Tenants Protest Housing Plan

Holmes Towers residents continue to stand against agency’s revenue plan. This story was published Oct. 27, 2015 in Our Town. 

Public housing residents marched five blocks south to Gracie Mansion last week with a message for Mayor Bill de Blasio: hands off our land.

The residents were protesting a recently unveiled plan to build a mixture of affordable and market rate housing on playground space at Holmes Towers on East 93rd Street and First Avenue, where they live.

Under the terms of the plan, which was announced in September, the New York City Housing Authority would partner with a private developer to build 350 to 400 apartments on playground space between the two Holmes Towers, 175 to 200 of which would be affordable. The rest will be offered at market rate.

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Public housing residents on the Upper East Side protesting in front of Gracie Mansion. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The main goal of the initiative, named NYCHA Next Gen Neighborhoods, is to close the agency’s $17 billion budget gap. In exchange for residents’ blessing, NYCHA is promising to make much-needed repairs at Holmes and give residents first priority when the affordable apartments are built. The agency predicts the program will generate $300 million to $600 million over the next 10 years, revenue that will be split between infrastructure needs at Next Gen sites like Holmes and NYCHA’s larger capital needs. A similar program was announced in September at Wyckoff Gardens in Brooklyn.

But residents aren’t going along with the plan. Holmes residents, with assistance from a public housing advocacy organization, staged a walkout at a recent outreach meeting with NYCHA officials. The residents feel as if key decisions regarding the playground space at Holmes have already been made, and that the agency is merely feigning at including them in the planning process.

With guidance from Community Voices Heard, a public housing organization made up of NYCHA tenants across the city, Holmes residents gathered at the very park space they believe will be built over at Holmes to begin their march to Gracie Mansion, where de Blasio was hosting a party for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy to celebrate the grand reopening of the mayor’s residence.

“Gentrification is really what this is,” said Sandrea Coleman, a Holmes resident, at a rally before the march. “Who in their right, sane mind takes away a public park for little kids?”

After the rally about 100 residents headed south on First Avenue with a light police escort before cutting east on 88th Street. Residents marched with handmade signs calling on de Blasio to nix the plan altogether, reaffirming their stance that private development has no place on public land. Some marched with canes, walkers and strollers, while children who use the park at Holmes kept step alongside their parents. Councilman Ben Kallos headed the pack with a Community Voices Heard banner, as organizers led chants along city streets.

Kallos said he was no longer welcomed by NYCHA to address residents at meetings organized by the agency concerning Next Gen NYCHA.

“The mayor said he’s committed to a process but the process doesn’t seem to provide a role for community members,” Kallos said during an interview at the march.

Arriving at Gracie Mansion, residents were kept on the west side of East End Avenue, in a cordoned-off area across the street. About a dozen police officers kept order at the scene, while guests of Gracie Mansion stepped out of luxury vehicles at the entrance to the mayoral residence.

“De Blasio!” residents shouted from across the street, in a chant led by Kallos. “No private development on NYCHA land! No luxury units on NYCHA land! De Blasio, do not build on our playground!”

Lakeesha Taylor, a Holmes resident with two young children, one of which uses the playground at the development, said there’s no reason she or her neighbors should agree to the plan.

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NYCHA Holmes Towers residents marching on Gracie Mansion. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

“I don’t believe it’s right that they think they can just place a building in front of us and claim it’s for our benefit when they’re taking our air, our land, our space,” said Taylor. “You’re over-populating this area, which is already overpopulated. Your over-populating the schools, the subway system, everything. And you say it’s for our benefit?”

Milagros Velasquez, a Holmes resident and tenant organizer, noted in an interview in September when the plan was announced that many who live at Holmes wouldn’t qualify to apply for the affordable units due to the income requirements. In order to qualify for the affordable apartments, a potential resident would need to make a minimum of 60 percent of the area median income, which is equivalent to a family of three making $46,600.

As an alternative to Next Gen Neighborhoods, residents and organizers are calling on de Blasio and state and federal authorities to properly fund the agency.

When reached for comment after the march, a NYCHA spokesperson said the agency is going to continue with their community outreach efforts to engage residents in the process, and said that Next Gen NYCHA is a necessary program that will provide affordable housing and much needed revenue.

“NYCHA is proceeding with scheduled community engagement — it’s critical for residents to understand NYCHA’s financial crisis and the consequences of inaction,” an agency spokesperson said. “NYCHA plans to use every tool available, including NextGen Neighborhoods, to save public housing and improve living conditions at Holmes. We are committed to continuing to answer questions, debunk myths and address resident concerns as the process moves forward.”

Community Voices Heard pressed back against the claim that the agency’s plan will save public housing or is somehow worthy of NYCHA residents’ support.

“While Mayor de Blasio and NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye say that this is the only way to raise sufficient resources to preserve the housing stock, residents believe that the lack of deeply affordable units being proposed will only exacerbate gentrification in their communities and that NYCHA residents will not get enough out of this deal,” said Community Voices Heard in a press release. “Instead, given how critical the public housing stock is to our city’s infrastructure, residents believe that significant resources need to be invested by the city and state, much like the recently agreed upon commitment to the MTA.”

Officials at the city and state level recently agreed to a joint-funding package to close the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $14 billion budget gap. A NYCHA spokesperson said the agency will continue to hold the outreach meetings, despite the walkout and march, to gather Holmes residents’ input on where the new building should go at the development.

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Small Business Owners Bearing Brunt

Legislation would ease onerous lease terms and give proprietors more time to find new locations. This story was originally published Oct. 2 in the West Side Spirit.

Lorcan Otway recently questioned if New York wasn’t losing its soul. As the owner and operator of Theater 80, a small but cherished off-Broadway gem on St. Marks Place, Otway is on the front lines of the battle to save small business in New York.

“All the businesses in this room depend on small theaters,” said Otway to his fellow small business owners — proprietors of local bakeries, cafes and wine bars — at a recent roundtable organized by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “The small theater business is dying. There’s no other way to say it.”

He spoke of disarming thugs in the dope days of the 1980s and the challenges and joys of growing a small business in the big city. A recent run-in with cellphone bandits notwithstanding, Otway and his theater face a much more dangerous foe these days: rising rents in the area, skyrocketing taxes and zero leverage when it comes to renewing a lease.

“Once we lose the theaters in New York, we lose New York,” Otway said. “We don’t become Las Vegas, we become Flint, Michigan.”

The irony? Things were easier back when he was fending off strung out junkies and armed hustlers, he said. For example, he said, his taxes have jumped from $56,000 to $146,000 in four years.

What happens is that the city’s Finance Department conducts property assessments every year, which in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods can result in sudden tax bill increases. The problem for small business owners is that those tax bills can be passed along to them by the building owner via their lease.

All of this is done legally, according to Brewer, and is a “major problem” for small business owners in the borough and across New York City.

Jesse Ballan, who owns Café Mocha on East Second Street, faces a similar problem. He recently received a tax bill for $30,000 from the owner of his building, and the end of his lease is in sight.

“In three years my lease is up,” said Ballan, who recently received a commendation from Mayor Bill de Blasio for opening his café as a staging ground for first responders in the aftermath of the East Village blast that killed two people in March. “I don’t know if I’m going to survive,” he added.

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Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Barbara Feinman of Barbara Feinman Millinery on E. Seventh Street has a different problem. Her building was recently sold to a developer, and she has about five years left on her lease. There’s no guarantee, she said, that her new landlord will renew her lease at a reasonable rate.

“None of these other issues matter if we don’t get to renew our lease,” she said. “After five years, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Brewer announced in March her office was working on an initiative to bolster small businesses’ standing during lease renewal negotiations. According to a broad outline of the proposal, landlords would be required to give small business tenants 180 days’ notice of their intention to terminate a lease, followed by a negotiation period in which either party can request nonbinding mediation to assist with negotiations. The legislation would also provide the option of a one-year lease extension with no more than a 15 percent rent increase to give businesses time to move when necessary.

Ahmed Tigani, an urban planner in Brewer’s office, said her team is currently working with the chairman of the city council’s small business committee, Robert Cornegy, to draft and introduce the legislation. Barring that, they’ll seek to influence an existing piece of legislation to give more power to small business owners during lease negotiations.

Lucien Reynolds, also an urban planner in Brewer’s office, said the forthcoming legislation is meant to ensure property owners have a conversation about lease renewal with their commercial tenants, as opposed to ending the lease with little notice and jacking up the rent to an unrealistic level.

One thing Brewer is not investing time and energy in is passing the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would require building owners to provide small businesses with a minimum 10-year lease, and provide small business owners with recourse to binding arbitration if fair lease renewal terms cannot be reached.

Brewer helped write the legislation in the mid-1980s with then city council-member Ruth Messinger, and said the bill has languished for decades and will never pass. “We don’t want to come up with something we’re going to be talking about for the next 30 years,” she said, in reaffirming her belief the legislation is dead.

During her time in the city council representing the Upper West Side, Brewer worked to pass a law that prevents street-level storefronts from being longer than 40 feet across and limits the frontage of banks on the Upper West Side to a maximum of 25 feet across.

“That’s the only thing I’ve been able to do in terms of helping small businesses,” she said. “It’s not easy,” she added, to pass laws that help small businesses in New York.

And there are other less consequential challenges that are frustrating to small business owners.

Several business owners expressed frustration at the amount of paperwork it takes to operate their stores, and urged city agencies – several of which were represented at the roundtable – to embrace new technologies that would make record keeping less burdensome.

Anthony Aiden, of Anthony Aiden Opticians, said he’s being targeted by sanitation workers who seem to follow garbage trucks around waiting for items to fall off so they can write tickets. (In New York, businesses are charged with keeping the sidewalk in front of their establishment clean and unobstructed, and can be fined if they fail to do so.)

“It’s an epidemic,” Aiden said. “It’s almost like they’re trying to generate money.”

Officials at several city agencies also gave advice to those small business owners present.

A Department of Small Business Services representative said there’s a multi-agency study currently underway to examine ways to decrease bureaucratic gridlock. And an official from the Department of Buildings said the agency holds informational sessions Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. with business owners on DIB requirements for building and renovating a storefront. An official from the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene said in advance of a real inspection, the agency is available for “pre-inspections” where potential violations will be pointed out but not penalized.

Brewer touted a study by her office that looked further at the challenges and potential solutions to sustaining small businesses in New York. The report, “Big Impact: Expanding opportunities for Manhattan’s storefronters,” is available for download at http://www.manhattanbp.nyc.gov.

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Pope’s Visit Bittersweet for Some

As closed churches wait for appeals in Rome, a pontiff’s visit stirs up complicated emotions. This article was originally published in Our Town on Sept. 28.

By Daniel Fitzsimmons and Richard Khavkine

About 20 blocks north from the United Nations, where Pope Francis gave a historic address to the General Assembly, sits Our Lady of Peace, a Catholic church shuttered in July by the Archdiocese of New York.

The church was established soon after World War I, with peace a founding principle. Almost a century later, with a small but dedicated congregation and financial solvency, the archdiocese decided to merge Our Lady of Peace with the nearby Church of St. John the Evangelist on East 55th Street.

The Catholic parish, established in 1919 by a growing population of Italian immigrants to the city and the neighborhood, was one of dozens closed by the Archdiocese of New York, which cited declining attendance, shifting demographics and a shortage of priests, among other factors, when it announced the merging of parishes from Staten Island to Albany late last year.

Closing Our Lady of Peace made little sense to congregants, who have an appeal pending in Rome, even as Pope Francis was being cheered by huge crowds in their own backyard.

“Here we have people who really love their church and want to participate and they’re driving them away,” said Bruno Cappellini, who attended Our Lady of Peace since 1937. “It’s insane. I can’t reconcile them … driving people away.”

Pope Francis waving to crowds in Manhattan. Photo by Heather Stein

Pope Francis waving to crowds in Manhattan. Photo by Heather Stein

Cappellini, 80, said many in the congregation are elderly and even the short walk to St. John’s is taxing. He also said the congregation hasn’t given up on saving the church. Weeks before Francis’ arrival in New York, members of Our Lady of Peace held prayer vigils in front of the church, which they’re continuing now that the pontiff has left.

“The pope was so close, he went to the U.N. We tried to get [him] possibly to come by and we were hoping that Rome would keep us open until a decision on our appeal,” Cappellini said. “But it’s a question of how do you reach someone like the pope? My brother’s idea was have the pope come by to our Lady of Peace to pray for world peace,” he added.

Asked what the congregation would say to the pope if granted an audience, Cappellini said, “We’re just like he is, we’re descendants of immigrants and we founded that church because we were looking for a church that was more receptive to Italian immigrants.”

Cappellini said a nearby Slovenian church refused to baptize Italians before Our Lady of Peace came on the scene.

A decision from the Vatican was postponed several times and is said to be forthcoming Nov. 1.

“We do expect to win by the way, our appeal is a very fine appeal,” Cappellini said. “There was no reason to close our church, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Kalman Chany, a trustee at St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which also was shuttered in August, said Francis’ visit renewed some heartfelt and difficult emotions.

“People thought that with time the hurt would subside,” he said. “I guess I’m in more pain that I was before.”

As a whole, he said, congregants were left unbalanced by the visit.

“There was a lot of support for the pope, but the same feelings aren’t shared for Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan,” he said referring to the archbishop of New York.

Chany, a congregant at St. Elizabeth’s for more than 30 years, is also seeking recourse from the Vatican about the church’s closure. He said that St. Elizabeth’s, which served the deaf community, was financially sound.

Decisions on appeals by both Our Lady of Peace and St. Elizabeth of Hungary were due sometime after Sept. 1 but were postponed.

Janice Lynch, also a parishioner at Our Lady of Peace, said her supposition for the delay was based on Francis’ visit.

“I don’t think they wanted to hand out a decision either way while the pope was here or before” for fear of embarrassing either Dolan or angering the congregation,” she said.

“There could be all kinds of hell breaking loose,” said Lynch, who was not attending any of Francis’ official functions but nevertheless twice caught sight of him on East 66th Street as his motorcade came off the FDR Drive.

Lynch and other parishioners submitted five volumes of documentation, including financial records, to the Vatican in the hopes of overturning the Archdiocese’s decree.

“I don’t know if he knows about the church closings,” she said.

Lynch said was confident if was able to have a look inside Our Lady of Peace and be told of its history, Francis, whom she called “a very good man,” would endeavor to keep the parish open.

“He talks about his love for immigrants,” she said. “We have a very diverse community. I think it’s the kind of church he would really like.”

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Case Closed in Fake Cop Case

Residents continue to believe men are tied to effort to oust rent-stabilized tenants. This article was originally published in the West Side Spirit on Sept. 16, and first reported by the newspaper on Sept. 8.

Citing a lack of new information to go on, police in the 24th Precinct have closed their investigation of a recent incident involving alleged NYPD impersonators in a residential building on the Upper West Side.

“Unfortunately there was no new information for them to go on,” said a police source. “All available leads were exhausted, so to speak.”

On Aug. 20 three unknown men entered 50 W. 93rd St. and told the doorman they were members of the NYPD. The men had badges on chains around their necks and were armed, according to residents. The building’s superintendent told the Spirit that tenants in two rent-stabilized apartments were questioned as to how long they’d lived in the building and wanted to know who they lived with.

Detectives from the 24th Precinct met with residents on Aug. 25 and subsequently opened an investigation based on surveillance footage from the building’s elevator.

Sharon Canns, president of the tenants association at 50 W. 93rd St., said police were initially reluctant to open an investigation, but did so after pressure from Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who declined to comment.

Canns said the building’s owner, Stellar Management, has aggressively been trying to get rent-stabilized tenants out of the building. In her two years as tenant association president, Canns said she’s brought seven complaints of tenant harassment to the Dept. of Homes and Community Renewal, and has won them all.

“Either Stellar backed off because I brought it to their attention that they were going to lose, or they lost in court,” said Canns. who noted the former Mitchell Lama building is currently home to about 75 rent stabilized tenants and 47 market rate tenants.

Canns said she would not bring a questionable case of tenant harassment to DHCR, and would not cover for any tenant who abused the rent stabilization system.

“Rent stabilization is a gift. It’s a serious gift that most people in the world do not have. So to abuse it would be wrong. I would not take up with anyone who was not playing by the rules,” she said. “These are good people. They have not been loud, they’re good tenants, they pay the rent on time, and yet they have to go through this.”

Canns stopped short of suggesting the alleged police impersonators were sent by Stellar, claiming she doesn’t know what happened, but said she believes the company is capable of such a thing. “I think everybody thinks it, but nobody is saying anything because it’s a police matter…But who else would do that? At the end of the day we’re not idiots.”

The building at 50 W. 93rd St. and another Stellar-owned property at 70 W. 93rd St. were the subject of a Daily News article last year in which tenants claimed they were being harassed to leave their rent stabilized apartments. Tenants alleged they were summoned to housing court with flimsy legal claims that their apartments were not their primary residence or that they added unauthorized family members to their leases without consulting management. Stellar declined to comment for that story.

The company also drew criticism last year for barring rent-stabilized tenants from using luxury amenities at another of their properties on West End Avenue.

Stellar said through a spokesperson that they were in no way involved in the alleged police impersonation incident at 50 West 93rd Street on Aug. 20, and that they do not harass their tenants.

Surveillance images obtained by the Spirit show three unknown men suspected of impersonating police officers in an elevator at 50 West 93rd St.

Surveillance images obtained by the Spirit show three unknown men suspected of impersonating police officers in an elevator at 50 West 93rd St.

“The management of 50 West 93rd Street has not participated in any wrongdoing or illegal activity regarding the impersonation of law enforcement at the building, nor have they ever engaged in harassment towards tenants in the building,” said Stellar in a statement. “In fact, management worked cooperatively with the local precinct, officials, and residents to investigate the matter. NYPD recently completed their investigation, determined it was a non-criminal matter, and closed the case.”

David Hershey-Webb, an attorney with the tenant-exclusive firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph who represents tenants at 70 and 50 West 93rd Street, said Stellar has a history of bringing rent stabilized tenants to court with frivolous lawsuits.

“The main issue for them is that Stellar is very aggressive about bringing cases against tenants, whether they have merit or not,” said Hershey-Webb. “They’re bringing cases they shouldn’t bring.”

Hershey-Webb alleged Stellar has engaged in other harassment tactics at 50 West 93rd Street as well.

“They’ve deprived tenants of basic services, including taking away half of their community room, including the kitchen,” said he said. “They also substantially raised the cost of using the community room. Overall there’s been a decrease in services.”

While Hershey-Webb said he can’t comment on the incident that occurred Aug. 20, he has heard of police impersonators being used to intimidate and harass rent stabilized tenants. However, that was decades ago.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Hershey-Webb. “But the fact of the matter is the housing market is so hot right now landlords appear to be beginning to engage in some of the tactics that were used in the 1980s.” The NYPD said the investigation around the Aug. 20 incident at 50 West 93rd Street can be re-opened if new information comes to light.

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Fare Access

Pressure from ride-hail apps cause increased wait times for disabled riders, as fewer accessible cabs are on the road. This article was originally published in the Chelsea News Aug. 26.

Disabled New Yorkers who use wheelchair accessible yellow cabs to get around Manhattan are reporting that wait times in the borough are increasing, and industry experts predict the problem will only worsen with pressure from ride-hail apps like Uber.

“What I’ve seen is that it’s very unreliable,” said Ronnie Raymond, a disabled woman who lives on the Upper West Side and uses a wheelchair. “Sometimes I call and they send someone within 10-15 minutes. And other times an hour will go by and they’re not able to send anyone.”

Before the advent of Uber, Raymond said she used a wheelchair accessible cab three or four times a week. So far this month, she’s used a cab about three times.

“If they were reliable I would take a taxi almost every day,” she said.

Bill Scalzi, president and founder of Metro Taxi, which is responsible for dispatching the borough’s 581 accessible yellow cabs through a contract with the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s accessible dispatch program, said the problem is that many traditional yellow cab drivers have defected to Uber and similar companies, creating a surplus of non-wheelchair accessible cabs for lease, which are more attractive to drivers.

“What’s happened is there’s vehicles that aren’t shifted each day, and when drivers come in to lease a vehicle, they’re just saying ‘give me a (regular yellow cab) because I don’t want to be bothered with an accessible vehicle,’” said Scalzi. “So accessible cars are now sitting there unleased.”

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Scalzi said according to TLC rules, the driver of a wheelchair-accessible cab may pick up non-disabled fares, but must always respond to calls for a disabled pickup if they’re the closest wheelchair-accessible cab to the call and are dispatched. As a result, drivers sometimes travel multiple unpaid blocks to pick up a disabled fare.

“If you have to say no to a passenger on the street and drive three, four blocks to pick up a disabled person that called in for a ride, you’re losing money,” said Scalzi, who estimated that of the city’s 581 wheelchair-accessible yellow cabs that pick up fairs from Lower Manhattan to the top of Central Park, maybe 200 are on the road at any given time.

“So that’s become very difficult to us to provide the service level that we have in the past,” he said. “There’s a lack of available, accessible vehicles on the roads for us to dispatch, absolutely.”

He estimated that in the past six months, response times for wheelchair-accessible vehicles have gone from 13 minutes to 19 minutes. Scalzi said accessible dispatch gets 180-200 calls for service in Manhattan per day, mostly via telephone, and that the program is regarded as a success by both the TLC and advocates for the disabled.

“Everybody says the service is good and it’s growing, we just don’t have enough cars,” he said. “Uber in particular has done a number on medallion taxis. The medallion owners are finding it difficult to fill their shifts with drivers. There’s a shortage of drivers because a lot of the drivers are now driving for Uber.”

Michael Higgins, a longtime city cabbie who hosts a weekly podcast centered on issues facing the yellow cab industry, said the profit margin for drivers operating wheelchair-accessible vehicles is razor thin, if it exists at all.

“It’s almost like we’re doing it for charity,” said Higgins. “Rarely does a cabbie come out being profitable picking up the wheelchair dispatch calls. And God forbid we say anything — then we’re monsters.”

Higgins said he’s tired of cab drivers being demonized at TLC hearings by disability advocates who blame them for the shortage of accessible cabs in Manhattan.

“It’s this horrible visual where we’re portrayed as these monsters,” he said, while adding that it’s been a boon for those elected leaders who accessible cab programs in New York, but less so for drivers and fleet operators.

“As far as the people that actually do the legwork and the implementation, [they] don’t make money on it and actually lose money on it,” said Higgins. “It’s a burden and an unfair competitive advantage, especially for the Uber knuckleheads.”

James Weisman, president of the United Spinal Association and an advocate for the disabled who helped craft the Americans with Disabilities Act, sympathizes with Higgins.

“I’ve heard from medallion owners that they can’t get accessible cabs on the road, and that waiting times are going to go up because drivers are being taken up by Uber,” said Weisman. “And the (yellow) cabs they want to drive are the hybrids, not the accessible ones.”

According to Higgins, the disabled community in New York worked out a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo three years ago for 2,000 new taxi medallions, all of which would require wheelchair-accessible cabs. However, only 400 have been bought to date, he said.

“There’s no market for the other 1,600 medallions,” said Weisman, who believes wait times will continue to go up, “because they’re not getting (accessible) cars on the road.”

The city appears to be aware of the problem. Starting in 2015, a 30-cent surcharge was added to all metered fares for a Taxi Improvement Fund, which is designed to ease the burden for medallion owners who must pay to convert vehicles for wheelchair access and help the city reach its goal of a 50 percent accessible fleet by 2020.

According to Greg Gordon, a TLC spokesperson, it costs around $14,000 to convert a regular cab to one that is wheelchair accessible. But money from the Taxi Improvement Fund surcharge has yet to be doled out.

“Funds haven’t been disbursed yet because there was no regulatory framework in place for the manner (and) process by which funds should be distributed to owners and drivers,” said Gordon. “At the outset, the plan was to begin collection of funds in 2015 so that necessary funds would be available to begin disbursements in 2016.”

The TLC is proposing changes to the Taxi Improvement Fund, including increasing the amount paid to medallion owners for converting cabs and individual drivers who operate wheelchair-accessible cabs, as well as dispatch fees paid to drivers for completing a wheelchair-accessible trip. The commission is holding a hearing Sept. 17 on the proposed changes.

“The program is operating effectively in Manhattan under its current model, however, there is always room for improvement,” Gordon said. “With our sights on lowering existing wait times and making such a service available citywide, the more wheelchair-accessible vehicles on the road, the more efficient the program will run and the better service it will provide to those passengers in need.”

In May the city released a request for proposals for a vendor to administer a citywide accessible dispatch program, which the city says will significantly expand the level of service available to passengers who use wheelchairs. In addition to dispatching accessible yellow cabs, the new program will also dispatch the 1,200 accessible green cabs that operate north of Central Park and in the outer boroughs. (According to Scalzi, who currently holds the contract for the accessible dispatch program, the service only dispatches accessible yellow cabs.)

The TLC’s current system for increasing the amount of accessible cabs is based on a lottery system and tied to the retirement of older cabs and their replacement by medallion owners. Gordon said there is no mandate on how many accessible cabs must be on the road at any given time and that the commission does not track response times for disabled fares.

Raymond, of the Upper West Side, said she noticed the drop in reliability about a year ago.

“All the (accessible) taxis that were out there were on the street. Now they’re not because so many of the drivers are driving for Uber now. (Accessible cabs) sit in parking lots at garages because the drivers don’t want to take them. So the taxis exist but they’re not being used,” said Raymond. “I used to use them a lot more often than I use them now, because I can’t rely on them really.”

Weisman said the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require sedan-sized vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible, and that he’s not holding out hope Uber will begin implementing their own wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“Either they voluntarily do it, or the state or the city mandates it,” he said. “Why should a mode a transportation that everyone loves be completely off limits to people that use wheelchairs?”

Weisman said the mandate should require at least half of Uber drivers’ cars to be wheelchair accessible.

“At least half, because if they want to replace the yellow cabs, which they do, they should have to meet the same requirements,” he said, referring to the city’s 2020 goal. “Right now they only drive people with smart phones and credit cards. If they didn’t have to take black people or gay people, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. People aren’t ready to call them bigots, but we are.”

A spokesperson for Uber said the company currently dispatches wheelchair-accessible rides through their uberWAV option, which boasts an average response time of five minutes and completes 600 to 800 accessible trips per week.

However, that program coordinates their accessible rides with the TLC’s accessible green cabs, and does not include the smart phone payment integration that’s a big draw of Uber’s main app. According to Weisman, not a single Uber car is in and of itself wheelchair accessible.

Uber’s accessible app is also bound by the TLC’s Manhattan Exclusionary Zone, and cannot pick up fares below West 110th Street or East 96th Street. The spokesperson said Uber is currently working on a deal to service disabled fares within the exclusionary zone.

Despite the increase in wait times, Scalzi things are set to improve as the city makes good on its commitment to convert 50 percent of their cab fleet to wheelchair accessible, which is good news for drivers and disabled passengers alike.

“I’m not sure how the whole Uber thing is going to shake out in the end, but if you’re lessening the number of trips that are available to yellow and green taxi cabs, then drivers will be more apt to accept trips from whatever source, whether it be e–hails, accessible trips or contract work,” Scalzi said. “So they’re going to be hungry to take anything. I see this as everything getting better for the drivers.”

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