Velazquez Starts 116th Congress with Slate of Bills
Washington, DC – Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) marked the first day of the 116th Congress by introducing a range of bills meant to benefit New York’s working families, students, entrepreneurs, seniors and others.
“With a new Democratic Majority comes renewed opportunity to advance policies that benefit New Yorkers and working people throughout the nation,” Velázquez said. “I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to advance these commonsense proposals in the new Congress.”
Standing for Tenant Rights
One of the first pieces of legislation introduced by Velázquez this year aims to protect tenants, particularly those in the Section 8 program, from abuses by dishonest landlords. The “Landlord Accountability Act” would ban discrimination based on a tenant’s use of a housing voucher at the federal level. Voucher holders would be able to seek remedies for discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.
The bill would also fine landlords who take actions, or neglect to act, with the intention of disqualifying units from federal housing programs. Landlords could be fined up to $100,000 for violations and face a second set of fines of $50,000 with revenue going to aggrieved tenants. The legislation comes after media reports in New York have documented instances where landlords neglect Section 8 eligible apartments, causing the units to fall into disrepair and no longer qualify for a voucher.
“Those who would seek to profit by kicking families and seniors out of Section 8 eligible housing are acting unconscionably and must be stopped,” Velázquez said. “If landlords try to force tenants from their homes, we’re going to hit them where they feel it – in their pocketbooks.”
Velázquez’s bill would extend other assistance to tenants. The bill would establish a new Multifamily Housing Complaint Resolution Program to investigate and attempt to resolve disputes through mediation. Complaints received through the new program would be made publicly available.
“We have a burgeoning affordable housing crisis in our city, making any efforts to remove units from the Section 8 program even more harmful,” Velázquez added. “We need strong, enforceable steps to punish bad actors and deter abuses before they occur.”
Beyond assisting Section 8 voucher holders, the bill would direct federal resources to local programs benefiting other tenants. A new $25 million grant program would steer resources to agencies that provide tenants with assistance and legal advice. Locally based initiatives like New York City’s Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force could apply for this federal support.
“In the new Congress, I’ll be working to expand assistance for those in tight housing markets, like New York City,” Velázquez added. “That includes cracking down on those who would illegally or unethically profit off this affordability crisis, by trying to remove tenants from their homes.”
The bill has been officially endorsed by: Carroll Gardens Association, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, Councilmember Brad Lander, Community Board 2, Community Board 6, Community Board 7, New York Housing Conference and the National Alliance of HUD Tenants.
Addressing Transportation Challenges
With the kickoff of the 116th Congress, Velázquez also unveiled legislation today that would steer federal funding to transportation alternatives when major transit arteries are closed or delayed due to infrastructure upgrades. The legislation, the “Increase Transportation Alternatives Investment Program,” could help expand choices for New York commuters who currently rely on the L train, which is expected to have service reduced for repairs of the Canarsie Tunnel.
“Given the challenges facing MTA, we need to be constantly exploring new transportation options in our city,” Velázquez said. “The federal government can play a vital role by targeting resources to those areas experiencing transportation interruptions. I was pleased to hear the L train disruption may now be less severe than previously expected, but we still must ensure working families have a reliable option to get to and from work, school and elsewhere.”
Under the legislation, states securing funding through the federal government’s Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) Program would be required to prioritize projects in areas where there is significant repair of transportation infrastructure occurring. The STBG provides funding that may be used by States and localities for projects to preserve and improve the conditions and performance on any Federal-aid highway, bridge and tunnel projects on any public road, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and transit capital projects.
Beyond updating the STBG initiatives, the bill would create a new competitive grant program at the Department of Transportation that supports community efforts to invest in transportation. Eligible programs include carpool and telecommuting projects as well as expanding bicycle and pedestrian mobility and access. That program would also give preference to areas undergoing extensive repair of transportation systems.
Protecting Diverse Communities
With hate crimes on the rise in New York and around the U.S., Velázquez also unveiled legislation that would authorize an additional $50 million in federal funds to help prevent, track and prosecute hate crimes and assist victims.
“Like many, I’ve been profoundly disturbed by the spike in hate crimes in recent years,” Velázquez added. “My legislation will ensure the federal government puts forth necessary resources to combat this scourge.”
Among other provisions, Velázquez’s bill provides $15 million in federal resources to bolster local law enforcement hate crimes training. Funds under this program are allocated to solve hate crimes and facilitate discussion with community stakeholders whose members are at risk of being victims. Grants would be targeted to jurisdictions that have high levels of hate crime activity. The program also encourages community policing and diverse recruitment of police officers.
To facilitate the reporting of hate crimes, Velázquez’s measure would provide another $20 million for hate crime hotlines and websites, which would be operated by states or local governments in collaboration with community stakeholders. The Act allocates another $15 million for victims’ assistance through the Office for Victims of Crime in the Department Office of Justice. These funds would help nonprofits and faith-based organizations expand or launch local programs that assist those who have been harmed through hate crimes.
In December, after a wave of anti-Semitic acts hit New York City, Velázquez led Congressional colleagues in writing to the New York Police Department asking the Department how they are working to tackle hate crimes.
“We’ve seen a spate of attacks against Jewish New Yorkers in recent months,” Velázquez noted. “I’ll be working with my colleagues in coming weeks to ensure there are sufficient federal resources and that there’s adequate coordination at all levels of government to combat acts of hate. Whether these vile attacks are aimed at our Jewish neighbors, immigrants, members of our LGBTQ community, or any other group, they constitute an attack on us all and we must be united in fighting back.”
Preserving the Environment and Promoting Healthy Communities
The Congresswoman is also taking steps to oppose the Trump Administration’s assault on our environment. As part of her package of “first day” bills, she introduced “the Pesticide Protection Act,” which bans from commerce Chlorpyrifos, a toxic chemical that has been linked to damaging and often irreversible health outcomes in workers, pregnant women and children. While the Obama-era EPA had developed a regulation to ban Chlorpyrifos, under the Trump Administration, the agency had been taking steps to reverse the regulation.
“It’s unconscionable for EPA to turn a blind eye as children and workers are exposed to this poison,” Velázquez said. “If the EPA won’t do its job when it comes to Chlorpyrifos, then Congress needs to act – and do so quickly.”
In August a federal Court ordered the agency to ban the pesticide. However, the Administration is appealing the ruling, seeking to prevent implementation of the Obama-era ban.
“As long as there are efforts underway in the courts or administratively to undo the ban on this toxic pesticide, I’ll be working to see Chlorypyrifos removed from commerce through the legislative process,” Velázquez added.
Chlorypyrifos is a widely used pesticide, with agriculture companies spraying 6 million pounds of the substance on crops like citruses, apples and cherries, annually. In the same family as Sarin gas, the substance was initially developed prior to World War II as a chemical weapon.
Velázquez’s bill has been endorsed by a wide range of more than 160 environmental groups. The bill has been cosponsored by 40 of Velázquez’s House colleagues.
Demanding Accountability on Puerto Rico
Congresswoman Velázquez is again this year pushing legislation to hold the Trump Administration accountable for its abysmal response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Today, she reintroduced legislation to establish a “9/11-style” independent commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico.
Introduced in both chambers of Congress, the bill would create a commission charged with examining the federal government’s preparedness and response to a catastrophe that some estimate may have killed more than 3,000 Americans.
“As we move into the 116th Congress, I will continue calling for accountability for how Donald Trump and his Administration failed 3.4 million American citizens after Maria struck,” said Velázquez. “It is clear now, from multiple analyses, that thousands needlessly lost their lives because of the federal government’s feeble response to these hurricanes and their aftermath. Certainly, there will be hearings looking into many facets of what went wrong, but I also believe that the magnitude of this catastrophe warrants the creation of a nonpartisan panel to fully bring to light not only the errors that were made, but also how we can be certain this never happens again.”
The legislation has been cosponsored in the House by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the incoming Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
“The humanitarian toll of Hurricane Maria – one of the most devastating natural disasters this country has experienced – was and continues to be a national tragedy due to the Administration’s woefully inadequate response,” said Chairman Thompson (D-MS). “I thank Congresswoman Velazquez for spearheading this effort to get answers for the people of Puerto Rico and for helping shed light on what went wrong after Hurricane Maria so we can ensure it will not happen again.”
“After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, we had an extraordinary opportunity to help our fellow Americans rebuild and become far more resilient than ever before,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Now, almost 15 months later, it’s clear that Congress and the President have failed to do their job to protect this part of our country and the millions of Americans who live there. The storms were bad enough, but the government’s response to them was truly horrific, and we need to get to the bottom of exactly what went so terribly wrong. That’s why I’m introducing legislation to create a new, 9/11-style Congressional commission to investigate exactly how and why the federal government abandoned its responsibilities and turned its back on Puerto Rico. I am proud to fight for Puerto Rico in the Senate, and I urge my colleagues to support this legislation just as they would if a natural disaster hit their own states.”
Under the bill, “The National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters in Puerto Rico Act,” the Commission would consider a broad array of factors that impacted the disaster response. These would include: death toll accuracy and methodology; federal preparedness guidelines issued ahead of the 2017 hurricane season; the vulnerability of Puerto Rico’s economic situation; adequacy of the Island’s telecommunications; and the capacity of the Federal government to quickly mobilize and respond to disasters and emergencies in Puerto Rico.
Additionally, the Commission would be tasked with examining any potential disparities in the federal response to Puerto Rico compared with 2017 Mainland disasters. According to news reports, in multiple instances, the response in Puerto Rico was slower and less effective than in places like Texas after Hurricane Harvey. For example, nine days after Maria, just 1.6 million meals were delivered to Puerto Rico while 10.9 million were delivered in the same period after Irma struck Florida and 5.1 million to Texas after Harvey. Compounding a lackluster federal response was a series of botched FEMA contracts that delayed the delivery of crucial supplies such as tarps and meals.
Supporting Young Entrepreneurs and Addressing Student Loan Debt
With young Americans facing a crisis of mounting student loan debt, the Congresswoman is profoundly concerned that opportunity may be closed off for younger workers and would-be entrepreneurs. As the incoming Chair of the House Small Business Committee, she has introduced legislation that would provide loan relief for recent graduates who launch or work for small enterprises.
“I hear frequently from young New Yorkers who are foregoing or postponing launching a business because of enormous student loans,” Velázquez said. “My legislation would allow them to build a business without falling behind on their loan payments.”
Under Velázquez’s proposal, founders of business startups could secure three years of deferment on student loans. Additionally, entrepreneurs that create new ventures in economically distressed areas could be eligible for $20,000 in loan forgiveness.
“We’ve seen time and again that when new businesses launch they can spread opportunity in areas that are economically and financially disadvantaged,” Velázquez added. “For those entrepreneurs who willing to give back to these communities, additional student debt assistance would be available.”
The cost of paying for and financing a college education has become a significant hurdle for recent graduates interested in pursuing a career in entrepreneurship. The current amount of student loans has increased tenfold in the last decade. This mounting debt has constrained new business formation by dissuading many young people from creating their own firms. Today, around a quarter of new entrepreneurs are aged 20-34, a significant decline from the mid-1990s when this younger demographic comprised 34 percent of new business entrepreneurs.
“The student loan crisis is not only burdening young people, but creating unfortunate ripple effects through the broader economy,” Velázquez noted. “We’ll need a broad-based strategy to tackle the student loan problem. I’m hopeful this bill can be one tool among many to make education affordable for all Americans and working families.”
Velázquez’s bill would also assist employees of startups, granting loan forgiveness of up to $3,000 per year. Employees may request this benefit for up to 5 years, for an aggregate of $15,000 in loan forgiveness.
In the previous, 115th Congress, Velázquez authored the fifth most bills, compared to all 435 House Members.
“Now that Democrats have taken the majority in the House, I look forward to working with my colleagues to move many of these ideas through the legislative process and toward enactment,” Velázquez concluded.