Additional reporting by Clifford Michel
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Six out of 10 community board members in The Bronx’s Morris Park are white in a neighborhood where only 22% of people are.
At Midtown Manhattan’s community board, men outnumber women two to one.
And in Forest Hills and Rego Park, about 13% of members identify as South Asian or Asian American in a district where people of Asian descent make up nearly a third of the population.
“The demographics of our community [district] have changed pretty significantly over the past few decades,” said Prameet Kumar, a member of Queens Community Board 6. “But these shifts haven’t yet been reflected in our community board and in our local political representation.”
That’s a snapshot of community board demographics, two years after voters changed the City Charter with a goal of boosting diversity on the volunteer-led bodies, which weigh in on everything from bike lanes to zoning decisions.
But as borough presidents currently collect applications for new community board members, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how well the city’s 59 boards reflect their neighborhoods.
That’s because charter-mandated reports on board demographic data are full of inconsistencies, thanks to different reporting methods and that members have a choice to disclose their background. In the case of Staten Island, the information is missing entirely.
Deadlines for applications to community boards are coming up soon. For more information about how to apply, scroll to the end of this story!
Civic Building Block
Community boards make no laws, and write no policy. They have no binding votes on legislation or major projects.
But their members, appointed by borough presidents and City Council members, give advisory opinions on all kinds of things, from big construction developments to liquor licenses to park renovations.
The boards are the most basic building block of New York’s local government, and can wield considerable influence.
In 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio formed a Charter Revision Commission with the idea of strengthening democracy in the city. Much of the public feedback centered around community boards, said Matt Gewolb, that commission’s executive director.
Voters that year approved ballot measures aimed at publicizing the boards’ demographic makeup.
The charter was revised to mandate each of the city’s five borough presidents collect and disseminate data about the boards every year. The first report aimed to tally the demographics of boards in 2018 as they were self-reported by board applicants.
Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s office has since released a report on its website that includes some data about the borough’s three boards, including vacancies and names of members.
But there’s no information about those members’ backgrounds — not age, race, gender or any other demographic category.
Oddo’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.
Boards More Male
Overall, the total number of members on the boards in four of the five boroughs are more male than the city’s population. On average, 43% of the community board members were female, while women make up just over half of New York’s population. By race, the ratio of non-white to white members roughly matches the city’s demographics. Non-Hispanic whites make up 32% of the city residents and board members who identified as white or European took up 35% of the community boards.
However, drilling down to compare other key demographic categories — such as age or ethnicity — among boroughs proved impossible because each reported its data differently.
For example, the demographic report from The Bronx split board members’ ages into two groups — under and over 50 — while the Queens report used nine-year intervals.
Some boroughs provide greater details of board members’ racial makeup than others. The Bronx reported only the number of members who identified as a person of color, while the Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan board members used up to a dozen categories to specify race or ethnicity.
Looking at the share of board members who identified as white or European — the indicator most tracked by all community boards — THE CITY found the racial disparity between some boards’ membership and their district’s white population was stark, particularly outside of Manhattan.
‘Set in Their Ways’
In The Bronx’s Community Board 11 — which represents Morris Park, Pelham Parkway and surrounding areas — THE CITY found the biggest difference between the board’s demographics and the district’s as of 2018.
There, 64% of board members are white in a district that is just 22% white, Census data shows.
To Roxanne Delgado, that difference is obvious. The Pelham Parkway resident had tried in recent years to get involved at CB11 to make improvements to her local park, but found the experience frustrating.
“We have a very young population, but the community board is made up of senior Caucasian people whose views do not reflect the views of the community,” she said.
Census data shows the area is 46.7% Hispanic, 21.4% black and 8% Asian. More than a third of residents are immigrants.
Now, Delgado — who applied to the board last year and was rejected — no longer goes to board meetings, put off by older members “set in their ways.”
“It’s like a clubhouse,” she said. “They don’t understand that you have to accept the new residents and the changes in demographics. They can’t continue living in the past.”
A staffer for CB11 said the data in the borough president’s report was out of date, pointing THE CITY to the board’s own demographic data posted on its website.
That information, current through the end of 2019, shows a board that has become more diverse. The board is now half white, CB11’s website said.
For some boroughs, the reports mandated in 2018 marked the first time boards have tracked any kind of demographic data.
In Manhattan, Borough President Gale Brewer has been doing it since 2015 in an effort to make the boards “reflective of their neighborhoods.”
“We’re all about having the data to help us make decisions,” she said.
Manhattan’s report went well beyond the charter’s reporting requirements, citing statistics like members’ housing (co-op, condo, stabilized rental, NYCHA, etc.), whether they have children in school and what type of work they do.
The reports show big discrepancies — such as the gender breakdown of the Midtown board, Community Board 5 — as well as boards that are a near-perfect mirror of their neighborhoods.
For example, East Harlem’s board, Community Board 11, is 42% Hispanic, a reflection of a district where 46% of residents are Hispanic.
Gewolb told THE CITY Brewer’s office is “the gold standard” — and that the commission, as it wrote the charter changes, hoped to encourage the other boroughs to adopt some of Manhattan’s demographic tracking practices.
At the same time, he said, the commission “didn’t want to impose very strict mandates.”
“The charter language is written deliberately in a way that gives quite a bit of discretion to the borough presidents,” he said.
However, the language is clear that the borough presidents should provide the following information on each board’s members in an aggregated, anonymized form: race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability status, sexual orientation, language, geographic residence and “other characteristics the borough president deems relevant to promoting diversity,” the charter reads.
Eric Lane, a veteran of the 1989 Charter Revision Commission, wasn’t surprised to hear the responses were spotty in some places.
“They are either lazy about it or they don’t feel like doing it or people don’t want to get information out,” he said.
About Staten Island, he added, “They think they’re another country half the time.”
Creating ‘an Inclusive Place’
Kumar, the Community Board 6 member, urged the Charter Commission in 2018 to address diversity.
He is happy the demographic reports are public, but sees them as just a step toward boosting inclusiveness.
“I think demographics are sort of a baseline to start with,” Kumar said. “But I think we could do so much more than that.”
On his own board, he and new board chair Alexa Weitzman are hoping to better publicize meetings and create “an inclusive place … so people are going to want to apply and join in the first place,” Kumar said.
“Most New Yorkers just don’t even know what a community board is,” he added.
How to Apply
Interested in applying to a community board? Here’s what you need to know:
The deadlines are soon — especially in Queens.
• Queens: Last day to apply is Friday, Jan. 31. Application is here.
• The Bronx: Last day is Friday, Feb. 7. Application is here.
• Brooklyn: Last day is Friday, Feb. 14. Application is here.
• Manhattan: Last day is Friday, Feb. 14. Application is here.
• Staten Island: No deadline, applications accepted all year. Here’s the link.
Each borough’s application is different, but here’s what to expect:
• You have to live, work in or have a professional or other significant interest in the board’s district.
• Most board applications ask whether you’ve attended a community board meeting before. That experience is encouraged.
• Get ready to disclose a lot of information, kind of like a job application. Job history, references — Manhattan’s application even asks for a resume.
• Think about how much time you can dedicate to the board. It’s reasonable to assume you will be required to attend two or three meetings a month. Be ready for questions about that.
• Keep this in mind: All applicants are subject to the state Freedom of Information Law, which means your application could be made public.
If you plan to apply to be on a community board, we’d like to know and learn more about your journey. Email us and let us know at email@example.com, or call, text, Signal or WhatsApp 718-866-8674.
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