The quest to advance racial equity is expected to reach New Yorkers’ ballots come November, via proposals the city’s Racial Justice Commission could solidify as soon as Thursday. 

Potential changes on tap, subject to a citywide vote next fall, include adding a preamble to the City Charter to declare values of equity and opportunity, creating a new standard to measure the “true cost of living” in the city and establishing a new watchdog to ensure policies and decisions are made with racial justice in mind.

“Equity is something that should pervade every aspect of government functions. It must be a value that we hold ourselves accountable to,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO of the anti-poverty nonprofit FPWA and chair of the Racial Justice Commission.

Chirlane McCray (left) attends a book reading by Jennifer Jones Austin (right) at the Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office

“It must be a belief shared by all New Yorkers, and by people who are in positions to affect the lives of all New Yorkers,” she added. “We have proposals that are aspirational, they’re actionable, and they’re accountable, but they really are the beginning.”

The 11-member commission, first convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio in March, also will float policy reforms and other recommendations to guide city agencies. The aim: to “dismantle structural racism” and build a roadmap for racial justice.

Commission staff will host a public session at noon Wednesday to go over details of the proposals. The commission is likely to vote Thursday on five main proposals that will appear in some form on the November ballot.

Social justice advocates are optimistic about the direction of the commission’s work, but warn that the effectiveness of the measures — should they pass next year — will depend on follow-up.

“I think they are on the right track,” said Victoria Phillips, the community, health and justice organizer for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. “It becomes fluff — it becomes window dressing — when there’s no follow-up, when there’s no next step. This city is big on the grand idea and then the mediocre follow-through, and our community has suffered long enough.”

‘Moving the Needle’

The commission’s work started in the spring with a series of meetings and public input sessions. These informed an October interim report that identified focus areas showing where discrimination and inequity manifest for people of color. 

The commissioners concede their efforts alone won’t eliminate discrimination, but they hope to lay a foundation for better practices.

“We know that change in the direction of justice is long, and we know that by setting a foundation, we’re capturing as much as we can, but it’s not going to be everything,” said Anusha Venkataraman, the commission’s executive director. “We do hope we’re moving the needle in the direction of making equity a central priority in all the decision making processes.”

The five expected ballot proposals include:

  • Adding a preamble to the charter — the city’s governing document — that puts the credo of “equity and opportunity for all” at the forefront. This new introduction would signal the intent to promote justice while repairing harms, according to the commission. The text might also contain an acknowledgement that the city’s land formerly belonged to the Lenape people.
  • Establishing an Office of Racial Equity led by a chief equity officer. This office would help city agencies create their own equity plans. The office also would support the agencies with “anti-marginalization” efforts, such as equipping the neediest neighborhoods with the greatest resources, “limiting the use of criminal history” in hiring and offering “alternatives to punitive enforcement.”
  • Drafting a citywide plan with goals and programs that would help foster equity and racial justice, data to track outcomes and strategies to combat areas of discrimination, such as pay. The first plan would be due in 2024.
  • Creating an independent Racial Equity Commission with members appointed by elected officials, similar to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which watchdogs the NYPD. This new commission would issue regular recommendations aimed at advancing racial justice in the city, ensure the city’s budget aligns with its equity values and field complaints.
  • Requiring the city to come up with a new standard that adequately reflects the cost of living in New York City with the aim of battling poverty and pay disparities. 

‘It’s Just Not Sustainable’

David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, praised the ideas of establishing a citywide plan and an Office of Racial Equity.

“Having been in city government, we get all sorts of mandates. But if it’s not really backed by the mayoral administration, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Meanwhile, calls to create new entities, including a Racial Equity Commission, prompted some concerns of delayed progress.

Ken Cohen, regional director of the NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, cautioned that any new body would need to “bring forth change almost immediately” rather than just more discussions and meetings.

“You go to these different meetings and you sit down and everybody has an idea, and then they create a committee or commission, and then they start all over. Those ideas go out the window,” he said. “And then it takes them another year or six months to come up with something similar to the same ideas that you came up with to start off the committee.”

The possible mandate to re-examine the cost of living generated optimism over the potential to help economically struggling New Yorkers.

“Having a better wage or earnings benchmark would serve a valuable public purpose in trying to make sure that low paid workers are paid more adequately,” said James Parrott, director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

He questioned how the new cost-of-living standard might differ from the existing NYCgov Poverty Measure, which, unlike the federal standard, incorporates benefits like food assistance and the Earned Income Tax Credit as income. 

Advocates and homeless people hold a rally at City Hall demanding more housing, Aug. 20, 2019. Credit: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

But Jones said a new standard could help solve the housing crisis, for example, if it’s the basis for what constitutes a reasonable rent when it comes to so-called affordable housing. 

His organization earlier this year released a report praising new affordable housing units added under Mayor Bill de Blasio, but pointing to missed opportunities to serve many vulnerable New Yorkers because of income-based eligibility requirements.

Community service organizations cite affordable housing as a growing need given pandemic-induced unemployment.

“We’ve seen more people go back to work, but there’s still so many others who are just unemployed or unable to find employment that gives a living wage,” said Steve Mei, director of Brooklyn community services at the Chinese American Planning Council. “The ratio of comparison in terms of folks’ income, as opposed to the cost of living in New York City — it’s just not sustainable.”

Eyes Turn to Adams

The commission is expected to vote to approve the proposals on Thursday, sending them to be converted into language that can appear on the November 2022 ballot. 

The following week, the commission is set to vote on the ballot measures themselves and release a final report with recommendations for how city agencies can further racial equity.

“We need measures that center on anti-marginalization in other spaces, ensuring that people have access to the vital resources … that they need to survive and thrive,” Austin Jones said, ticking off quality schools, health care service and housing programs.

Mayor-elect Eric Adams attends the Somos Conference in Puerto Rico, Nov. 5, 2021. Credit: Katie Honan/THE CITY

After the commission holds its final votes on the ballot proposals and reports, next year some commissioners may choose to promote the ballot proposals in outreach and public education efforts, according to Venkataraman.

If New Yorkers approve the ballot measures, it will be up to the incoming Adams administration to ensure they’re implemented.

Austin said she’s spoken with members of Mayor-elect Eric Adams’ transition team and believes they’re committed to equity and seeing through the commission’s proposals.