Council member Helen Rosenthal talks with Maurice Pinzon on New York News Network’s “Conversations” Podcast. Recorded 7.30.21 Transcript below.
Helen Rosenthal: Oh, it’s so nice to be here with you Maurice. Thanks for having me on.
Helen Rosenthal: Well, thank you. Thank you for asking. I mean, the first thing I would say is, I really am grateful to the voters for the last eight years. I hope I’ve made a contribution, I think I have. We’ve made a lot of changes over the last eight years. In many ways. I think I’d like to talk about three different areas. One is sort of what we’ve been able to do to help the people in the district who are being harassed out of their homes. And to try to keep them in their homes. The second area had to do with the school rezoning. And the third area probably is maternal mortality.
Helen Rosenthal: So in the area of affordable housing. When you ask someone in New York, what are the issues? I think today, they would say, safety, but I also think the real answer is affordable housing, affordable housing, and affordable housing. There’s such a shortage. And for that reason, landlords are regularly trying to harass people out of their homes, so that they can bring in new tenants and charge them more money. And what we serve probably 4,000 people a year, and that’s just on the Upper West Side.
Helen Rosenthal: Around the city, there are, 10’s of 1,000’s, if not hundreds of 1,000’s of cases of harassment going on every year. So one of the things my office figured out, as we considered the work we had to do to keep people in their homes, was that, in fact, the Department of Buildings was a critical link to making improvements. But the Department of Buildings saw its mission, differently. Its mission was – is – making sure buildings are built safely. They never think of themselves as an entity that could help tenants.
Helen Rosenthal: And we pass legislation to change that mission, that outlook and and now they in fact do very much have. They very much helped tenants, including they now have an office of the tenant advocate, which was my legislation, and over time, we got it fully staffed and running smoothly. They help probably 10’s of 1000’s of people every year, to force their landlords to make fixes in their apartments. So the apartments are habitable, whether that’s making sure there’s gas, hot water, fixing windows, fixing things, fixing floors, and ceilings. That’s been a huge accomplishment. And it was such an elegant way of taking what we were experiencing in the office to City Hall and passing legislation to address this issue. We use the Office of the tenant advocate now in our office to address these concerns, it goes a lot more smoothly.
Helen Rosenthal: I think the second big accomplishment that I’m super proud of had to do with a school rezoning that took place in on the Upper West Side in 2015. And I had been very active with the school parents before I was elected and had a clear sense of where the inequities were in our district, and there were three schools in particular that were especially segregated and there had to be a way of unwrapping changing that and the way. And the way to do it was by drawing new zone lines. The local Community Education Council came up with a plan they were very excited about. Every other elected official on the Upper West Side rejected that plan, and opposed it very actively in the press, holding rallies, and so on. But I stood with a public school parents. And we did finally convince the Department of Education to draw these new zone lines that resulted in desegregating three schools. Very exciting. It’s been it’s been terrific. It’s it’s done the work we intended it to do.
Helen Rosenthal: But because of that, and because of some opposition, in targeted communities, it did earn me a primary for my second term. Very vicious primary, and a lot of vitriol. But I ended up beating my opponent and and pushing back at the people who want to keep the school segregated. And as I say, they are truly desegregated. So I’m very, very proud of that.
Helen Rosenthal: And then the third area, I think, which is a city wide issue is in my second term, I was lucky enough to become the chair of the committee on women and gender equity. And with that hat on, held myriad hearings about unique inequities that women endure in New York City. Top of the list, well, of course, there’s pay inequity, and and we’re working on that as well. But top of the list really is black maternal mortality and morbidity. And it’s been the case in New York City that black women have died at a much higher rate than white women throughout the city, sort of just before, during and after childbirth. And the city started looking at this issue maybe 20 years ago, at that point, it was maybe 12 times as likely for a black woman to die or get very injured during childbirth. The Department of Health has put some attention on the matter. And by the time I picked it up as chair of the committee, the rate is still at now, eight times more likely. That is unacceptable. And at our hearing, we drilled down into the causes. And of course, they’re complex, they’re they very much have to do with racism and the burden that black women bear from birth. Just having being the way that black women are treated in our in our society, and the stress of all that builds up. And so at this moment when one is giving birth, when one’s body has to be all on for birthing the baby. That is the moment when those higher stress levels that black women endure, make it more challenging for the woman’s body. And for that reason, what we can do is help to de-stress the situation for the birthing person and find other ways to make these these deliveries more easy. And educate doctors that this is a reality and they need to be more alert and listen better when black women are giving birth.
Helen Rosenthal: And we passed some legislation requiring the city to increase access to doulas which is a non medical support person for the woman that has been proven to decrease mortality and morbidity for black women giving birth. So we’ve required the city now to have more doulas. I’m actually in the process of passing legislation to require the Department of Corrections to have doulas on site at the women’s facility twice a week. It’s that much of a improvement in people’s lives. And to now create a..they’ve had to now over the last two years create maintain what’s called a maternal morbidity and mortality review committee where they look at every case, diagnose what happened, and for the most part, hold the doctors feet to the fire for having missed all sorts of cues that had he paid attention to the woman would have lived. So that’s really been exciting and important work that I’ve been incredibly proud of. So those are the big three areas, I could go into a lot more detail. But that’s the basic idea.
Helen Rosenthal: I mean, I think as in every community, the Upper West Side experience with COVID was traumatic. We did not lose as many residents as other districts that were really hard hit. And that gave me a real perspective that I tried to impart on my district. I have a colleague who represents Brownsville, and we would get on the phone once a week and just catch up. And every time she would tell me the additional number of people who she was either related to, or was a church member, or was a close friend, who died because of COVID. And that just was not the experience on the Upper West Side. That was powerful for me, personally, to sort of keep things in perspective.
Helen Rosenthal: On the Upper West Side, what became a flashpoint was when the city realized during COVID that having homeless people in congregate shelters, where there are, I don’t know 12 to 40 people on a floor with with no walls between them. That that was in fact very dangerous for both the clients and the staff who lived and worked in those settings. And what they worked out was moving people. And I think they ended up moving out a couple of 1000 people from the congregate shelter to hotels throughout the city. And there became this very unfortunate situation where some in the community who had never experienced living near a congregate shelter, all the sudden we’re faced with the reality of so many who are less fortunate and who lived in a shelter not because necessarily for any other reason except there’s no affordable housing, right? Many of them have jobs, but just don’t make enough money to afford something in New York City. Our Upper West Side and within a five block radius and moved into three hotels, where about 600 homeless, unsheltered individuals. And that became a tipping point for some in the community.
Helen Rosenthal: And we could talk about why and what what sort of lay behind it for a long time. But I think that the key takeaways for me were people who lived in the area, their nerves were on edge. This was maybe five or six months into the pandemic, when the city had was just closed down. No one knew about really how it spread. Was an airborne? Was it touch? And people were scared, people were really scared. And the Department of Homeless Services did a pretty terrible job of communicating what was happening. So for the nonprofits, who ran the shelters themselves, it was a one or two day turnaround, when they were all of a sudden found themselves working out of hotels, not their usual congregate shelter, providing the care.
Helen Rosenthal: Interestingly, the outcomes, when we sort of reflect back on it, a year and a half later, the outcomes for the clients themselves were so much better than when they lived in congregate settings. By being either in their own room or two to a room, they were many of them were away from those who might be bringing drugs into the shelter, who might be having ongoing addiction, or mental health problems. Because there are others who might fall prey to that, but were honestly working hard to get clean. And by being in their own room, they were far more successful. And at the end of the day, at one shelter in particular that had 283 people, which was too many, but 120 of them were able to be moved into independent living situations. Which is a rate so much higher than the usual. What usually happens with people in shelter. So that was very exciting.
Helen Rosenthal: But there were some in the community who were very opposed, very afraid, very – felt very threatened by the presence of these homeless individuals. And were like receptive to rumors, and innuendos. And so they believed these sort of outrageous things that were being said about the homeless men, which made people even more afraid. And within, I think, a couple of weeks, some in the community had formed a group called maybe Safer Upper West Side, something like that, had raised over $100,000, and hired a lawyer to begin the process to get the men moved out of the hotels, and back into congregate living, which of course, would not have been safe for these individuals.
Helen Rosenthal: And that was a very unfortunate moment for the Upper West Side. I think the press took it to mean that the traditional liberal Upper West Side was not liberal anymore. And so they were eager to call Upper West Siders, hypocrites. That didn’t help. And what really was needed was time, for the nonprofit institutions themselves to settle into the hotels, to really provide their good services to these individuals. And once that happened, and granted, it took a solid six weeks to two months. But once that happened, things settled down. And there were momentary flares. But the streets were, settled in and also interestingly, another group emerged, called Open Hearts Upper West Side, something like that, who intentionally went out of their way to help the people in the hotels. One one person in the group was an addiction counselor, and she started weekly Alcoholics Anonymous classes. Another set of people would have weekly, free clothes, free food giveaways. And then, unfortunately, for the community, and I mean, unfortunately, this became a real saga, the community, it felt like there were two sides, sort of one pro, one against, and that was unfortunate. To have the community pitted against each other.
Helen Rosenthal: And the press, as I say, just delighted in reporting on the acrimony. Which was, over…The reporting, I think, really was over the top. After a couple of weeks, I asked one of the reporters to come walk with me in the district. And we started at West 75th and Broadway, just south of where one of the shelters was. We walked past the one shelter, we crossed the median, which so many people had said was horrible. We walked past the second shelter at 79th and Amsterdam. And we went to sit down at a little coffee shop. And the first thing he said to me was, first of all, the streets are quiet. Second of all, I thought people would be coming up to you screaming and spitting at you. No one did that. And I’m like, yeah. I’ve been trying to tell you this. You’re all blowing this way out of proportion. So that was that was an interesting sort of moment.
I think we landed in the right place. I mean, the men stayed, we ended up having to hire a lawyer to keep them in there. I mean, it was ridiculous. But really, the men stayed and that was the right outcome, and and they were better off for it.
Helen Rosenthal: Yeah, I talked with the, with the head of the nonprofit, during the whole, I mean, we talked tonightly, basically. And he said he was setting up a little research project to be able to show these outcomes. Pretty amazing.
Helen Rosenthal: I mean, just to sort of add to that Maurice. I was on the budget negotiating team was because I worked at the city’s Office of Management and Budget for seven years, under Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani, and really got to see and feel what the details of a budget are and what the implications are, with those budgets. The year before this year when we had no money, and Trump was president, and no ray of sunshine in sight, I really was distraught. I take all this a little too personally, but really nervous about the deep cuts that we made to social services, to sanitation. And transportation, fixing streets, whatever it is. And that concerned me very much. That was hard. That was really quite painful. I felt our social service cuts went about a billion dollars too deep, and fought against those very hard unsuccessfully. But with Biden coming in, and the infusion of cash, which is the right answer for localities, this fiscal year coming up, the next one, and the one after, should be just fine with the federal infusion of cash.
Helen Rosenthal: I think the other thing that I saw was in May and in June, was that city property taxes were coming in much higher than had been expected. Over a billion dollars. And, yes, the city may have, given a very conservative estimate prior to that, but even still, that was an important signal that the City can and will come back. And I feel confident that the way the federal money has been spread out over three years, so it’s not just like, spend, spend, spend, in one year. It’s spread out over three years. And with this upward trend of revenue, which ultimately needs to go up high enough to cover for three years from now, when we lose that federal money, I think we’re going to be okay. Of course, it’ll be bumpy. Right now we’re looking at the spread of the Delta variant. People don’t know what that will bring certainly mask wearing. But we’ll have to follow the science for what else that will bring.
Helen Rosenthal: But I feel confident about our revenues sort of overall. And frankly, I think the way the city decided to invest the federal money will improve outcomes for those most in need. The focus is on school kids, and the trauma they’ve endured. The focus is on quality of life, to make our streets cleaner now, reinvest in our sanitation. And reinvest in the social service programs that are so important. For our seniors to be able to, come back from the trauma of isolation. Even adding money to homeless service programs to address the trauma that everyone has endured. So I feel good about that. On that side.
Helen Rosenthal: I think my overall though, eight year reflection, is there is still crap in the budget that needs to be weeded out that is buried from the light of day, and we have to find other tools to bring sunshine to those situations so we can peel back some of the inefficiencies. And really what I would argue is corrupt contract or procurement policies where people are in a position to just take taxpayer dollars.
Helen Rosenthal: My second year, community watchdog for the Department of Education brought to my attention, suspicious contract that the Department of Education was about to sign with a company that was on the list. City’s list, and I think even the federal list, of companies to keep an eye out for because they had ripped off the city 10 years prior. And the city was on the verge of signing a contract with them, $1.3 billion contract. And again, this was back into 2015. So pre COVID. But this was a contract to address the networking between schools and central office and the computer systems. Just to get everything routinized. And this watchdog rightly, brought it to my attention at the time. I was chairing the Committee on Contracts. I immediately called City Hall. I said, we were we had to have a hearing on this and understand the specifics of this particular contract. And I think Tish James, who was Public Advocate at the time, raised a red flag. And Juan Gonzales at The Daily News. It caught his attention. He started writing about it. And as we investigated how how this proposal had been written, it became clear that it was written in a way that only this one company would be able to bid and win. And therefore, there was no, they could bid whatever they wanted, right and say, this is what it cost. And, and despite the fact that the Chancellor signed the contract. The next day, she, I had spoken to the mayor, and the next day, she was called into the mayor’s office, and on the spot and negated the contract. They rewrote the RFP and bid it out again. And the final cost was around $600 million. That is an extraordinary spread $800 million. There had been – that 800 million – had already been budgeted for. And so the department of education that year did not need new money, they were able to use that money in the classroom for our kids, for our teachers, for better pedagogy.
Helen Rosenthal: And that that was a real exciting victory. And I don’t think that’s a – I mean, they may be few and far between – but we need better systems in place to catch that kind of crap.
Helen: Mind boggling. That is exactly the right word, very disappointing. Of course, this is a situation where the head of the agency was sexually harassing, and assaulting women, both staff and clients, and had been getting away with it. A couple of things were brought to light with that situation. One is that the city’s response, because they had known about it for a couple of years, was to tell the board of directors for that nonprofit, that they had to fix it. Which of course, they never did. It also reflects a sort of different situation, not only were there these horrible, personal interactions that made many women’s lives very difficult for a long period and the trauma continues. But there were also lots of financial irregularities. And over time, what this particular guy, Victor Rivera did, was was undercut other providers so that he would get more and more contracts. But the services they were providing were not very good. They used fewer staff, lower paid staff. And so the conditions in his homelss shelters were terrible compared to others.
Helen Rosenthal: But the city again didn’t take the time to recognize cheaper is not better in this situation. They would be better served paying in all their contracts, paying people better, and having more robust services, so that the outcomes for the clients would be better. And I think what I’ve seen over the last eight years is the government, city government, and state government, trying to be more and more mingy in how much money they give to these contracts, and putting the providers on the hook for making up the difference or not, but running their social service programs. And it’s gotten to the point where there’s a real divide now, between the excellent providers that are choosing not to take some of these contracts, because, the pay, the reimbursement is just too low. And the nonprofit’s willing to take on these RFP’s and providing just terrible, terrible services. Yeah, that’s, that’s all another issue.
Helen Rosenthal: Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, the controller’s job is to cut checks. So they sign all the checks that go out the door. They review, I think, 12 or more at this point it’s probably $15 billion worth of contracts. Their job is to review it, and make sure everything is accurate and appropriate and fiscally responsible. That’s one job.
Helen Rosenthal: Another job is they have to be a consultant to unions whose pensions they oversee. So trying to make sure the investments get a good return for the city’s retirees. And then the controller has an audit function, where they’re required to audit a certain number of agencies. It’s interesting how in the controller’s office, unfortunately there can be this intersection of politics and the functionality of the office. And some controllers use the platform for political undermining of other elected offices. Which is too bad because I think it really can be an exciting place.
Helen Rosenthal: On the Council side, I don’t think there’s this – I mean I would say a couple of things – on the Council side one is that while they do have oversight responsibility, I don’t think the council has the capacity, the staff capacity to do a real forensic audit that does sit in the Comptroller’s office.
Helen Rosenthal: But to your point about street namings. I have become so much more humble about what council members do and why. In many communities, those street renamings are critically important. And while that’s not true on the Upper West Side, there are communities that use the street renamings, as an opportunity to bring people together to unify community, to lift up individuals in the community. And they play a significant, important role. I’ve learned that there are 51 City Council districts and honestly, they are all different. They all have different needs.
Helen Rosenthal: The Speaker of the Council, who is elected by the body, by the council members themselves, they elect a speaker, who runs the place. I mean, hats off to these people who have 51 individuals who have very unique needs, whose districts have very unique needs. And the Speaker has to find a way to hold them all together. I could never be a Speaker. It’s a really challenging situation. And I do respect that every district has its own needs and desires.
Helen Rosenthal: Although actually Maurice, if I could also just jump in. This particular Speaker, Cory Johnson did add a new committee to the Council, called Oversight and Investigations. And while they don’t meet regularly, like the other committees. My committees always met once or twice a month, the Committee on Oversight and Investigations maybe needs two or three times a year. But that staff, there’s a whole new staff of data analytic people who do a deep dive into more substantive issues. Recently, we had. I’ll have to go back and look for sure. But that committee looks at more far reaching concerns, including, for example, use of force so there was a police use of force. So there was joint hearing with the Police committee, Public Safety Committee, and the Oversight and Investigations committee, where the Oversight and Investigations committee had done a deep dive into the data that came out from the state Bill 58, which allowed for transparency of all these police member investigation, individual police member investigations. So that’s an exciting addition to the council and the capacity of what the council can do.
Helen Rosenthal: And that in particular [NYC Local Law 76] is looking at the COVID funding, saying, okay, we’re getting in $15 billion. Let’s make sure we know how it’s been.
Helen Rosenthal: I mean, we shall see definitely a vacation is in store. But I think, I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone who has come from OMB, sort of having that critical training, and then coming to the council, certainly, I am certainly unique here. I do think my colleagues who come from politics or come from having worked in city council offices, they also have been able to do great things for their districts. So everyone has their own path and their own passions. And can achieve unique and wonderful, wonderful things.
Helen Rosenthal: The thing I realized over this a year is that I think at heart, I’m a true public servant. I really do enjoy New York City Government and making it work for the people who live here. So while I’m not sure Eric Adams would have been my first choice for mayor, he is our mayor. And there are a lot of important things ahead for the city that have to get done. I think as I’ve gotten to know, Eric better, I think he has a lot of terrific ideas. I think he’s serious about making New York City better, and bringing changes to the city. And I think he also, there’s a sense that as part of his team, in running the city, that somebody with my skill set could be of use to him. And I’m would be very excited for the opportunity to to do that to work with him and and make things, make the city run better. Not sure exactly where that is. That’ll be up for negotiation. I’m not sure he’ll have me, right. So a lot of things are up in the air. But I know the city inside out. From a technical perspective. I have a much better understanding of the politics now. And I really think I could add value to wherever it is. In the budget office, with procurement, women’s issues.
Helen Rosenthal: And frankly, one of the things that really would excite me is I think climate change is one of the biggest concerns – the biggest concern overall. And we have to make sure that while we have good ideas, we have a good roadmap. I think we need someone who can execute that roadmap well and make sure that we hit our markers every single year, so we can achieve our goals where we need to hit in by 2030.
Helen Rosenthal: Thank you, Maurice. It’s been an honor to speak with you. Thank you for the opportunity.