Monday, February 23, 2009

Bring Control of Rent Control to NYC

For nearly 40 years, the authority over rent control and rent stabilization in New York City has been held by the New York State Government. The time has come for the New York City Mayor and the New York City Council to be provided with the tools to show leadership and judgment in this critical area of policy related to local housing. With approximately 90% of all of New York State's rent controlled apartments located in New York City, the State Legislature and the Governor should work to grant authority over New York City's rent controlled units to New York City.

State Control

In 1971, New York State took away New York City's authority to administer rent control within New York City through the adoption of the Urstadt Law. Urstadt was the Housing Commissioner under Governor Rockefeller in 1971, and the law that carries his name prohibits cities in New York State from enacting rent control regulations that are more protective of tenants than what is contained in state law.

The New York State Assembly, with its long history of Democratic control, has passed legislation that would repeal the Urstadt Law several times. The New York State Senate had been controlled by Republicans since the mid 1960's, and the Republicans had failed to control the New York State Senate for only one year of the last 70 years. The New York State Senate would prevent a repeal of the Urstadt Law as frequently as the Assembly would vote in favor of such a change. As we stated in our October 2008 endorsement of Joseph Addabbo for a Queens State Senate seat, ending the 70 years of Republican control of the New York State Senate creates enormous opportunities to improve the public policy landscape for Manhattan and for all of New York City as well as for our entire state.

Now, after the Democratic Party took control of the New York State Senate as a result of the 2008 elections, there is a very real chance for a bill to repeal the Urstadt Law to pass both houses of the New York State Legislature and receive the signature of Governor Paterson, thereby returning control over New York City's rent control regulation to New York City.

Mayor Bloomberg Sides Against New York City

Ironically, the New York City Mayor prefers that New York City leave control over rent control in the hands of the state government. Mayor Bloomberg should be leading the charge for New York City to have authority over regulating its housing stock. We hope that he changes his position and that whoever is elected Mayor in November 2009 advocates for increased control by New York City over local issues such as housing.

Economic Impact of Rent Control

Perhaps the Mayor's opposition to local control is actually a reflection of his discomfort with rent control more broadly. He may believe that the New York City Council will make poor choices in an effort to pander to tenants, who represent a large voting block. Landlords tend to make large campaign donations but represent a small number of votes and may not be voters at all if their primary residence is outside of New York City. He may also side with many economists, who argue that rent control regulations reduce the amount of housing available in the market, reduce the quality of the housing available in the market, increase corruption in the housing market, and do not result in more affordable housing.

He should keep in mind that decontrolling apartments creates economic shocks and displaces families in ways that are very unhealthy. Dr. Mindy Fullilove brought to light the incredible emotional and psychological harm done to those who are forced to leave their homes in her book Root Shock. Just as artificially low rents may lead to some undesirable outcomes, massive displacement is a major threat to the safety, economic health, and mental health of the people of New York City.

The specific approach to rent control (and rent stabilization) that will create the best outcomes for New Yorkers is open for debate. There should be no debate over whether New York City should have the authority to implement the policies in this area that our elected leaders in New York City think are best for our city.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Scott Stringer's Food Fight For Manhattan

On this Presidents' Day, we see that our local President, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, is once again the leading voice on a crucial local issue that has been overlooked by many others. This time the topic is Food.

Earlier this month, Stringer took his Food Fight to the next level by publishing his information-rich Food in the Public Interest report. The report addresses the importance of food as a driver of the health of our fellow residents, and it looks carefully at our local agricultural community, its relevance, and mechanisms for protecting and strengthening the agricultural activity in and around New York City. The report also discusses hunger prevention in our city, which is particularly relevant during this period of economic stress and high unemployment. We applaud each element of the report, and we highlight for you the connection between the food that we consume as NYC residents and the quality of health we enjoy as a result.

Fat City

New York City has already shown leadership in its ban on transfats in our restaurants and in its 2008 establishment of the requirement that all restaurants with at least 15 locations nationwide post the calories contained in each item on their menus. Yet, it seems that much more must be done. We are starting this food fight with the trends working against us. The rate of obesity and the rate of diabetes each increased 17% between 2002 and 2004 according to Stringer's Food Report.

Manhattan Borough President Stringer's report also alerts us that, amazingly, most of New York City's adults are overweight or obese, and that a direct correlation has been demonstrated between the parts of New York City with the lowest levels of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the parts of our city that have the highest levels of obesity. Unfortunately, Upper Manhattan is near the top of the list of the areas affected by both the lack of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the abundance of obesity. As stated in the Borough President's report, one in six restaurants in Central Harlem and East Harlem serves fast food, while the number is only one in twenty-five restaurants on the Upper East Side. Upper Manhattan is in desperate need of greater availability of high quality fresh food, and our local Community Boards can use their land use approval authority to encourage such greater availability.

We caution our fellow New Yorkers to remember that weight is not always a good proxy for physical health. Men and women in excellent physical condition with an abundance of muscle and very low levels of fat will often be deemed overweight or even obese based on government guidelines. Will Smith and Andy Roddick would be considered overweight, and Sly Stallone and Mel Gibson would be considered obese under the current government definitions. Each of those four celebrities should be envied in terms of their apparent physical health, but the government guidelines use only height and weight for the overweight and obese labels. Individuals with large amounts of muscle don't fit well into the guidelines.

With that caution stated, it is clear that we need to improve the overall health in all communities within NYC. Upper Manhattan includes many of the neighborhoods in our city that need the most attention and have the most work to do to achieve better health.


Nutrition education is a key component of overcoming the negative health trends that are affecting our city's residents. Borough President Stringer makes a number of innovative and thought-provoking recommendations in his report. The recommendations range from local actions to national policies. Amongst them:

(1) Encourage the consumption of healthy food in place of junk food
• Encourage New York City government agencies to continue reducing the amount of unhealthy and processed food served
• Encourage private and nonprofit entities to replace junk food with healthy options through grants, tenant improvement funds, tax breaks, access to low interest loans, or applicable licenses and permit processes
(2) Expand nutrition education campaigns through public service announcements, subway advertisements, etc.
(3) Develop an ongoing collaboration between nutrition experts and the city’s education and youth agencies to improve nutrition education in public schools and after-school programs
(4) Advocate for an increase in the per pupil federal reimbursement rate for school meals, which would allow for upgrades to school kitchens, improved training for staff, and the purchase of healthier unprocessed ingredients
(5) Encourage employers to promote nutrition education and healthy eating practices in the workplace by creating an online clearinghouse of information to assist employers with implementing worksite health and wellness policies
(6) Offer incentives through private insurance, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, and Medicare, for healthy weight and lifestyles, such as coverage for gym memberships and counseling for obesity

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bloomberg Campaign Spending Limit Is Needed

Mayor Bloomberg has been in office for more than seven years, and as a billionaire, he has a First Amendment right to spend as much of his own money to seek re-election as he chooses. We are correct to ask him to place a voluntary limit on his own campaign spending as he seeks re-election in 2009.

He successfully convinced the New York City Council to overturn two referenda and to provide Mayor Bloomberg with a path to a third consecutive term as Mayor. At Manhattan Viewpoint, we have opposed term limits in general, but we were outraged to see the New York City Council and Mayor Bloomberg conspire to defeat the votes of the people of NYC by eliminating term limits twice supported by wide margins in city-vote plebiscites. In October 2008, Manhattan Viewpoint begged the Mayor and the City Council to let the people decide whether they had changed their minds and were prepared to accept longer term limits or no term limits. We would have been supportive of a referendum to eliminate term limits, but we cannot support the anti-democratic and unfair approach that the City Council and Mayor chose to undertake. Because the Mayor has demonstrated a willingness to operate in an anti-democratic fashion, we suggest that agreeing to limit his 2009 campaign spending may help him earn back the credibility he lost in the effort to overturn the will of the people.

Bloomberg's Campaign Spending

Mayor Bloomberg spent $78 million to win re-election in 2005, and he spent $74 million when he ran for the first time in 2001. His Democratic opponent spent $9.5 million on his entire campaign to defeat the Mayor, while Mayor Bloomberg spent nearly four times that amount on television and radio advertising alone. He received nearly 60% of the vote in his 2005 re-election bid and is considered a favorite in the 2009 race as well.

Nonetheless, all indications are that he plans to spend at least as much seeking re-election in 2009 as he spent in 2005.

New York City's Novel Campaign Finance Approach

In NYC, public financing of campaigns for public office is a reality, and the program providing that funding is very generous. It provides that all qualified candidates seeking New York City elected positions (City Council, Borough President, Comptroller, Public Advocate, and Mayor) receive a six to one match for every contribution received from a New York City resident up to $175 per contributor. To qualify, candidates must raise above a minimum level of campaign contributions from above a minimum number of individuals (for the Mayor's race, a candidate would qualify if she raises $250,000 from at least 1,000 people, with a maximum of $175 per contributor counting toward the minimum dollar level).

The six to one match comes with one large string attached. Total campaign spending is capped. For the Mayor's race, a candidate accepting the public financing in 2009 can spend only $6.2mm in the primary and an additional $6.2mm in the general election. Therefore, assuming the Democratic nominee for Mayor in 2009 is a candidate who has agreed to participate in the New York City campaign funding system, Mayor Bloomberg will face an opponent who will be limited to $12.4 million of total spending versus the Mayor's 2005 precedent of $78 million of spending.

Voluntary Spending Limit

With a seven-year record, very high name recognition, and control of the largest municpal government in the United States, one could argue that Mayor Bloomberg should be able to win re-election without outspending his opponent nearly 10 to 1 as he did in 2005. A voluntary limit of $38 million would give Mayor Bloomberg a 3 to 1 spending advantage over the Democratic nominee, and the advantage would be greater than the 3 to 1 ratio appears.

Mayor Bloomberg faces no primary. He is an independent candidate and will not be seeking the nomination of any major party. If he seeks the nomination of some of the minor parties, he will do so without a material challenge and will not need to finance a campaign to win those nominations. The Democratic nominee will face at least one serious opponent in 2009. By the time mid-September rolls around and the Democratic Party chooses a nominee, the Democratic nominee will be low on cash from the primary fight. That nominee will have to unite the voters he voted for her with those who voted for her opponent, and she will only be allowed to spend $6.2 million against Mayor Bloomberg. Therefore, a $38 million voluntary limit from the Mayor would give him a six to one spending advantage in the general election along with incumbency advantage and the advantage of a lack of a primary challenge to fight prior to the general election. Of course, the Mayor should not be expected to maintain a voluntary spending limit if his opponent is not subject to the spending limits.

When asked about imposing a spending limit on his own campaign last week, Mayor Bloomberg became aggrivated. He refused to address the question and labeled it ridiculous. In reality, the question is not worthy of ridicule, but his reaction might create problems for him as he seeks to defend his record and connect with voters in these very troubling times. Voters may properly ask whether the Mayor has become too imperial - changing laws created by the voters themselves and seeking a third term as the chief executive of our great city with his vast wealth potentially scaring away challengers and being used to monopolize the media time against the Democratic nominee in 2009. A voluntary spending limit would indicate that the Mayor is willing to allow the voters to make their choice without attempting to overwhelm them with his propoaganda. He would be saying that a six to one spending advantage is all he needs to win.

Above all, the Mayor should be careful not to dismiss the concern about campaign spending. In doing so, he might remind voters that he spends nearly every weekend in Bermuda and travels to and from Bermuda is his personal jet. He is susceptible to being considered out-of-touch, and stating that agreeing to spend no more than $38 million of his own money on his campaign is "on of the most ridiculous things [he has] ever heard" suggests he is not yet trying to be in-touch.

Monday, February 2, 2009

NYC Fails to Protect Its Foster Children in AIDS Trials

Late last week, the Vera Institute of Justice released its 500-page detailed report regarding New York City's foster children and their participation in HIV/AIDS clinical trials from the late 1980's through 2001. These trials tested medications for treating the symptoms of HIV/AIDS in children.

The report provides us with an opportunity to catalogue the numerous deficiencies in NYC's efforts to protect foster children during these clinical trials, and it exposes the lack of adequate data available to us today as we seek to understand and correct these deficiencies.

The New York Times suggested in its January 27, 2009 article that allegations about poor procedures and a lack of protection of foster children in clinical trials have been refuted by the Vera report. The New York Times clearly misunderstood the report.

Alarming Failure to Protect Our Children

Based on information available to it, Vera states in its report that of the 25 children who died while participating in the medication clinical trials none died as a result of the medication provided to them in those trials. But, Vera's lack of access to the medical records of the deceased foster children raises questions about their ability to accurately determine the causes of death of these children. See Page 225 of the report.

The report reviewed the experiences of 532 foster children, but there are another 264 foster children for whom Vera received insufficient information to determine whether those 264 children were or were not participants in clinical trials. Moreover, for twenty-two of the foster children who participated in the trials, Vera hasn't received adequate information to determine whether these children were ever even infected with HIV. See Page 203 of the report.

Of the 532 foster children, 98 participated in the clinical trials without the approval of the Commissioner of the NYC Administration for Children's Services. The Commissioner's approval was required for the participation of foster children in any clinical trials. See Page 239 of the report.

Twenty-one percent of the children, or 112 children, participated in clinical trials despite the fact that their parents had not signed the required informed consent documents. For at least seven children, the person who signed an informed consent form was not legally authorized to do so. Kinship foster parents, parents without parental rights, and child welfare staff signed the forms in contradiction of the policies in place to protect the children. Even when forms were signed by legally authorized individuals, those individuals likely were often confused about the nature of the trials to which they were consenting. Many informed consent forms contained technical language difficult for people without a medical background to understand. Often, the informed consents from legally authorized individuals were obtained in violation of federal rules for obtaining such consents. These violations include handwritten notes for informed consent in lieu of official documents, consent accepted over the phone, coercive tactics used to obtain consent, and consent sought or obtained from parents who may not have been competent to provide it. See Pages viii to ix of the report.

Three of these children were enrolled in a phase I clinical trial even though Children’s Services’ policy barred participation in phase I trials. Phase I trials are the first stage of testing in human subjects. These trials are designed to assess the safety and tolerability of a drug. Approximately half of the trials could have been phase I (32 of 65 treatment trials). Vera was unable to identify any phase for 18 of the 65 treatment trials, and they could not determine whether the foster children participated in the phase I or the phase II aspect of 14 phase I/II trials. See Pages 355 to 357 of the report.

Data Deficiency

For 30 percent of the foster children, some part of the child welfare file was lost or destroyed. Records often did not contain documentation required by state regulations. See Page ix of the report.

Only the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) has the right to conduct or authorize a review of medical and clinical trial records of foster children who participated in HIV/AIDS trials—even when hospitals agree to have the files reviewed. NYC Administration for Children’s Services asked NYSDOH to permit it to review this information. The NYSDOH refused those requests. See Page xii of the report.

Because Vera was not permitted to review Internal Review Board (IRB) minutes from the hospitals where clinical trials were conducted, Vera was unable to determine whether or not independent advocates were required for compliance with federal regulations and Children’s Services policy in many trials. See Page 257 of the report. The federal government reviewed the IRB minutes from Columbia University Medical Center's IRB and determined that Columbia failed to follow federal regulations with regard to determining the need for independent advocates. See Page 127 of the report.

Preventing Future Failures

Our city and our state must make the protection of our foster children a high priority, while aggressively undertaking efforts to treat the symptoms of AIDS and prevent the spread of HIV amongst our children. We must demand that New York City and New York State work together to correct the alarming deficiencies discovered and revealed in the Vera report. Our children deserve better protection.