“Never let a crisis go to waste.” The maxim – of uncertain origin – is often proclaimed when discussing what the world will look like after the coronavirus pandemic. But this “new normal” we’ve been hearing so much about: Is that just a world without handshakes, or will it mean something more dramatic?
In interviews with City & State, multiple New York lawmakers, policy experts and advocates repeated some version of that maxim, and the broader idea that New York should use this moment to pursue bold policy ideas that not only aid our recovery, but ensure that in a future crisis, all New Yorkers are protected from the worst effects witnessed in the past eight months. Whether it’s the eviction crisis, unequal access to education or a lack of quality health care for every New Yorker, the pandemic has revealed the cracks in our foundation. While some might be content with a quick spackle job, others are looking to rebuild.
And while the pandemic has been bad for everyone, it’s been worse for some. At nearly every turn, the pandemic has been shown to have a disproportionate impact on poor communities and minorities. Black and Hispanic people are dying at roughly 2.5 times the rate as white Americans. In rural New York – where the poverty and unemployment rates are generally higher than in urban parts of the state – critical or specialty health care may be harder to come by, and a lack of reliable internet access can make remote learning and working from home nearly impossible. While some people work from the comfort of their homes, essential workers – a group in which Black Americans are overrepresented – risk infection on the pandemic’s front lines.
Do we revert to the status quo? Or do we use this crisis as an excuse to take big, ambitious swings?
Now, as the country begins the massive work of vaccinating people, we’re starting to imagine what life looks like on the other side of the pandemic. Do we revert to the status quo? Do we attempt to chip away at those long-standing inequalities with some version of the solutions we’ve tried before? Or do we use this crisis as an excuse to take big, ambitious swings?
City & State set out to answer that question by asking urban planning and policy experts, health care and environmental advocates, and local and state lawmakers about the bold steps they’d like to see taken in New York’s future. There was no shortage of suggestions – too many to dive into in one go – addressing income inequality, access to jobs and higher education, and more.
Here, we take a look at five of those big ideas, the promises they hold and the obstacles they face. With one or two exceptions, these ideas have not risen to the policy mainstream yet, though some are starting to gain a foothold in upstate towns or among candidates for office. Though many are adopted from other cities, states and countries, none of these ideas are without their flaws, and some remain untested on a large scale. But if New York’s leaders are committed to doing things differently, here are a few places they might start.
RELIABLE INTERNET WAS a necessity even before the pandemic. New Yorkers access telehealth services online, they apply for jobs and government benefits online, and even before remote learning became the norm, most students had to use the internet to complete homework. Yet in many parts of rural New York, high-speed internet is unavailable, unreliable or unaffordable.That’s true in New York City too, where 18% of residents lack both home and mobile broadband service. So far, waiting for private providers to come to the rescue has been like trying to download an album on old-school dial-up: agonizingly slow and not worth the energy.
What if the internet were treated not as a private luxury but a public utility? Municipal broadband – the concept of a city or town providing internet or other telecommunications service like a public utility – has been deployed successfully in other parts of the country. The best known example is in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 2010, the city-owned electric utility started offering high-speed internet to its residents after laying fiber for a separate smart grid project. As of 2016, the municipal network served 82,000 people, more than half of the city’s internet market.
It’s not just Chattanooga. More than 560 communities in the United States are served by some kind of municipal network. In New York, Sullivan County could soon be one of them. This summer, the county Legislature voted to create a Broadband Local Development Corporation. The network is expected to cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million – funded by mostly by federal grants, some of which are secured – and would be completed by the end of 2023. “So many spots in Sullivan County do not have broadband,” said Assembly Member Aileen Gunther, who represents parts of the mid-Hudson Valley. Other residents may have access but can’t afford it. “New York state has to step up to the plate,” Gunther said, adding she was “very angry” about the lack of access in her district.
“I think that New York should take a hard look at what it means for children and folks all over the state of New York not to have access to (the) internet.” – Assembly Member Aileen Gunther
Gunther sponsored a bill to study the feasibility of municipal broadband in New York, but it was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2019, who said it would be too expensive and time-consuming to complete. While both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have made efforts to expand internet access, the pandemic has shown that they’ve so far failed to get access to all New Yorkers. Both those plans focus on working with private companies to build out internet, not on building government-run networks to compete with those companies.
But New York is well-positioned to try a real public internet option (not being one of the 22 states with laws that ban or restrict municipal broadband), as is New York City, given its density. “You would think that it would actually be able to work relatively well,” said Robert Seamans, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “The economics of it are such that you'd expect the city would be able to wire up a lot of places pretty quickly.”
But in addition to cost barriers that other parts of the state could face, there are also ideological ones. “There are many people who believe that a public provider should not be in this kind of business, that this is only something that should be left to private providers,” Seamans said.
Whether the hardships that were so strikingly demonstrated by remote learning will change that viewpoint remains to be seen. Gunther, for one, is fired up, and plans to reintroduce her bill in the next session. “I think that New York should take a hard look at what it means for children and folks all over the state of New York not to have access to (the) internet at this point, and what can we do to make sure that there is equality in internet,” she said.
Single-payer health care
A BIT OF AN anomaly on this list, single-payer health care is already an issue up for debate in the state Legislature, where the New York Health Act has languished for decades. But as “big ideas” go, this one is a doozy. Amid a pandemic that has hit every corner of the state and demonstrated the dire need for equal access to quality health care, it could be time to take another look at the proposal.
Some of the legislation’s supporters certainly think so. “If there is a silver lining to this as it relates to the New York Health Act, it’s that it has made clearer than ever that there are many systems that have not served us,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who sponsors the bill. “You have a disease that does not discriminate, but systems that are supposed to protect us that (do).” One example: Widespread job losses during the pandemic demonstrated the fragility of employment-tied health care.
The pandemic’s outsized impact on people of color can in part be attributed to less access to quality health care. “These are communities that traditionally have been underserved by privatized insurance, leading to preventable health problems – comorbidities like asthma or heart disease or diabetes – that with consistent health care coverage could be managed or prevented,” said Ursula Rozum, co-director at the Campaign for New York Health, a group pushing for the passage of the New York Health Act.
The New York Health Act would create a state-run single-payer health care program, covering all New Yorkers – and undocumented immigrants – funded through federal money currently used for Medicaid and Medicare, state funding currently set aside for health care, and two new taxes.
“Health care is a human right. You should have health care simply because you’re human. Not because you’re wealthy or insured.” – state Sen. Gustavo Rivera
But while universal health care may seem like an easy goal to root for, there’s still disagreement about the ability of single-payer to work in New York. No state has had success with it yet – Vermont came close but was foiled by a lack of funding – meaning New York would be the first to implement such a system if the bill passes the Legislature. “The main roadblocks everywhere have to do with people who are making profits off of the current system,” said Stephanie Woolhandler, a primary care physician and a distinguished professor at CUNY’s Hunter College, who supports single-payer. She listed the private health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry as two of the biggest opposing groups. But some fiscal policy experts doubt its feasibility too, citing the burden of substantial tax increases. Cuomo has said he thinks the matter is best left to federal lawmakers.
A 2018 Rand Corporation study found that the model could eventually lead to savings on what New York spends on health care, and that 98% of New Yorkers would pay less for their health care than they do now – though that assessment relied on several assumptions that have been characterized as “unlikely.”
Nevertheless, Rivera and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried – who sponsors the bill in the Assembly – both said the pandemic demonstrates the need to take it up again next session. “It’s not that it’s going to be easy or simple,” Rivera said. “Health care is a human right. You should have health care simply because you’re human. Not because you’re wealthy or insured.”
PARIS IS KNOWN for its food, its romance, and now, its innovative urban planning. We’re talking, of course, about the 15-minute city, popularized by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo – a pedestrian and bike-oriented mayor who, to some of New York City’s anti-car residents, represents the antithesis of Bill de Blasio.
The 15-minute city or neighborhood is one in which no resident needs to travel more than 15 minutes on foot or bike for work, school and essential services, including health care, groceries and recreation. That concept, utopian to some, actually involves many different policy proposals. Depending on the location, creating a 15-minute city might mean building a robust bike lane network and closing off streets to cars, installing new outposts of government offices, fresh food vendors and pharmacies, or expanding mixed-use zoning.
This already exists in some parts of New York – but mainly in Manhattan and wealthier parts of the outer boroughs. “We know what it's like – at least if you live in a wealthier community in New York – to be able to have access to everything you need within 15 minutes,” said Shaun Donovan, former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who in announcing his 2021 run for New York City mayor mentioned 15-minute neighborhoods among his policy priorities. “And yet, we also know in our souls that not every New Yorker has access to it, particularly Black and brown New Yorkers.”
Building 15-minute neighborhoods would go beyond just making it easier to bike or walk around the city safely. It’s largely an environmentally friendly concept, and not only aims to reduce reliance on cars, but to minimize the extent to which poorer and minority neighborhoods are exposed to air pollution – as some of these neighborhoods are already overburdened by pollution and suffer the consequences through higher rates of asthma.
Donovan said under his potential administration, a large part of this effort would involve community outreach to determine what it is a given neighborhood needs. Posed with the hypothetical example of addressing a neighborhood that didn’t have access to a pharmacy, Donovan laid out a few possible steps. “We would reorient the Economic Development Corporation with an equity lens,” Donovan said. “Very specifically, we would reach out to pharmacy companies, we would have understanding of local entrepreneurs and potential business owners who might need the capital to open a pharmacy there. In the longer run, there may be zoning changes that are necessary.”
“We know what it's like – at least if you live in a wealthier community in New York – to be able to have access to everything you need within 15 minutes. And yet, we also know in our souls that not every New Yorker has access to it, particularly Black and brown New Yorkers.” – Shaun Donovan, New York City mayoral candidate
Paris may be the most famous example of planning around the 15-minute concept, but other cities have implemented these ideas by other names. Portland, Oregon, and Detroit are just two U.S. cities embracing the concept. Progressive political parties in New York have supported related ideas. Sochie Nnaemeka, New York state director of the Working Families Party, was unavailable for an interview but in an email cited green streets initiatives – and policies such as Barcelona’s car-free superblocks – as among the party’s post-pandemic priorities.
And New York has already made one step during the pandemic to suggest it may be capable of this kind of reimagining of its street space. Flavio Coppola, program manager of urban planning at C40, a worldwide network of cities working on climate action initiatives, said that despite the strength of car culture in New York City, the wildly successful open dining program this year demonstrated what New York is capable of creating on a dime. “Seeing that streets were being closed and that people were using the public space so that they could enjoy it, so that they could safely walk to where they needed to get to – I think that was very heartening,” Coppola said. “Who would want to go back at this point?”
Ending exclusionary zoning
ZONING REFORM IS not the sexiest of big ideas, but when it comes to building more affordable housing, it’s what some experts cited as New York’s next housing frontier.
Policies such as ending single-family zoning and allowing accessory dwelling units are just a couple of policy options that fall under what has been referred to as ending “exclusionary zoning.” Historically, exclusionary zoning policies promoted racial segregation – both explicitly and implicitly. Today, some zoning rules have the effect of keeping affluent neighborhoods affluent, still standing in the way of racial and economic integration.
A lack of affordable housing continues to be a problem across New York. According to a 2019 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office, 1.4 million households across the state were severely overburdened – defined as more than half their income going toward housing costs. The pandemic has only exacerbated that burden. In New York City, job losses and other financial constraints have left 46% of New Yorkers unable to pay rent, according to one analysis.
So how does New York make more affordable housing? One step might be making it easier to build it by eliminating restrictive local zoning rules. Noah Kazis, a legal fellow at New York University’s Furman Center, a housing research center, recently published a report on the topic of ending exclusionary zoning. With these kinds of rules often set at the local level in New York, Kazis called for legislation to allow the state to override local zoning laws where those rules prove to be exclusionary.
“All of our peer states on the Northeast Corridor, on the West Coast, have done something – not enough – but something to curb exclusionary zoning at the local level.” – Noah Kazis, a legal fellow at New York University’s Furman Center
While other states have made strides to reform or override zoning laws at the state level, New York has fallen behind, the report concludes. “All of our peer states on the Northeast Corridor, on the West Coast, have done something – not enough – but something to curb exclusionary zoning at the local level,” Kazis said. “New York stands basically alone in having no statute.”
Ending single-family zoning – rules that say in a particular residential area, only single-family homes can be built – is often discussed in the context of New York’s suburbs, traditionally bastions of the detached, single-family home. But single-family zoning exists in New York City too – 15% of the city is zoned for single-family homes, including 25% of Queens and 22% of Staten Island. Limiting zoning to only single-family homes prevents the creation of multi-family apartment buildings or other residences that make more efficient use of space.
Another policy which could fall under the umbrella of ending exclusionary zoning includes allowing accessory dwelling units – a separate garage apartment, for example – to be built on the same lot as a single-family home. Another is prohibiting restrictive rules, such as single-family zoning, near transit to encourage the creation of affordable housing with easy access to transportation.
State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who chairs the Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, declined to voice support for any one of these ideas in particular – or for legislation that would encourage the state to override some of these local exclusionary zoning rules – but he said it’s an issue that he’ll be looking at next session. “The cumulative effect of very strong restrictions in localities all over the metropolitan area, and really all around the state … is that we are producing housing at a slower rate than we need to keep up with the demands of our economy and the need for people to have affordable places to live,” Kavanagh said. “I think it is an important issue for the Legislature to address. We are still working on what legislation in this area might look like.”
UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME: You know it as the policy proposal that propelled Andrew Yang to the Democratic presidential debate stage. But despite not getting Yang near the finish line – or even originating with him – support for guaranteed payments to citizens is already flourishing in small, mid-sized and large cities across the country.
A nationwide coalition of mayors is advocating for a guaranteed income – a monthly cash payment to citizens that acts not as a replacement for the social safety net, but a supplement to it – at the federal level. Some in favor of the idea say it should be reserved for citizens under a certain income level or meeting other qualifications, while others envision it as universal.
Federal support for a guaranteed income may not be coming any time soon, but some of these mayors are working on their own pilots. That includes three New York mayors. In Hudson, Mayor Kamal Johnson has overseen a guaranteed income pilot for the past two months, which is set to continue for five years. Funded by private partners – one of which is Yang’s nonprofit – the pilot gives $500 monthly payments to 25 low-income Hudson residents selected in a lottery.
For Johnson, guaranteed income is about getting cash payments to the residents who could most benefit from an extra lump sum of cash every month – helping them to make rent, put food on the table while looking for a job, or to help pay off surprise medical costs. An untold number of New York residents have fallen into those circumstances because of the pandemic.
Though Hudson is only two months into its pilot, Johnson is hopeful about its prospects. “When people have more money, they're more likely to shop local, they’re more likely to invest in their own lives,” Johnson said. “We have so many families that are working multiple jobs, and that will give them the comfort to cut back on hours so that they can be there for their children.”
In Ithaca, Mayor Svante Myrick is working on getting the city’s own pilot program up and running. Myrick said his own experiences living through homelessness and poverty are part of what encouraged him to sign on to the coalition. Ithaca’s pilot is still in the design phase, but it would likely focus on providing funds to people who are unhoused or at imminent risk of being so.
“When people have more money, they're more likely to shop local, they’re more likely to invest in their own lives ... so that they can be there for their children.” – Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson
Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard is part of the coalition too – and has mentioned plans for a pilot in the past – but did not respond to a request for comment.
There’s also some reason to believe a guaranteed income could become a topic for debate in New York City’s mayoral race. Candidate and City Council Member Carlos Menchaca has floated the idea of a universal basic income, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has voiced interest in the idea too. And then there’s the possibility that Yang jumps in.
But there is ample doubt that a guaranteed income would be effective, and running a successful pilot in a small town is different than doing so in a large city – let alone the entire country. A 2019 paperhighlighted remaining unknowns about universal basic income, and argued that pilot programs across the country may not lead to any more clarity about the idea’s efficacy.
Nevertheless, towns such as Hudson are forging ahead, and the results may help refine the concept of guaranteed income into an actual policy proposal. “People look at this as a radical idea,” Johnson said. “But to me, it's radical to think that we have children in our country who go to sleep starving. So we need to really invest and look into out-of-the-box thinking.”
CAN’T GO BACK TO NORMAL
These five ideas are just a few on a long list of proposals to remake New York after the pandemic. New York may fancy itself a leader on progressive and innovative policies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take inspiration from our neighbors – whether far-flung Paris or urban Tennessee. Of these big ideas, few are perfect and mostly lack detailed policy proposals that provide instructions for implementation. But these are where some experts, advocates and lawmakers are eager to see New York start.
Lawmakers and bureaucrats tend to get stuck in the minutiae of specific policy proposals and sometimes fail to look beyond the bounds of what’s been done before. But asked about a post-pandemic New York, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera said it’s important to consider big ideas. “I do believe that it is necessary to go bold,” Rivera said. “This crisis has demonstrated that there are many, many systems that do not serve us. Whether it's taxation, whether it's housing, whether it's access to mental health services or access to health care, period – it is clear that we cannot go back to normal.”