Long Read : Do you know where your community board is?

An Investigator's Look :  The community board system intersects with New York City's real estate industry

  • Community boards are supposed to facilitate public involvement

  • But community boards don't do community outreach to draw community involvement and input

  • The lack of mass community involvement and allegations of the oppression of activists means that community boards are perceived to often side with big business interests, including real estate developers, instead of defending the public interest 

By SUSAN LIPPMAN

It may come as a surprise to many New Yorkers, but every neighborhood in every borough in this city has a community board, each consisting of 50 unpaid members, appointed by the respective borough president, although the local New York City Council member recommends many.

What are community boards supposed to do? What is their stated mission? Does it differ from what they actually do?

I decided to check it out.

If I choose to believe the Community Affairs Unit Web site of New York City's Mayor's Office, I would readily present complaints to my local community board, as I read that one of the most important functions of the board members "is to receive complaints from community residents."

I wondered if their function is also to resolve complaints from residents. I searched diligently but could find no answer to that question.

Community board members have other responsibilities, too, including, but not limited to: issuing permits for street fairs. Their positions on land use, safe pedestrian and vehicular transportation, and the desirability or not of issuing liquor licenses to those businesses that request it must be taken into consideration by the city officials and agencies who make the final decisions. The community board's position is advisory only, therefore never binding.

Despite the city Web site's assurances that community boards are bastions are democracy and that most people are satisfied with them, I found that many people had never even heard of community boards, include some politically astute folks. I did a random sample of about 50 people, whom I asked what they knew about their local community boards. Here are a few of the replies I received :

  • "I don't know anything about community boards. I didn't even know they existed."
  • "My City Councilmember is Corey Johnson." (That person thought that their City Councilmember was the community board.)
  • "Community boards? What are they? Should I know about them?"

Why is it that so many people have never even heard of the community boards, supposedly the best of local governance? Why is it that although I worked as a field social worker for many years in almost every neighborhood in every borough in New York except Staten Island that I never once saw a notice for a community board meeting. After all, not only are community board meetings supposed to be open to the public, but the public is supposed to be notified. I have never received a mailing or an internet invitation, either.

Why is it that I and so many others learn about community boards only when controversial issues come up and public hearings are supposed to be held ? Why is it that so many community members have issues with their community boards, and do not feel they are listened to or represented?

Some community boards, to their credit, have voted against gentrification projects in their communities. But since their votes are merely advisory, often bad decisions are made in spite of community board opposition. However, it would be even better if the community board members reached out more to their communities to encourage the activism necessary to effectuate meaningful, progressive change, and, to my knowledge, that type of outreach is seldom initiated by community boards.
— Susan Lippman

I was astounded by the failure of democracy when I attended a few land use committee board meetings regarding the attempt to sell the Brooklyn Heights library to a private developer so he could build luxury housing on the site and built a much smaller library below the high-rise, super expensive monstrosity. (A final decision on the deal has not been made as of this writing.)

At one community board meeting, first the developer and the CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library were given about an hour and a half to present their "reasons" as to why the sale of the public library would be beneficial to all. Many people in the community believe that the CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library is obviously in cahoots with the developer and has been accused (I believe correctly) of deliberately letting the library deteriorate in order to use that as an excuse to gut it. There was a fancy power point presentation. Their sales pitch was not very convincing to most of the community. When they finally finished, community members were allowed to speak for 3 minutes each.  Most strongly opposed the deal. Nevertheless, because the initial presentation took so long, a lot of people who wanted to did not have the chance to speak.

There was more than one land use committee meeting. The first vote was five for the deal, five against it, and two abstentions.

Supposedly it was a stalemate, so, therefore, there would have to be another vote. However, community activist Alicia Boyd, a founder of The Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) in Brooklyn, who has had serious run-ins with her local community board, especially the district manager, informed me that according to the official community board guidelines, a vote of five for, five against, and two abstentions, is not, is fact, a stalemate, because less than the majority voted in favor of the proposal.

At a subsequent community board land use meeting, the community board members discussed the controversial issue among themselves and then voted for the resolution, although there were some who voted against it. Between the meetings, the developer had ample opportunities to lobby the community board members. The public was eventually given three minutes per person to speak, but not until after the community board members voted. Ms. Boyd, the Brooklyn activist, also noted that community boards have the option of letting the public speak either at the beginning or at the end of each meeting. But when a vote is taken and the community isn't heard until afterwards, that sends a chilling message which says, in effect, "Let the community be damned."

I tested my own community board, and the results were discouraging

A neighbor and I recently sent a letter to the land use committee of our local community board with a carbon copy to our local City Councilmember, not to make a complaint, but simply to express concern about what appeared to be the creeping gentrification of our neighborhood, as evidenced by a very busy, low-priced clothing store being replaced by a high end shop, Banana Republic, as well as concerns that a developer was seriously considering building a hotel very nearby, awaiting only a zoning regulation in order to begin construction. We thought that was a crazy idea, given the fact that our neighborhood is among the most densely populated in the entire city. Such a project would totally overwhelm the infrastructure, keep neighbors awake due to construction noise, and there would surely be pollution from the construction materials and diesel trucks. Furthermore, whenever such construction takes place, small businesses and tenants paying truly affordable rents are displaced. We thought that the community board would be as concerned as we were. We were sadly disappointed when we received no reply, even after publishing the community board's lack of response in two widely read internet publications, and a subsequent letter was sent to the chair of the land use committee.

I searched the internet diligently, trying to find an article about at least one community board that actually served the needs of the people who live and work in the neighborhoods they represent.

I could not find a single one.

On the other hand, I found many complaints against the community boards, especially against those board members, who headed committees, the board chairs, and the district managers. 

Many said that community boards are corrupt. One former board member said that his appointment on the board was not renewed when he opposed real estate development, which means the construction of tall, luxury residences, to the detriment of the communities in which they are built and usually in spite of massive opposition.

Marty Markowitz, former Brooklyn borough president, gained notoriety when he failed to reäapoint five community board members, specifically because of their vocal opposition to what was known as the Atlantic Yards project, which today is referred to as Barclays Center. Apparently, such behavior is common practice.

Some community members and activists are oppressed

Five years ago, State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) was an officer of Manhattan's CB2. During one community board meeting, Mr. Hoylman called the New York Police Department to remove a senior citizen, who was complaining about the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital. Source :  Louis Flores/YouTube/Screen Shot

Five years ago, State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) was an officer of Manhattan's CB2. During one community board meeting, Mr. Hoylman called the New York Police Department to remove a senior citizen, who was complaining about the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital. Source :  Louis Flores/YouTube/Screen Shot

Some community activists are treated harshly when they speak out at community board meetings. Ms. Boyd, the activist, was arrested several times when she spoke out loudly and clearly against gentrification, and the people at the meetings shouted,"Let her go." She has received a lot of support for the work she has done in opposition to luxury high-rise developments and against the proposed gentrification of Empire Boulevard. Although a high-rise building has gone up on Flatbush Avenue, it appears that the Empire Boulevard project has been put on hold, thanks to the activism of members of MTOPP.

Linda Mariano, a leader of the Gowanus group, Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, an organization that has fought the so-called development in that part of Brooklyn, has had some successes. They were able to have the Gowanus Canal declared a Superfund site, but, unbelievably, developers still plan to build in that area, anyway.

One building became a center for the arts, due to the active involvement of the community, although now there is concern that the present owner is charging exorbitant fees for events there.

I asked Ms. Mariano if she knew any local community board members who would be willing to speak with me if I guarantee their anonymity. She said she couldn't think of one and felt that her entire local community board was corrupt.

She also told me that when a community board member was extremely rude to her, she wrote a letter to the Borough President Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn), regarding his behavior and asked that he be removed or at the very least that his appointment not be renewed. When she got no response, Ms. Mariano kept on writing. Eventually she got a response, which, was, in pprence, a dismissal of her concerns. Included in the reply was the allegation that no one else had ever complained about that particular community board member. That's exactly the same type of reply that many landlords tell all their tenants, when, in fact, there have been numerous complaints. But even if no one else has complained, that's no excuse not to take her complaint seriously. It was not Brooklyn Beep Adams himself who answered the letter, but one of his representatives. Here's a sample of the letter and the reply.

Ms. Mariano wrote:

While asking a question, Mr. Shames, a community member, started screaming and yelling at me. In a calm and quiet tone, I responded to Mr. Shames, "I do not like the way you are talking to me." He then responded with additional screaming, at which point the other area residents in attendance told me that the way he was yelling was inappropriate.

Such bullying behavior does nothing to foster communication between community board members and the people, whose interests they represent. Allowing this type of behavior to continue will dissuade people from engaging with community board members and speaking up.

Here's a sample of the reply, that came from Ingrid Lewis-Martin, senior advisor to Brooklyn Beep Adams:

If Mr. Shames violated your community board's by-laws, that is an issue that must be addressed by the community board and not the office of the Brooklyn Borough President.

Our community board liaison confirms that during community board meetings Mr. Shames conducts himself in a professional manner.

I have heard only positive things about each of you, and I am certain that two people who careso greatly about our community can find a way to resolve minor differences.

One community group was censored by a community board

There is a very effective organization in Manhattan, called the Lower East Side Dwellers, founded by Diem BoydSara Romanoski is an important leader of the community group.

They speak out loudly and clearly, especially about the enormous number of liquor licenses that have been granted in a very small area of the Lower East Side, known as Hell Square, arguably the largest number in the world. As a result, bars are open until 4 AM. Noise is excessive. People are drunk and behave horribly, and despite rapidly increasing rents, the crime rate in the neighborhood has risen substantially. There has been a rash of burglaries in the area.  There have been hotels built there, and even more on the way, too, increasing the transient population, people who don't live there and don't really care about the community. It is patently clear that the owners of the drinking establishments care only about their bottom line, not about the community. With skyrocketing rents, both residential and commercial, the owners and lease holders of these clubs, bars, and hotels clearly have the means to pay exorbitant rent or to buy the very expensive establishments. Like many of the frequentees of the clubs, they don't live in the community.

The LES Dwellers are outspoken and effective. They have prevented additional liquor licenses from being granted in the area and have been instrumental in preventing some liquor licenses from being renewed. They have been able to work with the community boards, many of whom were ignorant of the laws regarding the approval and issuing of liquor licenses. Nevertheless, they, too have had run-ins with their local community boards. In 2013, the organization was suspended as a recognized block association for three months, from September 23 until the end of the year. CB3 chair Gigi Li commented that the LES Dwellers had "been working on its own entity and acting as a shadow community board."

In response, the LES Dwellers expressed frustration regarding what they viewed as the community board's failure to act assertively regarding problem bars and clubs in the area.

The suspension decision appears to have been made arbitrarily by CB3 chair Gigi Li and the district manager, Susan Stetzer. As the LES Dwellers pointed out, this was a "procedurally deficient decision of chair Li and district manager Stetzer without seeking board approval. They went on to say that the decision was an "infringement of the First Amendment right of free speech."

The LES Dwellers contacted the office of then Borough President Scott Stringer (D-Manhattan). Here is a part of former Manhattan Beep Stringer's reply: "The decision to exclude an organization under these circumstancesdoes not serve the interest of the community board's transparency and democratic representation."

Nevertheless, despite a motion to do so, the community board refused to reverse its decision to temporarily suspend the LES Dwellers, who commented as follows: "This attempt to intimidate and punish the LES Dwellers into advocating according to CB3's wishes is a low point in the history of New York City community boards.

CB3 chair Gigi Li has subsequently been accused of election fraud and racial insensitivity. The LES Dwellers, amongst others, have been instrumental in pressuring Ms. Li to step down as CB3 chair. The LES Dwellers have also helped to get Ms. Li to withdraw from her bid to become a Manhattan district leader. As of this writing, it appears very likely that when her current term expires, that she will no longer remain chair of CB3.

At a CB3 meeting in September 2013, Sara Romanoski made a remark that longtime CB3 member David McWater disliked. His response was to leap from his chair and charge at her. His activities were quickly interrupted by others. Romanoski said, in response to the near assault on her, "Nothing I say or or someone in the public says should warrant a physical response. That's never acceptable. It makes an unsafe, unproductive environment." It should be noted that Mr. McWater owns three bars in the neighborhood, and previously owned even more. He has served on CB3 for several years and was a past board chairperson.

This raises several questions : 

  • First and foremost, should a bar owner be allowed to be on a board that advises on the issuing of liquor licenses? Is that not a conflict of interest? 
  • Should his aggressive, physically threatening behavior, in this case, toward a small woman, not be sufficient grounds to remove him immediately from the board? 

As it turned out, the LES Dwellers announced that they planned to take legal action against Mr. McWater and that they would contact the Manhattan Borough President regarding this incident, which is available on video. They called for Mr. Mc.Water's immediate resignation from the board. The following month, Mr. McWater announced that he was resigning from CB3, of course, denying that the LES Dwellers' response had anything to do with his decision.

Nevertheless, Mr. McWater returned to the board in 2014, not to be reinstated, but to request a liquor license for another bar in the area that he had recently purchased. Because of his status as a former community member, his item was first on the list, although it was initially supposed to be 14th. He request was approved.

Some activists take legal action against their community boards

Ms. Boyd, the Brooklyn activist, was so disgusted by the activities of her local community board, that her organization, MTOPP, decided to file a lawsuit against the district manager, Pearl Miles, alleging that she "had tried to push through a rezoning plan without community input, had failed to hold meetings in adequate space, and had not properly complied with Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests." The group MTOPP had alleged for a long time that Miles was corrupt. There were many heated community boards meetings. Many community residents felt that the community board, and especially the district manager, did not speak for the community. Furthermore, the board was accused of not publicizing meetings,  and altering documents, providing no transparency or accountability.

Remarkably during the month of October 2015, the entire board voted overwhelming to remove Miles from her position. The vote was 32 for her removal, seven opposed, and two abstentions. It should be noted that Ms. Miles had been a fixture on the board, having been a member for 30 years and a district manager for 22. These are the reasons the board gave for its decision: Ms. Miles has engaged in a "longstanding pattern of misconduct and unprofessional behavior and has left locals feeling she is gravely out of touch with the community that she is employed to serve."

It seems evident that the above decision would never have been made had it not been for the ongoing activities of MTOPP.

Recently, I learned that one of the most dishonest people whom I have ever met has been appointed to a community board not far from where I live.

Although most of the controversies stem from land use and real estate issues, there is also concern, especially on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, that Borough President Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) continues to reappoint community board members with a long history of opposing safer streets, which Streetsblogs says makes it difficult for safer policies to be implemented, since the Department of Transportation often listens to the board first, rather than serious considerations about safety from the community.

Nonetheless, there are certainly some good people on community boards, but, for the most part, they usually stay silent regarding controversial issues until the community itself organizes. Then, sometimes things are changed for the better.

Some community boards, to their credit, have voted against gentrification projects in their communities. But since their votes are merely advisory, often bad decisions are made in spite of community board opposition. However, it would be even better if the community board members reached out more to their communities to encourage the activism necessary to effectuate meaningful, progressive change, and, to my knowledge, that type of outreach is seldom initiated by community boards.

It is a bit encouraging, though, that an increasing number of community boards are voting against Mayor de Blasio's inclusionary zoning plan. Will it unleash a city-wide movement for genuinely affordable housing?

What is the problem with community boards?

If community boards are not truly representative of the communities they are supposed to serve, and too often they are not, what is their true purpose? Ms. Boyd, the Brooklyn activist, suggests that community boards are intended to give the appearance that there is democracy at work in our communities, when that is usually not the case at all.

Many community board members are interested in political office. Many City Councilmembers were former community board members. Might that indicate that community boards are overly politicized?

According to John Fisher, founder of the tenant resource Web site TenantNet and a former community board member in Manhattan whose term was not renewed because of his vocal opposition to well-healed real estate developers, "The entire purpose of the community boards is to give politicians political cover.

Also, there has been extensive criticism that community boards seldom reflect the ethnic and racial composition of the communities they are supposed to serve.

A 2010 Baruch College study of the Flushing area of Queens and the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, reached the following quite disturbing conclusions:

  • Community boards "do NOT engage all stakeholders ( including immigrants, both legal and undocumented) in meaningful or sustained way and are limited in advancing racial and ethnic relations in a new and challenging socioeconomic contest."
  • "As a body of politically appointed individuals, community boards are extensions of the political agenda of the borough presidents and city councilors and it may NOT be in their vested interest to promote a coalition among immigrant activists....."

The report went on to note that Community Board 7, which represents Sunset Park, as well as the wealthier, whiter nearby neighborhoods of Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, is notorious for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity. There is a huge Latino and Asian population in Sunset Park that is not fairly represented on the community board.

When the report was written, there were only four Asian CB7 members, all men, including two business owners, a developer and a controversial CEO of a local multiservice agency. Conflict of interest once more?  When concern was expressed about lack of ethnic and racial diversity on the community board, one board member spoke 'jokingly" about raising the Latino flag. Why didn't the other board members protest? Should the person who made that insensitive, racist remark, have been removed from his community board?

Ms. Boyd, the Brooklyn activist, noted that under the former Bloomberg administration, richer, whiter districts, like Windsor Terrace and Park Slope, were promised that their communities would not be upzoned, i.e., taller buildings would not be allowed in their communities. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City) kept his promised, while upzoning less wealthier communities with Asian, Latino, African-American, and Caribbean populations, such as parts of the Lower East Side and Chinatown in Manhattan and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Former Mayor Bloomberg's actions were blatantly classist and racist. According to Ms. Boyd, since Mr. de Blasio has become mayor, things have changed slightly, but hardly for the better. Mayor de Blasio has worked with the Department of City Planning, a department with very close ties to the real estate industry, to insure that even wealthier, whiter neighborhoods will probably soon see taller buildings, as the real estate industry would love to build in wealthier neighborhoods to make even greater profits.

The problem of money in politics affects community boards, too

Why do community boards tend to be so undemocratic and unresponsive to the communities they allegedly serve? Mostly, it boils down to money, and how Citizens United, the horrendous U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2010, declaring that corporations are people, despite the absurdity of that claim, which allows corporations, including influential real estate companies, to give massive campaign contributions to political candidates, thereby buying elections and significantly undermining our democracy. A great argument against Citizens United was a sign held by an elderly woman at a demonstration in New York City which read, "I'll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one."

Although there has been massive opposition to that U.S. Supreme Court decision, it is still the law of the land. It works something like this: If your landlord owns 20 buildings and lists himself as a separate corporation for each building, usually a limited liability company, or an LLC, he is allowed to give 20 separate campaign contributions to the same candidate, since the law explains that corporations are people. Now each individual is allowed to give up to $150,000 to a campaign committee, whereas before Citizens United reared its ugly head, it was only $5,000.

  • An LLC "provides its owners with corporate like protection against personal liability."
  • "LLCs are treated as individual donors, and not corporations," although, according to federal law, they are one and the same.

Therefore, the Real Estate Board of New York, a very influential group of developers and landlords (REBNY), has given massive campaign contributions to numerous state and local candidates' campaigns, from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) to Mayor de Blasio, to borough presidents, to City Councilmembers. One of REBNY's funding entities is a Super PAC called Jobs for New York, and thereby effectively obscures who they really are.

Although community boards hear directly from the community, community board members are usually junior members of both main political parties. Junior members, if they want to climb within the part ranks, usually must adhere to party discipline set by senior party officials. Unfortunately, senior party officials tend to be high-ranking politicians, who are subject to the influence of large campaign donors, including real estate developers.  REBNY consists of multi-millionaire and billionaire developers, who are responsible for the massive gentrification in New York City, displacing thousands of people and closing much needed hospitals in order to build luxury housing and to do all within their power to eliminate all regulations that protect tenants.

Mayor de Blasio claims to be for affordable housing, yet his mandatory inclusionary zoning proposal, clearly benefits REBNY at the expense of most New York city residents, who are far from wealthy. This plan supports luxury housing, as long as the developers include a certain percentage of "affordable" housing. This plan is opposed by thousands of New Yorkers, but the real estate behemoths love it and love Mayor de Blasio. Steven Spinola, the former president of REBNY, only had positive things to say about the mayor, and William Rudin, who is responsible for the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan and replacing it with a $1 billion complex of luxury condominiums and townhouses, also speaks highly of the mayor. Note that when Mr. de Blasio was a mayoral candidate, he spoke out against that very project.

Besides getting approval for large real estate projects, developers receive a massive tax break, known as 421-a, whenever they set aside a percentage of their fancy apartments as "affordable." However, in New York City, the average rent-controlled tenant has an annual income of $29,000 and a rent-stabilized tenant, $37,000. Under the tax breaks, the cheapest "affordable" apartments, and they are usually studios and not suitable for families, are for families earning more than $45,000, according to rules that follow a percentage of the so-called Average Median Income (AMI). However, the AMI is flawed, because it includes the wealthier neighborhoods of places like Staten Island. There is no housing made available for low income people. Furthermore, there are often thousands of people who apply for the same so-called affordable apartment. Poor people without stellar credit are seldom even considered.

Furthermore, when rich people move into neighborhoods, small businesses are pushed out, displaced, as are tenants, since landlords see only dollar signs and have incentives to harass tenants to leave so that they can "renovate" their buildings and move in wealthier tenants, or sell the buildings to speculators, all of which lead to more and more displacement, and, of course, homelessness.

Mayor de Blasio received massive campaign contributions for the real estate industry, to the tune of more than $550,000. Atlantic Yards, also known as the Barclays Center, developer Forest City Ratner raised $73,000 for de Blasio's campaign.  Durst, Related, Extell, and Larry Silverstein, all billionaire developers, also contributed substantially to de Blasio's mayoralty campaign.

Mayor de Blasio refers to himself as a "pro-development progressive," which sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Officials, who appoint community board members, are subject to campaign donor influences

The influence of money in politics on community boards can also be measured by the influence of real estate interests on the city's borough presidents.  Large real estate developers fall under the jurisdiction of community boards, who have oversight on applications to make major changes to land use, and borough presidents approve appointments to community boards.

Brooklyn Beep Adams and Brough President Melinda Katz (D-Queens) have massive real estate connections. Manhattan Beep Brewer, who is alleged pro-tenant, boasted about a deal that was made with Extell Development Company, the same real estate speculator that destroyed a popular Pathmark supermarket on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in order to construct a luxury building, completely disregarding massive neighborhood opposition. Manhattan Beep Brewer said that the developer agreed to some "affordable" units. Therefore, all is well.

Brooklyn Beep Adams has usually been the featured speaker at the annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, attended by more than 600 domestic and foreign real estate developers. He also spoke about his desire for development and to see parts of Brooklyn, especially those around Prospect Park, become major tourist attractions.

Queens Beep Katz was the chairperson of the land use committee when she was a New York City Councilmember. After her incumbency in the City Council, she worked for a real estate lobbying firm.

Besides borough presidents, City Councilmembers have a role in selecting individuals to serve on community boards. City Councilmembers, too, are subject to the outsized influence of real estate developers, which make large campaign donations.

Here is some information from REBNY regarding its campaign contributions to various City Councilmembers:

  • Margaret Chin: $121,108
  • Richie Torres: $85,932
  • Costa Constantinides: $106,417
  • Laurie Cumbo: $79,715
  • Mark Treyger: $43,868

Furthermore, at the REBNY Annual Gala, a $1,000-a-plate event to benefit the real estate industry, there were many of New York City's elected officials, including, but not limited to: all the borough presidents, Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York),  Controller Scott Stringer (D-New York), City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem), and City Councilmembers Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), Rory Lancman (D-Queens), Dan Garodnick (D-Manhattan), and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens).

Imagine if several groups of people who claimed they were environmentalists attended a $1,000-a-plate benefit for the Koch brothers and other climate change deniers who, in turn, profit from destroying our planet. We would be up in arms! I think we need to be up in arms about the elected officials, who claim they support tenants and working people, while cozying up to the real estate moguls, who, in turn, are destroying our communities via massive gentrification, which always equals displacement.

City Councilmember Brad Landers (D-Brooklyn) has earned the ire of many of his constituents, as he supports the real estate industry's agenda, against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of his constituents.

Moving forward

What is to be done?

That's the $64,000 question that has no easy answers.

If the real estate board buys the officials, who are, for all intents and purposes selected by an elite few, rather than truly elected by the people, and those officials are the ones who appoint the community board members, then there is obviously a very serious problem. How can it be resolved?

Some say community boards should be abolished entirely.

Others say that the boards should be publicly elected. However, given the power and money embedded in the real estate industry, even if community board members were to be publicly elected, what's to stop REBNY from giving massive contributions to the members of its choosing?

Some suggest term limits for board members, but even if that were to be enacted, what's to prevent people with the same ideology from replacing those whose terms have expired?

Clearly, we need campaign finance reform and an end to Citizens United. A campaign finance reform bill passed earlier this year in the New York State Assembly but was defeated in the very conservative State Senate.

Here's a little food for thought:

  • It would be great to disallow real estate developers, big landlords, CEOs from major companies and bar owners from serving on community boards.
  • Community board members, who behave rudely and/or aggressively toward attendees, would immediately be removed, as would community board members who make racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks.
  • Ideally, no candidate would be allowed to accept money from the finance, insurance, or real estate sectors, but only from ordinary citizens.
  • Several people have suggested that the best solution would be to elect independent local candidates who have no ties, economic or otherwise to the moneyed elites. For example, socialist Kshama Sawant recently won a second term on the Seattle, Washington City Council, with not a penny from the corporate/real estate elite. Her campaign was literally grass-roots, as her supporters knocked on thousands or doors. She has already accomplished incredible things. The $15 minimum wage was passed in that city, and Columbus Day there has now become Indigenous Peoples' Day. City Councilmember Sawant is now working hard to restore and strengthen rent controls there, a city that has become as gentrified as New York.
  • The activist group, MTOPP, has sued members of a community board in Brooklyn and has recently filed another against Borough Beep Adams. Perhaps it would be a good idea for people from numerous communities throughout the city to get together and file a massive class action suit. Who knows what results that might bring?
  • If voters can support the public election of community board members, then we can look elsewhere for inspiration to prohibit the influence of money in politics. A recent initiative was passed in Seattle, called "Honest Elections," in which individuals will be given $25 vouchers to support the candidate(s) of their choice. This will be paid for by a small tax on property owners, whose homes are valued at $400,000 or more.  The elections would be publicly-financed. Other provisions include: "a limit on campaign contributions, caps on how much money campaigning politicians can raise privately and will require candidates to disclose much more about their personal and financial holdings, including their net worth than ever before. In addition, it will "severely restrictdonations to Seattle companies that do business with the city. and city elected officials may not lobby their former colleagues for three years after leaving office."

There is widespread agreement that Citizens United needs to be overturned, but until that happens, individual cities can take initiatives to take money out of politics on the local level, including at the community board level in New York City.

It's not a panacea, but it is definitely a large step in the right direction.

It would be a great idea if New York would follow Seattle's example.

What do you think needs to be done?