By Prem Calvin Prashad
The year 2014 saw the first mayoral transition in 12 years, as Mayor Bill de Blasio rode into office with a resounding electoral mandate. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had improved access to city agencies by mandating 311 be available in six languages and forbade agencies to ask about immigration status to render city services. Yet, with a focus on inequity, the new administration vowed to expand outreach to the city’s neediest communities.
This change emboldened a coalition of community organizations to renew calls to create regulations to legalize some basement apartments. The Basement Apartments are Safe for Everyone Campaign seeks to create the Accessory Dwelling Unit, which would legalize select apartments that have two exits and meet other safety requirements.
According to the campaign, 95 percent of illegal basement apartments are in the outer boroughs and some neighborhoods in Queens, including eighty-two percent of homes in one Queens community. The campaign views ADUs as a foreclosure prevention measure, as most basement apartments subsidize the incomes to homeowners and minor property owners, while providing affordable housing.
Keeping with the theme of outreach to immigrant communities, Commissioner Nisha Agarwal of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs commenced a “listening tour” and a series of town hall meetings in several Queens neighborhoods, including one hosted by the Indo Caribbean Alliance in Richmond Hill. Residents aired their grievances on policing, mass transit and an access to city services. For many, it was their first face-to-face meeting with a representative of the city government. Explained at these town hall meetings was the new municipal ID program. The largest of its kind, all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status can establish their identity and apply for city services. The pilot program is expected to roll out in the New Year.
Somewhat indicative of the change in tone at City Hall is how the new administration approached diversity in public schools this year. Breaking with his predecessor, Mayor de Blasio appeared amenable to reforming the Specialized High School Admission Test, the examination for entrance into the elite high schools that borough students attend in large numbers. In the new administration, proponents of testing reform saw an opening, whereas the former mayor had derided such efforts, noting, “life isn’t always fair” when speaking of the students, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, that do not make it into these schools.
While the debate over high school admissions is ongoing, middle schools in Queens and the city at large fail dramatically at meeting state standards, in spite of an incremental gain on state examinations. English Language Learners lag significantly behind their peers in both English and math standards.
Recognizing increasing diversity in Queens schools, public school students will receive two Muslim holidays, as well as Lunar New Year and the Hindu holiday of Diwali as days off from school. The bill, pushed in the state legislature by the Queens delegation and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo Dec. 17, is a nod to Queens, where nearly a quarter of residents are Asian American and celebrate these holidays. Prior to this bill’s signing, Mayor de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Farina had indicated their intent to close school on these days.
This summer, the Queens Museum hosted Sacred Waters, an exhibit on the efforts of local Hindus to cleanup Jamaica Bay as well as work to reconcile traditional beliefs with contemporary environmentalism. The National Parks Service had been accommodating to worshippers, but local activists intend to suggest changes to the community, including the adoption of clay, rather than plastic idols and other guidelines intending to reduce the human footprint at the Bay. Sadhana: A Coalition of Progressive Hindus, the advocacy group showcased in the exhibit, hosts monthly cleanups of Jamaica Bay.
Policing will remain an ongoing concern for immigrant communities in the city. As referenced in town halls, many residents feel that they are unfairly “over policed” and profiled due to their national origin or religion. The most recent Department of Justice guidance on racial profiling has given local Sikhs, a common target for profiling, pause. The DoJ guidance stops short of banning racial profiling at airports and border crossings. The Sikh Coalition, based in Washington D.C. and New York continues to work with Sikh communities here in Queens and across the nation to protect the civil rights of travelers by reporting harassment and undue screening through the FlyRights mobile application and outreach.