CityViews: Considering the ‘Spirit of the City,’ after the State of the City

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Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

The mayor at his recent state of the city address. Faith leaders praise his work in some areas, but see many problems unaddressed.

On February 15, a group of religious leaders of New York City presented an “inaugural address on the Spirit of the City.” The following is an extensive excerpt from it. The full version can be read here.

One year ago, at his annual address, the mayor gave us, the residents of New York, a simple message: “This is your city.” We in the faith community received this message more as a declaration of hope than a statement of fact. As a people of hope we can readily embrace the utopian spirit of this message.

But as a people called to speak truth to power, we must acknowledge today that this statement is false.

It is a promise to every resident, yet to be fulfilled. New York City is still the “tale of two cities” of which the mayor spoke in his first campaign four years ago. For those with the means and the privileges, New York is the city of dreams. For the rest of us, who lack the good fortune of education, health, housing, work, and social acceptance, the city is a dustbin of dreams deferred. The mayor was closer to the mark when in his 2017 address he said the “affordability crisis … threatens the very soul of the city.”

The tale of two cities is about the affordability crisis. It is an economic crisis. But more than this, we declare that the tale of two cities is an inequality crisis. It is about the inferior status of immigrants in our city and their vulnerability to a racist, immoral federal immigration policy. It is about the enduring prejudice that people of color suffer in their encounters with law enforcement, from harassment to deadly escalations, and with the criminal justice system. It is about the scapegoating of homeless people and a never-ending passing of the buck where it concerns responsibility for their well-being. It is about the disdain of developers for the integrity of vibrant communities and the lack of charity from landlords for tenants living on fixed income in substandard housing. The mayor is right to affirm that “We have to fight an inequality that has grown.”

We, as members of the religious communities of New York City, vow to fight this fight alongside the mayor and any other public servants who stand in solidarity with the abused, the exploited, and the neglected. Together we shall overcome these inequalities.

Economic Justice: A Real Living Wage Commission

Fair and just economic relations set the moral as well as the material foundation of civilized society. We are all too aware that the rent alone busts far too many family budgets. Too many parents struggle to feed, clothe, and educate their children, or nurse their loved ones when they suffer illness. We dream of a city where everyone who is able earns sufficient wages, and all people go home to a hearth where they can love and be loved.

And let us be clear: it is not enough to create high-income jobs for the professional elite when a shocking number of ordinary New Yorkers toil in low-income service jobs. Nor is it acceptable to permit highly profitable businesses to hire more workers under conditions that fall at or below the minimum standards of dignity and self-sufficiency. Job creation is no justification for exploitation of laborers. A plan of economic development must be complemented by a plan of economic resurrection.

It is necessary to raise up the incomes of the people paid the least—all across the service economy, from the fast food franchises to the four-star restaurants, from the airports to the hotels and in the tourist trade, in health care services, in the car washes, in the janitorial and security trades, and in the retail stores and the supermarkets.

As the key component of our campaign, we recommend that Mayor de Blasio and the City Council establish a commission that will report what is a realistic and viable living wage for all persons employed in New York City.

We define a living wage as one that will enable workers and their families to be self-sufficient and fulfill their aspirations. We believe the question of a living wage is best addressed at the municipal level. We deeply appreciated the mayor signing an executive order on Sept. 30, 2014, enacting a sweeping expansion of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act that raised the wages for employees in businesses subsidized by the city. The order could not help all workers, of course, and the wage increase was not high enough. More relief came when Governor Cuomo signed an act on April 4, 2016, to increase the minimum wage in New York State to $15 an hour. We commend the governor for this act.

However, this measure will not cover all workers in New York City until the end of 2019. By then, the cost of living in the city is certain to be much higher than it is today.

This is why we seek greater autonomy for the city in the decisions that will enable us to overcome poverty. This is why we call for a City Living Wage Commission to define objectively what a self-sufficiency wage would be for all New Yorkers.

Education: The Gateway to Escaping Poverty

The NYC Department of Education has made notable strides in improving public education for our City’s children; however, the DOE is compelled to do more in an effort to fundamentally eradicate systemic inequity, inequality, and pervasive indigence within the school system and the communities that it serves. The struggle to bring children, who hail from every language and culture to functional literacy across the core disciplines of oral and written English, mathematics, science and technology, the arts and humanities continues, and the obstacles of poverty and culture compound this challenge.

But these efforts are insufficient at the core of where 21st-century education policy and pedagogy needs to be in NYC. The DOE ranks fifth among the nation’s most segregated public school systems, with the greatest segregation in black neighborhoods, and this racial isolation persists even as residential segregation in these communities decline, not because of upward mobility but due mainly to adverse gentrification and the threat of homelessness, housing insufficiency, and inaffordability.

Mayor de Blasio has fought for continued mayoral control of the DOE. If the mayor wants control of public education, then he must share that control with parents, and he must be held accountable for the institutional inequity, inequality, and ravages of poverty that pervade the DOE. This administration, over the next four years, must work to guarantee the right of every child to a sound, fundamental UPre-K through 12 public school education embracing the cultural diversity of the city and rejecting institutional racism.

We applaud the implementation of quality full day UPre-K and kindergarten, but we ask the question: What about the schools that students will encounter in their communities as they emerge from these progressive early childhood education programs? We support hiring more guidance counselors, school psychologists, social workers and mental health support staff from UPre-K through 12th grade throughout the system. However, we demand that this administration and the Panel for Educational Policy comprising the NYC/DOE recognize the violence that is the poverty impacting the lives of the students within this system; and institutionalize a program within DOE addressing the impacts of “the violence of poverty” and the impact of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) on behavior and childhood health. The DOE cannot engage a campaign of school closures, chastising the failures of SURR and Renewal Schools, without fundamentally addressing the core issues that manifest in failing community institutions.

Charter-school education has for a decade been used as a political edge weapon to divide communities, undermining community leadership together with society’s core commitment to high quality public school education. We hold that charters cannot be expanded at the expense of the over one million children who depend upon our system of public education.

We support public charter school programs fought for, supported, and run by the communities within which those institutions serve. Parents of color, in particular, see public schools as failures, which is why they flock to the illusion and panacea of charter school education. So it is time for public schools to stop failing our children, and for politicians to stop using charter education as a wedge issue to polarize community.

We do not support–and we continue our fight against–corporate charter school programs, in particular, charters funded by Wall Street hedge fund ideologues using wealth and societal position to leverage public education dollars to the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, undermining public education for all.

We will no longer allow student behavior to be used as a wedge issue humiliating parents in New York City schools, or for educators to have families believe that there is something wrong with their child when behavioral issues arise. Chronic behavioral issues arise in children as a manifestation of deeper problems of abuse and dysfunction in families and the communities within which they live, of which children have no control.

We demand that DOE systemically cease and desist from blaming the victims, our children, and provide the innovative progressive policy, pedagogy, and psychosocial support that our children require in order to succeed. School safety is a function of dysfunctional community, not dysfunctional children. Bullying in schools is a function of children taking out anxieties and aggression on peers that they perceive as vulnerable.

New York City’s Department of Education must become the institutional gateway for our city’s children to escape poverty. The DOE cannot invest $20,000 annually per child in a system of over one million students without giving our children the dynamic equipment of emotional and psychosocial support they need to learn and to overcome dysfunction.

Housing and Homelessness: Stop Displacement; Build, Preserve Affordable Housing

As people of faith, we believe that all human beings have a right to be adequately and appropriately housed. Our institutions, specifically the City of New York, should be committed to making extraordinary efforts to ensure this outcome. Mayor de Blasio published “Housing New York,” a five-borough, 10-year plan, and “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” setting forth goals and aspirations for the city and for his administration with regard to these seemingly intractable problems. Though we have taken issue with some elements of these policy statements, we heartily commend our mayor’s foresight and diligence in making these initiatives public and open to critique. He is the first mayor to do so in more than 50 years.

In “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” the administration proposes to create 90 community-based facilities, with a much richer offering of services to assist families and individuals striving to get back on their feet. While there have been some incidents of NIMBYism in the face of some of these facility placements, there are also examples of community-based faith-community coalitions who have served as “hospitality congregations” to welcome their new neighbors. The mayor’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships is exploring ways in which religious coalitions such as the Micah Institute could play a positive role in the effort to welcome and support these new facilities.

We commend Mayor de Blasio’s use of eminent domain to allow the city to acquire 1,100 “cluster sites” that consigned thousands of residents to substandard shelter and bled New York financially. The plan is to rehabilitate these sites and put them into the hands of responsible overseers. This will provide permanent housing for thousands of people currently in the shelter system.

One of the best ways to fight homelessness is to prevent displacement. Two recent victories at the city level—the Right to Counsel and the Certificate of No Harassment—are very important advances, but each will require significant outreach and education to make them as effective as possible. The Right to Counsel will guarantee certain low-income tenants free legal representation in eviction court. But the roll-out will take five years, with residents of only three ZIP codes per borough per year becoming eligible. The Certificate of No Harassment requires tenant vigilance to be most effective, as the onus lies with tenants to report violations. We believe there is role for the faith community in educating tenants through campaigns of congregational outreach.

Going forward, we call upon the City Council and the mayor to initiate and approve legislation that would require reasonable anti-displacement measures in all pending zoning changes and future zoning plans. This protection would also cover small neighborhood businesses. In the meantime, it’s crucial that faith communities continue to work with tenant rights organizations in monitoring the rezoning plans that have been approved as well as those being proposed—as in Inwood, for example—to ensure the highest percentage of low-income housing possible.

In addition to preserving the affordable housing that already exists, we seek the construction of new affordable housing units. We approve the Housing Not Warehousing Act, which mandates a continuing census of all vacant property based on city data and identifies city-owned vacant properties appropriate for development. And Mayor de Blasio revised his housing plan, raising the goal to 300,000 affordable housing units, while also increasing the number of lower-income units in that figure. But the affordability crisis remains severe. Too many city residents are forced to pay 50 to 65 percent of their income toward housing. Our goal is to achieve a reduction to the humane standard of 33 percent.

Therefore, we ask the mayor to lobby the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for a more localized, rational Area Median Income, the statistic that determines the threshold of affordability for local development purposes. Factoring Long Island and Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester Counties into the NYC Area Median Income badly skews the numbers and sets an unrealistic standard of affordability that our poorest working citizens cannot meet.

In addition, we recommend income support for those who are homeless and at risk of homelessness. Home Stability Support is a state initiative that would authorize the use of “shelter funds” for rental subsidies for persons who reside in shelters, or for households on the brink of homelessness. Home Stability Support would provide funds to pay up to 85 percent of the prevailing rents statewide for all who qualify. City Comptroller Scott Stringer has estimated that if Home Stability Support were implemented, family homelessness could be reduced by 80 percent here within 10 years. We ask for the mayor and City Council to get behind this initiative and work with Albany to make it a reality.

Police Reform: Transparency and Accountability

On the front of police reform, there is both good news and bad news. On the positive side, the NYPD has begun quantifying and documenting the level of community satisfaction with the police on a precinct-by-precinct basis. We hope this information will be taken seriously when it comes to the performance evaluations of precinct commanders and will become more widely publicized to the public. Community policing is up, with precinct patrols reorganized so that there are more foot patrols, and fewer transitions between precincts, so officers get to know the communities they patrol.

Additionally, the city seems to be making good on its promise to close Rikers Island as quickly as possible and move remaining prisoners to borough-based facilities. One facility is already closed. We look forward to seeing the rest follow suit. We will work with the mayor to ensure that Rikers closes with all deliberate speed—not in 10 years— and that all prisoners are treated humanely and with dignity. Also on the positive side is the City Council approval of at least part of the Right to Know Act, which requires officers to explicitly convey a person’s right to refuse a search.

However, many problematic aspects of law enforcement in New York City remain, particularly in the areas of transparency and accountability. Although part of the Right to Know Act was approved, another section of the original bill, which would require officers to identify themselves in non-emergency encounters and explain the reason for the interaction, did not pass. This is a significant setback to positive police-community relations.

In addition, while there has been progress, such as a reorganization of the training program to include anti-bias awareness, there still needs to be more improvement in police training. Specifically, more needs to be done in both the academy and in service training in the area of working with emotionally disturbed individuals and cultural and multi-faith competency, as well as more accurate information about contemporary social justice movements such as the movement for black lives. Rampant misinformation is still circulating about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Another concern is possible internal bias within the department. Although it was requested, we still have not received any solid assurance that internal discipline in the NYPD is not biased and that all police personnel are treated fairly in disciplinary proceedings, promotions, and so forth, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or personal political views. We also still need a more rigorous and transparent process regarding discipline of members of the service suspected of brutality, corruption, or other forms of misconduct, including making public the guidelines used to substantiate findings of criminality, excessive force, abuse, and discourtesy.

We have grave concerns about police murders of innocent civilians. And we cannot remain silent about Eric Garner. More than three and a half years after his death, his family has not seen justice. Garner’s killer, Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, is still on the job. This total lack of accountability, despite many promises to the contrary, continues to undermine whatever trust there may be between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve. It must change now.

Immigration: Resist Immoral, Unjust Federal Policy

We are appalled by the restrictions on travel for residents of targeted Muslim-majority nations, the sharp reduction in number of refugees we welcome, new limits on asylum eligibility, drastic cuts on visas to unskilled workers, and the threat to end family-based immigrant visas for all but spouses and children. Above all, we deplore President Trump’s decision last September to revoke DACA for the Dreamers and the termination of temporary protected status for migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Sudan, rendering over a million residents vulnerable to deportation. Taken together, these cruel and merciless actions signal not only a war on immigrants and refugees, but also a war on our city.

In the face of systematic oppression and overwhelming abuse of power, we call on the city to stand strong against the immoral and unjust policies of the Trump administration. We call on the mayor and City Council, in alliance with the governor and our state and federal lawmakers, to covenant with immigrant communities and leaders in faith-based communities in efforts to promote just and humane immigration and refugee policies at the federal, state, and city levels.

In spite of all the harmful actions of the Trump administration and harmful inaction of a divided Congress, we continue to demand comprehensive immigration reform, with a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented people.

For the present, the city should counsel any immigrant who qualifies for citizenship under current laws and policies to obtain it with all deliberate speed. Increasing funding for free legal aid for potential citizens is one of the best things the city administration can do. We recommend a significant expansion of the ActionNYC program, which provides free, safe legal assistance to immigrants. We encourage the city to fund a public awareness campaign to promote citizenship.

We urge all residents to obtain the municipal identification card through the IDNYC program. We appreciate the recent expansion of benefits the ID card affords. And we applaud the mayor for vowing not only never to share personal information with immigration authorities but also to dispose of all records pertaining to IDNYC program applications.

Moreover, we call for enhanced pushback against immigration enforcement operations on the grounds of their violation of human rights and their unconstitutionality. The city administration has promised not to interfere with ICE operations. But this does not prevent the city from monitoring federal activity and intervening at the slightest sign of human rights violations.

* * * *

We call on the mayor and the City Council to put the common good above the good of narrow self-interest. We ask you to look at the faces on the margins of the city and listen most carefully to the voices not being heard in the places where decisions are being made. We ask you to hear the inconvenient truths and attend to the vision of community that comes from the souls of poor folk. We ask you to reflect on their experience. Then we ask you to work with them to create a city shaped in every way by the faith they share. We ask you to do good and great things, not because they are politically expedient, but because it is always the right time and season to do right for the people who have been excluded and oppressed.

Rev. Dr. Raymond Rivera is the founder and president of the Latino Pastoral Action Council. Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer is the executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York. Rabbi Michael Feinberg is the executive direcctor of the New York Labor-Religion Coalition. Brother Anthony Zuba (OFM, Cap.) is a pastoral associate with the Good Shepherd Friary.

Sunita Viswanath, a board member of Women for Afghan Women and of Sahana: Coalitino of Progressive Hindus, and Bishop Dr. Raymond H. Blanchette (Chairman, Clergy Campaign for Social and Economic Justice) also contributed to this writing, which was adapted from this posting.

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