Myrie On Fire
Myrie on Fire – Three Meetings in a Month and a Fourth with Richardson
Zellnor Myrie is a ball of energy. He has held four meetings in his district (and another in Spanish that I missed). He has explained to his constituents how the budget works in Albany, did a forum on housing promoting nine bills to restore the rights to renters, participated in a State Senate meeting at Medgar Evers to take testimony on the problems of renters, and then participated in Assemblywoman Richardson's Civic Minded meeting to mobilize support for the nine bills the two of them are supporting to replace expiring rent laws.
Part One – The Budget Meeting
On Saturday, May 4th I went to the St. Francis School for the Deaf at 260 Eastern Parkway to attend a meeting on the state budget conducted by Myrie. When I arrived, members of his staff were putting up a sign for the meeting and I met Jonathan Timm, Myrie's Communications Director. I gave him a copy of “Nostrand Avenue News” and told him I would be covering the current meeting and another on housing May 9th. A little after 3pm the meeting got going. One of the things that impressed me was how much Myrie owes to Assemblywoman Diana Richardson. The meeting was very much in the mold of Civic Minded gatherings, her monthly meetings with constituents. Like Richardson, Myrie asked members of the audience to move to the front. In explaining the need for campaign financing legislation, he described a hypothetical situation in which two people call a politician; one is a large donor and the other a small donor, and Myrie asked which call the donor would take. Richardson has used this device many times. And like Richardson he used the format of education followed by a call to action. He wants his constituents to know how the budget works and then asked them for help in improving the process and putting pressure on their leaders to do the right thing. For example, he advised his audience not to send in form letters, or if they did to add a personal introduction. However, best of all would be to send in a handwritten letter, demonstrating genuine effort and thought. He said he would always be sure to read such a missive. He also said that politicians pay attention to the various forms of social media. If a post goes viral, politicians will pay attention.
The main content of the meeting was to explain how the budget is created, a three part process;
first, the governor, after meeting with heads of all the state agencies, creates a budget; second, the legislature considers the governor's budget by holding hearings and collecting their own information, and then the two sides of the legislature come up with a “one house” budget containing what they want. Myrie pointed out how important it is to coordinate the work of the Assembly and the Senate. The third part of the process is negotiating a final budget with the governor. It was then that he introduced Diana Richardson, sitting in the audience and explained how essential it is to get the same legislation considered in both houses. When there is a “one house” budget then that document has the most weight in getting the governor's approval. The budget is a large document with many billions in expenditures. The process is back loaded. There is a rush to pass the final document and many things can be slipped in, which then become part of a unified bill that has to be voted up or down. One reform Myrie wants would be to be to change the process so that it is possible to have a more deliberate pace and more transparency to avoid the last minute yes or no late at night right up against the deadline.
Myrie told about successes and failures in the process. There was a Criminal Justice Reform act to insure a speedy trial that would avoid keeping people in jail because they can't pay bail. A voting reform proposal was passed to insure the same hours for all voters upstate as well as the city. Also there will be early voting to make sure everyone gets a chance even if they are busy on Election Day. There was a Dreamers Act to allow children born in the US to undocumented immigrants to apply for financial aid for their education. Other proposals passed related to MTA funding, legal assistance, and aid for people in danger of being evicted from their houses. Other bills had not made it through the legislature – legislation on marijuana is still pending, an important issue for Black people who have suffered from the War on Drugs and now could benefit as small businessmen and women selling marijuana in a legal market.
Another bill not passed is Campaign Financing. Myrie pointed out that large sums that can be given to politicians can buy influence. Such money from special interests can distort the democratic process. All politicians need money and getting a lot from one source makes the politician beholden to that source. Thus, he or she stops thinking of the public good and thinks about paying back the funder in order to get even more money. Thus one man one vote tends to become one dollar one vote. Myrie's solution would be to limit large donations and match the contributions of small donors to increase the weight of their giving. The phenomenon that Bernie Sanders began of raising large sums of money through numerous small donations would be enhanced. Through such a program the power of the dollar would be diminished and the power of people would be restored.
In telling what has been accomplished and what remains to be done, Myrie was enlisting the audience to become involved, to hand write letters, to go testify in Albany, to give small donations to people they deem good leaders, to do whatever is possible to get involved – to become the kind of citizen who is well-informed, who can ask the right questions of the hucksters and corrupt leaders and push for what is best for the community. Myrie and Richardson are attempting to provide the right kind of leadership. They want their constituents to know what is happening and use their knowledge to become effective activists.
Part Two – The Housing Forum
On Thursday, May 9 in the same week Myrie ran his budget meeting, he held a forum on housing issues. The venue was again St. Francis School for the Deaf on Eastern Parkway. If the during the budget meeting, the auditorium seemed to overshadow the meeting, for the housing forum the situation was reversed. This time the event was in a good size room upstairs, but there was if anything a larger crowd that showed up and every seat was taken. The format for the occasion was to present an array of people from city agencies and various housing groups to answer questions from the audience. Myrie made a brief introductory speech telling who was on the panel, and, after allowing members of a tenants' organization to make a presentation, he then opened the floor to whatever members of the audience wanted to ask about.
The questions covered a large number of issues, and it seemed they got to everything that a formal presentation might have touched on. There was discussion of “buy outs,” the attempt to get a tenant to vacate in exchange for money; tenant harassment, the issue of Average Median Income used to set an “affordable rent” in buildings with “affordable housing;” Third Party Transfers by which someone can get ownership of someone else's building if the owner has fallen behind in taxes, repairs, or mortgage payments, and what powers the city has to intervene if illegal construction is going on, and much more.
The representative of the Housing Preservation Department talked about AMI. It has been raised to $96,100 for a family of three. The city calculates that such a family should be paying 30% of their income for rent, which means their rent should be about $29,000 year or about $2,400 per month. This does not seem to be truly affordable and there are many families that don't make anywhere near this amount. Indeed the average median income for the U.S. as a whole is about $61,000 and it has only been going up very slowly as wages have not risen much even as the U.S. economy slowly recovers. As many have noticed, the city under DiBlasio is using his affordable housing program, and it is not creating housing that most people can afford. The city subsidies for the program do not go to the tenants but rather to the developers and construction companies. Tenants pay for the operation of the building once built and interest on loans as well. This makes no sense. Developers become rich and tenants struggle to get by. At the same time, homelessness has soared because none of this “affordable” housing can be afforded by people on the edge who lose a job or suffer some other event that pushes them over the edge. Reducing homelessness was supposed to be signature issue for DiBlasio. Instead it has doubled in New York and many of the homeless are children. In the meantime developers build up scale buildings that make the market even more unaffordable. City policy seems designed to benefit the developers.
Travis Hill from the Attorney General's office spoke about tenant harassment. Anything that is illegal in the law is also illegal when done to a tenant – assault, theft, destruction of private property as well as unlawful eviction can be fought in court. Also the number of illegal forms of harassment was expanded in the Tenants Protection Act passed in April of this year. Kerri White, also from the Attorney General's office spoke about limitations in “buy out” offers. If a landlord makes a buyout offer that is rejected, he cannot make another offer for a year. Repeated buy out offers are now regarded as a form of harassment. Also continuous noisy construction in a building is now considered harassment.
The HPD program of Third Party Transfer, which has be charged with many forms of abuse, was discussed. Lacey Tauber from the department could not say much as the whole program is the subject of litigation.
Benjamin Colombo of the Department of Buildings said his department cannot prevent developers from buying buildings, even if they have a record of abuses. DB can only intervene if the contractor is not obeying regulations. However, the usual form this takes is the “Stop Work Order,” which does not remove the contractor, only stops work until the violation is corrected. Colombo said a new law may grant his department more power beyond simply bringing work to a stop.
Many other issues were raised, and at the end of the meeting, members of the audience flooded forward to ask more questions that might not have been appropriate in an open meeting, and Senator Myrie told the audience that they could also come forward to testify at the Senate hearing on housing, scheduled at Medgar Evers College on May 16, and in fact that event will be covered in the following article 3 of this series.
Part Three – Senate Testimony
May 16 was declared an historic date by Senator Myrie, and he was right. He had already explained that the governor gets his information from the heads of state agencies to form his budget. He told us the legislature holds hearings and gathers information to create its budget and form legislation. In this case of the rent laws of New York State are expiring in early June and Myrie is a leader in a coalition to replace the old laws with ones that serve tenants much better. In addition the legislature was coming to the people rather than insisting the people come to them. So in an amazing example of democratic practice, the representatives arrived in Brooklyn and other locales to hear what the people had to say. Eight New York senators sat on a panel at Medgar Evers College and listened carefully to anyone who wanted to speak. Renters, tenants, tenants' association members and leaders, interested people from the world of non-profits, and also landlords and developers all got their chance, and the Senators sat and listened for hours and hours.
The testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of passing new laws that members of the legislature had put together to address problems with affordable housing, AMI (Average Median Income), harassment, attempts both legal and illegal to get tenants to leave, claims of not receiving rent that had in fact been sent. Real estate interests have been trying to empty buildings of old time residents, renovate apartments, raise rents and make more money. And some landlords have been willing to bend the law and even violate it, acting as though making money was something that had divine sanction, and mistreating tenants was an incidental problem along the way. The landlords who spoke did not mention the widespread abuses; rather they said if they didn't make money, the housing stock would suffer. Yet, even as they showed up in suits and spoke in a respectful manner, some of their number organized a group of paid demonstrators who tried to block the entrance to the hearing; many of these “protesters” came from a construction company in New Jersey, and their effort was to bring an important democratic proceeding to a halt. This is the other side of the real estate industry – contemptuous of the law, using force to block important testimony by citizens. One side of real estate is based on thuggery, and if real estate won't clean themselves up, then someone else will have to do it for them. It is especially important these days that we insist we are a nation of laws.
I arrived at the hearings in the early afternoon, and the main room was full. Many were sitting in a nearby room for the overflow crowd, watching the proceedings on video. Eventually during a break, I made it in and found eight Senators listening intently to one person after another. The eight were Mike Gianaris, Brad Hoylman, Julia Salazar, Zellnor Myrie, Brian Kavanaugh, Liz Krueger, Gustavo Rivera, and Robert Jackson. Jonathan Timm, Myrie's Communications Director, told me three other hearings were going on in other parts of the state and that the Assembly was holding similar hearings. It was a very impressive display of leadership. The people were talking to their representatives, the representatives were responding with legislation and they were going to do everything they could to get that legislation passed.
– John DeWind