State of City Receives mixed reviews from nonprofits

Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at Lehman College in the Bronx.

State of City Receives mixed reviews from nonprofits

February 5, 2016

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio trumpeted his accomplishments last night in his hourlong State of the City address, lighting on some of the initiatives in his preliminary budget that will channel funds to many nonprofits tasked with tackling the mayor’s major challenges, including affordable housing, mental illness and income inequality.

“We see the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ transforming into one New York,” the mayor said in his opening remarks, later adding, “I have seen people come together as one New York in an astounding way, time and time again.”

But the mayor’s intended message of a diverse, fair and unified city was clear before he took the podium – the city’s first lesbian fire department chaplain gave the opening prayer, exhorting New Yorkers to pay their workers a living wage; a Muslim family led the pledge of allegiance; a young women’s choir sang a spirited rendition of the national anthem; and a black teenager introduced the mayor, thanking him for ending stop-and-frisk policing. The mayor would later explain that even delivering the speech in prime time was designed to allow “working New Yorkers” to have a chance to hear it.

During the speech, the mayor’s focus remained fixed on these themes and how his administration had helped to accomplish past campaign promises, often giving only cursory treatment to his new budget proposals or the nonprofits that will help implement them.

Mental health 

Before he had even finished thanking his fellow city officials for attending, de Blasio worked in a plug for the city’s new plan to address the city’s mental health challenges. The mayor thanked his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, “the author of a new groundbreaking vision for a city where mental health challenges are addressed head on.” 

The initiative, called ThriveNYC, de Blasio said, aims to “shatter that stigma and deal with the public health crisis of mental health” by supporting and promoting mental health while addressing mental illness – which affects 1 in 5 New Yorkers in a given year, according to a city report for the campaign.

The city’s nonprofit partners in the $62 million initiative were quick to express enthusiasm as well.

OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, a mental health and social service nonprofit, said it “commends the bold ThriveNYC initiative.”  

“The way in which the mayor and Ms. McCray have spoken publicly about their own family challenges sends a clear and compelling message,” Moishe Hellman, co-president of OHEL, said in a statement. “Getting help is much more important than worrying about stigma.”

A new link between Brooklyn and Queens

In perhaps the most anticipated feature of the address, the mayor highlighted what will be a $2.5 billion public transportation project – the 16-mile Brooklyn Queens Connector, or BQX, streetcar line that would run along the East River waterfront from Astoria, Queens, to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, linking two boroughs that have been notoriously difficult to travel between. 

“Today we take the next great step in connecting New Yorkers to the heart of our new economy for New York,” the mayor said. BQX, he said, “has the potential to generate over $25 billion of economic impact for our city over 30 years.”

That could be good news for the 40,000 NYCHA residents in 13 developments, who represent roughly ten percent of the city’s total public housing population.

"Statistically if you look at the Red Hook Houses right now, 75 percent of young adults between 19 and 24 are unemployed. And the rate for adults is around 50 to 60 percent,” said Jill Eisenhard, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative, that aims to overcome systemic inequities by educating young people. Community organizations like hers hope the streetcar will improve low-income New Yorkers’ access to higher-paying tech jobs.

Raising the minimum wage

The mayor made only glancing mention of his $15 minimum wage proposal, saying simply that “50,000 city workers and contracted workers will now be guaranteed a $15 minimum wage.”

Still, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies applauded the mayor’s plan to raise the wages of 50,000 workers across New York City by funding a $15 per hour minimum wage that would cover city-contracted nonprofit workers. FPWA has been a leader in the “15 and Funding” campaign to ensure the government increases funding for contracts with nonprofits so they are able to pay for any minimum wage hike.

“While we commend the mayor for increasing wages for thousands of city workers, we appreciate that there still are many service providers whose work merits a pay increase,” FPWA said in a statement. The organization worried that early childhood educators would remain underpaid and said that more funding is needed for summer after-school programs.

Helping the homeless

The mayor spent considerable time drawing attention to the injustice of homelessness during his address, highlighting the stresses faced by the working poor.

“More and more, these are families with children, working families who are doing everything right,” de Blasio said. “But they wake up in shelter, take their kids to school, go to their job, and then return to their shelter when the day is done. That is not what should happen in the greatest city in the world.”

The mayor touted his affordable housing plans, citing a record number of apartments financed, progress in building the promised 10,000 affordable apartments for seniors, the city’s first rent freeze on rent-regulated units and an end to veterans’ homelessness in the city.

Nevertheless, Picture the Homeless, a homeless services nonprofit run by homeless individuals, was not impressed by the mayor’s rhetoric. the way the mayor presented his housing initiative, “is not the way it's going to play out.” said Ms. K., a member speaking for the organization who asked that her full name be withheld for privacy reasons. 

“It’s not really solving the problem for the people having the problems, particularly right now,” she said of the city’s street homeless and sheltered populations. “It’s basically a developer program.” She explained that the mayor was not listening to grassroots organizations like her own that are advocating for nonprofit-run affordable housing, choosing instead to work with profit-minded developers. The result, she said, is a set of housing programs that are not tailored to the needs of the homeless community.

“You’re not really dealing with the need,” Ms. K said. “You’re dealing with people’s perception of the need.”

Ending elder abuse

Several of the mayor’s proposed budget line items went unmentioned in his speech, but nonprofits benefitting from those programs, such as efforts to alleviate elder abuse, said that the funding is what is important.

"I'm so pleased – I'm thrilled – that the city is seeing that they need to respond to this epidemic,” said Risa Breckman, executive director of the NYC Elder Abuse Center. The mayor’s budget included $1.5 million to fund specialized teams of experts to respond to complex cases of elder abuse. “We've been talking about elder abuse, neglect and exploitation and the money really hasn't been there. So we're heading in the right direction – and I'm really thrilled about that,” Breckman said. “But we need more.” 

The elder abuse teams have to hire outside experts, including psychiatrists and forensic accountants, all of whom need to be paid with that money. "When you think about $1.5 million and you think about New York City – it’s a big city, there's huge need – we need the funds,” Breckman explained.

Nonprofits’ responses to the mayor’s address echoed those they gave the Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s address last month – namely, that while the generalities of the mayor’s speech sounded promising and they look forward to funding for their respective programs, they are anxiously awaiting what funding ultimately makes it way to them.

“I hope it will be there,” Breckman said of the mayor’s preliminary budget funding for elder abuse. “In the final budget."

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.