Last Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled another big spending promise to the people of New York City. Central Brooklyn, he announced, would be receiving $1.4 billion in state money to tackle entrenched poverty and poor health outcomes in the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, East New York, and Brownsville. Dubbed “Vital Brooklyn,” Cuomo modeled the initiative on his “Buffalo Billions” project, which aimed to restart the economic engine of the long-declining city in western New York.
In the Brooklyn version, the targeted neighborhoods would see thousands of units of new affordable housing, dozens of new medical facilities, and an expansion of green space.
“We are going to employ a new holistic plan that will bring health and wellness to one of the most disadvantaged parts of the state,” Cuomo said at the press conference at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights.
The plan is certainly big on numbers: 3,000 new affordable housing units on state-owned land, 36 ambulatory care centers, $140 million on recreation. But will the money ever show up?
Doug Turetsky, the communications director for the city’s Independent Budget Office, is skeptical of the plan. “The Governor offers a comprehensive proposal that is high in concept but low in details. Where are sites for the parks and housing?” Turetsky told the Voice. “At what income levels will the housing be affordable? Given that we’re still waiting for agreement in Albany on how to use $2 billion announced nearly a year ago for affordable housing, it may be a while before such details become clearer.”
Whether much of Cuomo’s plan will actually come to fruition is mostly dependent on the ever-changing priorities of the State Senate, which is currently controlled by Republicans, even though they are multiple seats short of a majority (thanks, IDC!). To get money for affordable housing and health initiatives in such high amounts would be daunting, even for the majority party.
Morris Peters, spokesman from the state’s division of budget, contends that “Vital Brooklyn” is more of a new way of coordinating existing programs than anything else.
“The value of the Vital Brooklyn initiative is more than the funding – it’s that we are deploying state resources in a strategic fashion to create a healthier, more vibrant community,” Peters told the Voice. “This approach is similar to the Regional Economic Development Councils or the Life Sciences initiative in that a more holistic view of State investment with improved coordination across programmatic areas can lead to a more successful leveraging of resources and much improved outcomes.”
Peters identified the $563 million for affordable housing as part of the governor’s “20 billion comprehensive five-year investment in affordable housing, supportive housing and related services.” (More on that in a moment). The other huge line item, the $700 million for community-based health care, was included in this year’s executive budget, and attached to Brooklyn specifically. That $700 million will need to go through the appropriations process, so it’s unclear how much, if any, will survive an Albany budgeting session.
Shelly Nortz, the Deputy Executive Director for Policy at Coalition for the Homeless, feels that a public commitment by Cuomo before the budget process is a positive sign, no matter what’s happened in the recent past.
“Helping poor people in central Brooklyn is a good thing. It will be great to see it happen. But it should happen sooner than later,” Nortz told the Voice. “All the things we need to have happen to address poverty and homelessness happens at too slow a pace and too small a scale right now. And that is quite obvious to anyone that looks at poverty and homelessness.“
The city has been burned before by Cuomo’s promises. In 2016, the governor committed to that $20 billion in affordable housing money from the state over the next five years. To date, however, the governor has only authorized the release of $150 million in funds, as the money has gotten held up in cynical Albany budget mishegas, where the governor has allowed the money to be distributed through Memorandums of Understanding with the state senate, instead of being included in the actual budget. In addition to housing, Cuomo is in the midst of shorting the MTA by $65 million, for this year’s budget, just a few years after he promised to fully fund the agency to make up for a politically expedient tax cut he gave out. In addition, Cuomo will be slashing $50 million from the city’s Medicaid funding unless City Hall somehow comes up with a plan to get more than $100 million from the federal government for the program, at a time when the federal government is preparing to starve the city. Thanks to some line item maneuvering in this year’s budget, the city is also facing a $17 million cut to its senior centers.
And even when Cuomo does show under-resourced areas the actual money, funny things tend to happen along the way. Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” initiative ended in disaster, with money lining the pockets of Cuomo donors and friends, and resulting in eight indictments, including one for Cuomo’s right-hand-man, Joseph Percoco. Percoco’s crookedness was especially egregious, as he allegedly took direct payments from developers in exchange for steering the RFP process their way.
Since the indictments, no substantive reform has passed through Albany and Cuomo has not yet detailed how he’d prevent such blatant corruption from happening again. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to stymy attempts at ethics reforms, while consolidating his own power in the process. Recently, he’s tried to cut out state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Cuomo foe, from reviewing state contracts, instead creating a “Chief Procurement Officer” who would answer only to Cuomo.
“My concern—I don’t care what a politician does to get attention, that never worries me—what I care about is actual product, actual results for the people of New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said of Cuomo’s proposal on WNYC last week. “We’ve heard lots of big talk, very little action, very few numbers, very few guarantees, very few results.”