we’re talking about in the housing field.
About half of this money is not even new money, which is very significant. There’s some budget neutrality to this, there’s a place where you can start now and sort of ramp-up later. … What Housing First! is calling for is a redirection of the existing housing-generated resources to be used for housing … [and] an integration of effort directed around affordable housing that would substantially improve housing outcomes. … There’s a housing agenda that’s from the governor’s office on down. There’s a focus around doing something like what the mayor has done with the city where Doctoroff can call on the Department of Transportation, the Department of Sanitation, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, to make a land available for housing, a governor can do that statewide. We have talked to candidates Spitzer and Paterson about this issue. I think in the early part of the campaign housing wasn’t on their website, but it is now, so we feel good about that. It’s there now, and I think the governor, the candidate sort of gets that housing is important.
CITY LIMITS: Let me just pause one sec. Is there a housing czar now? If you’re looking for a Doctoroff and a Donovan…
DENISE SCOTT: There isn’t, really. There was, a long time ago, I think under Cuomo. But I don’t think that, and if there is, the fact that I don’t know who it is –
RAE LINEFSKY: I think so often, when new people come into office, the first thing that somebody says is, ‘We have discovered that there are gazillion different agencies dealing with this.’ And when you’re in the business you say, ‘Yeah.’ And they say, ‘And obviously we need to do more to integrate the services.’ When you’re in the business, you say, ‘Yes, but be careful, not at the expense of losing what we have. We want to do it because it’s intelligent and it makes sense.’ But I do think that at the state level, and very definitely believe this at the federal level, someone needs to care about this, someone needs to say that unless we deal with these issues, we have, as a society, a problem tomorrow, which is to say going forward into the next decades.
BRYAN PU-FOLKES: I just wanted to say that I think it’s really critical, making sure that our executives and other elected officials own issues. I think it’s great that, for better or for worse, Giuliani was known as owning the crime issue. He lowered crime in New York City. Bloomberg obviously campaigned as being the education mayor. I can’t say the same thing for Pataki, quite frankly. I’m not sure if I had to choose what are the issues that he has owned and said, ‘I’m going to make an appreciable impact in my tenure as governor,’ what those issues are. But I think it’s important, and I think the focus of today’s discussion in terms of new leadership, is going to inevitably be around Attorney General Eliot Spitzer because he’s ahead in the polls. I guess if anything he’s owning the issue of doing something about Medicaid fraud. That’s the one thing that we hear over and over. And not raising taxes.
…I would like to see programs that help to increase the level of stake that people have in society, and one of the best ways to have a stake in your neighborhood is through [home] ownership and I’d like to see more ways to level the playing field around that. From listening to Denise, I have a clearer understanding of some of the things that are happening. I’d like the debate to also include, how do we shift the focus so that the people who are the least-resourced have a fairer share of those limited dollars towards affordable housing and home ownership?
RAE LINEFSKY: Workforce development…could in a very brief period of time, say: What do we do now in workforce development? Let us look at what there presently is. What do we need to do to improve it? I’m not trying to be Pollyannaish in making it simple, but it’s pretty direct. This is not brain surgery. The economic development side is a little more brain surgery, but really: How do you ready someone for work? It’s not like we just woke up and said there are no more manufacturing jobs, there are very few manufacturing jobs that require less education or less English.
But housing. The day you decide to do something isn’t the day that the hammer and nails come out. So there’s something to say that when you talk about affordable housing—now, guys, hurry up, let’s talk about this because from the day that you begin something, how many years later does it take for actually to be the fruition of housing for people to wind up moving in or staying where they are? It’s an interesting issue anytime we talk about the physical building of things.
DENISE SCOTT: There is a continuum to some degree, so it all does connect. One example: when I started at LISC, one of the things I noticed was that we house 25,000 families, that’s major. But we don’t know as much about what impact housing has had. We’re now looking at it closely and doing a study of the impact. The stability of housing … might improve people’s attendance at school, might improve their attendance in the workforce, and that has a direct correlation on the economic stability of the family.
RAE LINEFSKY: And then the community—and then the larger area.
DENISE SCOTT: It all has an impact. One of the things that we started in partnership with Harlem Churches for Community Improvement, HCCI, is this thing called the Construction Trades Academy. And the goal there was to try to find, to connect young men (but not exclusively, but young people) to construction jobs. Very difficult connection because of unions and a whole host of things. And hard skills that are associated with construction trades. But what we did was we sort of funded HCCI to sort of look at, to create a virtual classroom on the construction site, married to a number of contractors that agreed to participate. And we so far have graduated about 45 kids. But the way it works is that they are in training on site. There’s classroom training, there’s on-site training.
RAE LINEFSKY: Do they go to jobs?
DENISE SCOTT: Ultimately they do. The success of it is that they’re graduating into some real job, many of them with the same contractors that they trained with. But the challenge on the workforce side is to keep them in—because construction is cyclical—to keep them employed. But I think the good news is that you’re identifying through this program other educational needs like ESL and GED and then also dealing with the hard construction skills. There’s a couple of—there’s a story, I have a newsletter that describes the program. But more of this. This is just a small, 45 kids in a sea of kids in the city that are not in the workforce is just a dot.
RAE LINEFSKY: But are they working with the mayor’s construction commission?
DENISE SCOTT: HCCI? Yes. I was on one of the subcommittees for that task force. …When we talk about the unemployment rate, we’re not talking about the people who have stopped looking for work and that number is substantial. So I was with Inez Dickens, city councilwoman, the other day, and she said that 45% of the young, African American, mostly males at home were not even looking for work, so they’re not even counting in the workforce.
RAE LINEFSKY: The number of out of school/out of work NYC youth is anywhere between 140,000 and 200,000 as we speak, and again the age is also whether it’s 18-24, 16-24, it doesn’t matter. Because each one of them take a different piece that is out of school, out of work. And so you could play with the number. You could say, I don’t know, I’ll go with 150,000. What’s the difference? …It’s not only unemployed but a lack of ever [having] attachment to the workforce. So if you’re 20 today, before you turn around you’re 25.
One of the things about the Spitzer camp—they’ve talked a lot about the need to look at metrics, and outcomes. In the workforce business, it ultimately is very simple. Are you working or are you not? Is it legal or not? What you want to be careful about is that you don’t just take that ‘Are you working or are you not?’ to be the beginning and the end of the story … for a variety of people, you need to go through many different kinds of hoops and different things to get to, what amounts to, you’re paying taxes or you’re not paying taxes. You are living somewhere or you’re not living somewhere. It’s a very black and white thing. And in fact, on the workforce side, it’s one of the few, in the broader sense of human services, that it’s: whether you are or you’re not. But again, for people who don’t understand what it takes for people to get there, you can’t let that be the only flag. But in the end, if you go through all kinds of stuff, and someone has put time and money and the rest, and there are not results, then one has to go back and say: Why did that happen? As opposed to just the blame, the gotcha.
Does everything change Day One?
CITY LIMITS: And related to some of the things that you just mentioned, I’m wondering how much time, in all of your different spheres of work, how much time are you thinking of giving the newbies to make change? And relatedly, how much optimism, or lack of optimism, there is in your different fields? Are people palpably excited and champing at the bit for next Wednesday, day after the elections, or is it kind of, you know, we’ve been bashed so much for the past six, eight years, that there’s no optimism anymore.
RAE LINEFSKY: Well isn’t the answer sort of yes and yes? I think that people who care about any of these issues, it’s not whether they’re optimistic or pessimistic, you push it because you know that that’s right. Are people going to feel better with major changes? Yeah, I think that’s true. But I think that no one that I know who cares about any of the issues we’re talking about thinks that this is the end, but in fact this is the beginning. …I think that someone like Spitzer who’s obviously extremely smart and intelligent, I think that there’s a presumption that his heart and his mind are in the right place. I don’t presume that he knows or that he is surrounded by people who know what I know or what my colleagues know about this area, and the same thing having to do with housing. My point is that I think that when you make the assumption that you’ve elected an intelligent caring person, they may agree with things that are up here, but unless they’re touched by it in their own personal life or in the intellectual life—they’re no different from the four of us. You know that which you know. And it requires people to be very clear with them about what the story is and what some of the suggestions are, but I don’t believe that most people who are going to get elected know.
BRYAN PU-FOLKES: Well, just going back to signature issues, I think that there are so many issues that are interconnected. …It’s hard to put an incredible, extraordinary amount of focus on all of these issues. It’s easier to say, OK, I’m going to pick a signature issue. And we understand that any signature issue—whether it’s crime, whether it’s education, or whether it’s housing—is an umbrella that connects to many other issues. And it’s so important that, I would like to see Spitzer, Faso, whoever the next governor is, or any of these state assembly members, to say, you know what, I’m gonna make this my issue. I’m gonna appoint a czar of XYZ and this person is going to focus on these issues so that we can make sure that within two years, within four years, and give me some measurable goals and objectives. So I think having a signature issue is really important, going back to housing or whatever the case may be…that’s sort of what I wanted to get at.
CITY LIMITS: How about an immigration czar?
BRYAN PU-FOLKES: Well, an immigration czar also. …And is there hope? I don’t know if I would say there’s a lot of hope within the average person on the street, the immigrant on the street, a person who was generally disconnected, and then was really, really mobilized, to come out and say, I know there’s something going on in Congress, I know there’s hope that maybe through a certain process I can maybe gain legalization, I can gain documentation. …I think that how you frame an issue can go a long way to what’s passable and what’s not passable. When David Dinkins focused on crime, it was about community policing. And that policy in and of itself begins to change the way people think about the role of police officers in a city. …I think that the way we tackle immigrant issues—right now, a lot of the focus has been through a lens of law enforcement. That really should not be the way we frame this discussion.
I would like to see elected officials who frame this discussion about: thank God we have groups of people who are helping us so that we don’t have huge housing vacancies; thank God we have people who are vitalizing neighborhoods so that our commercial quarters in many, many pockets throughout New York City are thriving; thank God that we have people who are working in industries where we need people to work, in large percentages—in construction, in restaurants, in domestic care. …How you address these issues will affect the way people think about these issues and, right now we have people in office like Governor Pataki who was ready, willing, and able to deny legal immigrants access to Medicaid, who was ready, willing, and able to deny immigrants access to drivers licenses which would just shoot our economy right through the center. And what that does is not just have a hurtful impact on immigrants, it has a hurtful impact on the economy and even worse, has a hurtful impact on the way the general public perceives the people who are under attack.
So I’m hopeful that we may have people that come into office that are not going to continue this paradigm of let’s blame the least-resourced, most-vulnerable communities for problems of not being able to find a job, or “not wanting a job,” or taking away jobs, or whatever the case may be. But say, this is what these contributions are and this is where some of the problems lie, whether it’s in the insatiable appetite of large companies who want cheap labor or whether it’s large companies who want to perpetuate a tax incentive program that’s to the detriment of most people in perpetuity because they just want to increase their profits. If we change the tenor of the discussion and the debate so that it also affects the perception of what our governmental priorities should be, and where the target of reform should be, then I think we’re going to make a lot of progress. And I think that Eliot Spitzer will be the next governor of New York and David Paterson will be the next lieutenant governor and overall I’m very, very happy and thrilled about that—
DENISE SCOTT: He’ll reframe the debate.
BRYAN PU-FOLKES: He’ll reframe the debate. When you think about the issues that he’s going to focus on, I would think that one of the top three issues is going to have to be reforming the way government in Alb