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Autumn 1991
 
City Journal Autumn 1991.
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Sick Transit

We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to James MacGuire's article ["Subway Sex," Summer 1991]. The Metropolitan Transit Authority and Gannett Transit, which manages the advertising contract for the MTA, are working together to upgrade the quality of advertisements. The first step is to change the advertising industry's perception of the subway and its customers. The industry must be made aware that the subway environment has improved dramatically in the last few years, thanks to the investment of $12 billion to rebuild the system. Subway cars are now graffiti-free and air conditioned, and trains are four times more reliable than they were just seven years ago. With these improvements has come a concurrent change in passenger demographics. Statistics now show that 71 percent of subway customers have incomes over $25,000. That is 71 percent of an average 3.6 million riders daily, and that's an awfully big audience with disposable income. The average subway commute is 25 minutes long, a time period in which the advertiser's target audience cannot change channels, mute the volume, turn the page, or go into the kitchen for a snack.

Changing the advertising industry's perception of the subway is a slow process. However, we are encouraged by Gannett's progress in having secured contracts with such clients as Brooklyn Union Gas, the Daily News, NYNEX, and Chemical and Chase Manhattan banks. We hope that with the addition of newer advertising technology in subway cars and stations, advertisers' awareness of the subway's great potential to reach New Yorkers will increase.

John Cunningham
Press Secretary
Metropolitan Transit Authority
New York, N.Y.

James MacGuire replies: It is encouraging to know that the MTA now recognizes what a disgraceful situation it has permitted to develop in underground advertising. It seems to me, however, that the most efficacious first step to "change the advertising industry's perception of the subway and its customers" is not to mount a dog-and-pony show on demographics (although this, of course, must be part of any successful sales effort), but to issue immediately strict new guidelines which send advertisers a clear message: No more smut allowed.

Hidden Homeless

Randall Filer's "Tracking Down the Hidden Homeless" [Summer 1991] is a good example of how risky it is to reach a conclusion on the extent of homelessness in New York City solely by relying upon selective use of assumptions and statistics which are, at best, only partially relevant. Examples of this flawed methodology abound, but the most glaring is Mr. Filer's total reliance upon the 1987 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey. That report fails to capture an entire range of statistics directly bearing on the extent of the huge hidden homeless population in our city.

Two examples should suffice. First, many doubled-up families are not on public assistance simply because the host families' public-assistance grant would be adversely impacted if they were. Secondly, many immigrant families who are doubled-up do not reveal themselves to any public agency, mostly out of fear of their illegal status, or because the landlord's rules prohibit overcrowding.

Moreover, surveys by the New York City Housing Authority variously place the estimate of doubled-up families at the 30,000 to 55,000 range in its projects alone. The doubled-up situation has also reached critical proportions in many of the 44,000 additional city-owned housing units occupied by poor families. Based partly upon these far more probative reports, our latest conservative estimate is that there are at least 110,000 to 120,000 hidden homeless families in New York City currently doubled up in mostly substandard or overcrowded units. Applying the average for very low-income family size, this means there are up to 400,000 hidden homeless, most at serious risk of becoming actually homeless. The extent of the problem can best be measured by considering that if only 2 percent of these become actually homeless, the city's capacity to provide for them would be overwhelmed.

Peter Smith
President
Partnership for the Homeless
New York, N.Y.

Randall Filer replies: Mr. Smith cleverly repeats the very fallacy that my analysis shows is wrong. Very few of the reasons families share housing suggest possible future homelessness. The fact that families find it optimal to share housing often means that they prefer not to live in separate housing. The illustration of the variety of situations that have led 307,000 New York households (including 30,000 to 55,000 in public housing) to share housing was the point of the article. No assertion by Mr. Smith can change this fact to include most of these households among the "homeless" problem.

With respect to the accuracy of the data, no one doubts that some families were omitted (perhaps as many as 5 percent were missed in the 1990 census). Yet the 1987 figures correspond to those from the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey of both 1981 and 1984, as well as (preliminarily) from the 1990 census. For Mr. Smith's analysis to be true, there would have to be a vast population invisible to every official agency and seen only by him (and his allies). Such an insistence on asserting proprietary facts makes rational public policy debate impossible.

Finally, Mr. Smith's explanations of why families who share housing do not reveal this fact to interviewers make little sense. Under current rules, a secondary household's applying for public assistance can never have an adverse impact on the grant of a primary household. The only issues are the size of the household and its total family income.

Consider two three-person families sharing an apartment. If they assert that they maintain separate budgets and expenses, they will be given two three-person grants, for a total income of $19,178 each year if they have no other income. If the secondary family does not apply for welfare, the primary family will receive only half this amount, $9,589. If both families apply, the worst that could happen is for all six residents to be deemed a single family and given the $15,025 grant for a six-person family--still an increase of $5,436 over what the household would receive if the second family did not apply for welfare.

The only time that sharing housing would decrease the grant of the primary household is if the secondary household had an income so large that the combined household was too prosperous to qualify for welfare. In this case, however, the secondary household would not be eligible for welfare and so, of course, would not have applied.

If the problem is illegal status, then the remedy for the "housing" problem is increased enforcement of immigration laws, not a commitment to provide apartments for every person not entitled to be in the United States.

Another School of Thought

Raymond Domanico's article, "Does State Aid Reach the Schools?" [Summer 19911, documented a serious decline in the local tax levy support for our schools. I have made this same point time and again during the current debate on the city's fiscal 1992 budget. In fact, in a recent independent report prepared by Coopers & Lybrand, the point was driven home in a comparative analysis of local support by a variety of other localities. But it is not accurate for Mr. Domanico therefore to conclude that this is the sole reason why New York City schools do not receive a larger percentage of state education aid--aid to which, I believe Mr. Domanico agrees, we are entitled.

In spite of a strong case and the intervention of many well-meaning and helpful officials, the results show that neither the city nor the state has distinguished itself in its financial support for our schools. City tax levy support should not have declined so precipitously--from approximately 23 percent in 1984 to 16.9 percent today. Clearly the state aid formula needs to be totally revamped consistent with the recommendation of the Salerno Commission, making it need-based, dependent on a blend of attendance and enrollment, and factoring in the cost of education as well. The reasons for the funding disparity, however, have little to do with the point raised by Mr. Domanico. They are both economic and political, reflecting the economic downturn in the city and state, and upstate/downstate politics.

Joseph A. Fernandez
Chancellor
New York City Public Schools
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Will Workfare Work?

Lawrence Mead's analysis of why New York State and City are so laggard in welfare reform ["Kicking New York's Dependency Habit," Summer 1991] is on target. Unfortunately, however, I do not share his conclusion that the state and city will be unable to meet the federal requirement for 20 percent client participation rates and are therefore headed for a showdown with Washington.

I think the more likely scenario is similar to what happened to the mandatory participation requirements of WIN, the precursor to welfare reform. This was a wholly desultory process where clients who showed up periodically at an office of the State Employment Service said either that they were looking for work or enrolled in training or could not participate because of some excuse or another (no day care, temporary health problem, etc.), and were checked off as participating until the next scheduled call-in. Employment Service personnel generally encouraged this behavior because they did not think the clients were really capable of getting or holding a job anyway, and spending the time to seriously encourage or help them would have taken a strong effort with limited initial management indicator (i.e., placement rate) pay-off.

Given the city's current reluctance to come to grips with the problem, it is likely that some similar system will be created. Federal requirements will be met, but welfare rolls will not be affected.

William J. Grinker
New York University
New York, N.Y.
(Editor's note: Mr. Grinker is former administrator of the New York City Human Resources Administration.)

A Demagogue Debunked

Tamar Jacoby ["Sonny Carson and the Politics of Protest, Summer 1991] is a brilliant, courageous writer. She is not afraid to tell the truth about someone who can only be described as vicious and violent. Sonny Carson has intimidated many people, even on occasion our present mayor, who allowed an illegal racial boycott of a Korean merchant to go on for eight months before intervening to assist the poor merchant. Rarely are fanatics as honestly examined as Carson is in the profile by Ms. Jacoby.

Edward I. Koch
New York, N.Y.

Mindless Law?

James Taranto's article ["Mindless Law in Topless Bar," Summer 19911 contains numerous inaccuracies and misconceptions.

The Building Code required that an accessible entrance for people with disabilities be provided at Gold Fingers, the topless bar. Mr. Taranto stated that a ramp "no wheelchair-bound person could ever use" was approved by the Department of Buildings. However, according to Mr. Taranto, the architect "improvised" and designed a ramp that is too short, too steep, and has turns too sharp. Mr. Taranto blames the law, but the law does not require senseless spending of money on dangerous construction. As a licensed professional, the architect is responsible for providing his client with a sound product that is in compliance with all pertinent laws.

Mr. Taranto suggests that the cost of providing access is exorbitant, but he then says "for buildings undergoing lesser renovations, any part of the building being changed must be made accessible." Clearly, he understands that the goal of this provision is access over time, in line with the intended scope of work. Yet he adds that including accessibility in the intended scope of work will be significantly burdensome to small-business owners. If that is the case, then any work planned is likely to be burdensome to the small-business owner. Why lay blame on this law for the cost of construction? The federal Internal Revenue Code permits tax deductions and credits for the removal of architectural barriers in compliance with accessibility laws.

Mr. Taranto's account of Stan Rubin's experience in renovating his co-op suggests that Rubin, who is blind, probably received erroneous advice regarding compliance requirements, thus accounting for the claim that an additional $12,000 would be required. Mr. Taranto characterizes Rubin as a "victim of the excesses of the law." The true victims, however, are people with disabilities, who have been segregated until Local Law 58 was enacted. Rubin's reaction to the law illustrates that prejudice is an integrated emotion.

Under Local Law 58, hallways and archways are not required to be four feet wide. Generally, the minimum clearance at halls is three feet, and doors require a clearance of at least two feet, eight inches. When the location of a door in a hallway would require a turn before passing through it, the corridor size would increase somewhat, but only at the door. The increased size would be dependent upon the approach to the door, regardless of whether the door itself could be made wider. There is always more than one solution to a design problem, whether the problem is one of access or otherwise.

Anne M. Emerman
Director
Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities
New York, N.Y.

Mr. Taranto took great liberties in stating that I, as the architect, had "improvised" the ramp built at Gold Fingers. The ramp was correctly specified and detailed on the building plans. Whether the building contractor failed to follow the plans, and the Building Department inspector failed to notice this at the time of inspection, is another matter entirely. I, however, would not deviate from required building codes.

Marvin I. Schwartz
Whitestone, N.Y.

 

 


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