Critics : Mayor de Blasio's state of the city address falls short

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his 2015 state of the city speech at Baruch College in Manhattan on Tuesday.  Source :  Photo Illustration/Progress Queens

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his 2015 state of the city speech at Baruch College in Manhattan on Tuesday.  Source :  Photo Illustration/Progress Queens

By LOUIS FLORES

Reaction to central elements of Mayor Bill de Blasio's state of the city speech was critical of the mayor's vision for New York City.  

Affordable Housing

To fulfill on Mayor de Blasio's plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable over the next decade (even though he is only guaranteed to be in office for a term of four years, raising questions about how the mayor could realistically set such a goal in the first place), Mayor de Blasio announced some specific proposals :  

  • a plan to build over 11,250 affordable housing units above the Sunny Side Yards in Queens ;
  • a $200 million plan to build an unspecified number of affordable housing units on The Bronx waterfront ;
  • a demand that Albany lawmakers renew New York City's tenant protection laws ;
  • plans to 160,000 market-rate apartments ; and
  • plans to bust through zoning in areas to build larger apartment buildings. 

Even before Mayor de Blasio announced his specific proposals, tenant activists either criticised or called for an end to the 421-a tax abatement and inclusionary zoning programs that have generally allowed real estate developers to building larger and larger apartment buildings at taxpayer expense.  Developers, which choose to build under the 421-a tax abatement program, receive waivers in property taxes for incorporating affordable housing into their apartment buildings, and the inclusionary zoning program allows developers to add bulk to the zoning of their projects, allowing apartment buildings to be built taller in exchange for having set aside some units for affordable housing.  

In some neighborhoods, real estate developers must set aside 20 per cent. of apartments for tenants, who qualify for affordable housing.  However, over the years, what qualified as "affordable" has become highly subjective, with some "affordable housing" apartments renting to "middle income" applicants at monthly rates of over $3,000, as noted in a report written by Samuel Stein and published by Jacobin magazine, which, based on such economics and other factors, concluded that Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plan was "doomed." 

Meanwhile, some real estate developers have exploited the 421-a tax abatement program, notably Extell Development Company, which is the target of a reported federal investigation over the tax breaks received for its $2 billion-dollar luxury skyscraper, One57.  The new owner of a penthouse that recently sold for $100 million will receive a 95 per cent. tax break under the benefits that Extell received for the construction of that luxury condominium tower.  

Mayor de Blasio's plan for building or preserving 200,000 affordable housing units is not enough to make a dent in number of New Yorkers seeking affordable housing.  Typically, for every building offering affordably housing, tenants must apply to participate in a lottery, which determines which applicants are awarded the much-prized affordable apartments.  But these lotteries are unbelievably over-subscribed.  "Last year, tenants won 2,500 new apartments through 41 lotteries that drew a total of 1.5 million applications," reported Mireya Navarro in The New York Times.

A more aggressive plan should call for 500,000 units to be built or created over a period of 5 years or less.  At such a rate, 500,000 units would have an undeniable impact on market-rate rents.  A plan of this size could be made feasible by proposing that developers be consider to build complexes of the size, for example, of LeFrak City, which houses approximately 14,000 tenants in a 40 acre complex of twenty buildings.  The mayor's plan to build atop the 200 acres of Sunny Side Yards, for example, would use 200 acres for only 11,250 units.  Using Sunny Side Yards for the equivalent of five LeFrak Cities would be controversial, but it would create affordable housing for approximately 70,000 residents in just one location.  

If the density would be considered too great, it could be pared back, some buildings could be constructed to be taller to allow for the construction of some shorter buildings and for reservation of space for parks, but, even so, it would still achieve housing for more people than just 11,250 units under the mayor's limited plan. 

To compliment the construction of more affordable units at Sunny Side Yards, the mayor could, in neighborhoods where developable land would not exist, propose a program that would mandate the conversion of existing market-rate apartments into affordable housing subject to rent regulations.  

Construction of new affordable housing and the conversion of market-rate apartments to rent regulated apartments could be made under the state's Mitchell-Lama program, allowing the city to abandon the 421-a inclusionary program. 

Mitchell-Lama was a housing program developed after the severe housing shortage experienced in New York following the end of World War II.   The program provided incentives for real estate developers to construct affordable housing, and, in exchange, developers received what were essentially subsidies, mainly in the form of low-cost loans.  Over time, some of these loans became no-cost or tax-free.  Mayor de Blasio invoked the building boom era that followed World War II in the form of the construction of Stuyvesant Town, but he stopped short of mandating that the new affordable housing specifically be regulated by Mitchell-Lama.  In recent years, gentrification and real estate speculation have lured some wealthy landlords to exit the Mitchell-Lama program, and the mayor's proposal for affordable housing does not address how to stop this drain on affordable housing stock.

Some housing activists also noted that Mayor de Blasio's affordable plan was entirely silent on the plight of the homeless.  For example, New York City has yet to settle the class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of homeless youths.  On Wednesday night, Mayor de Blasio appeared on the news program Inside City Hall on NY1, and he avoided directly answering a question about the administration's plans to address the causes of homelessness in New York City that have forced a record 60,000 people to seek housing in city shelters. 

An affordable housing program of the size of 500,000 would allow people living in NYCHA buildings or in homeless shelters to transition to rent-regulated apartments, those who can make the switch, allowing the city an opportunity to refurbish or improve NYCHA buildings and homeless shelters, which are in need of repair and upgrading.

Furthermore, some housing activists saw the mayor's plan for The Bronx waterfront as a give-away to real estate developers of luxury apartments.  Some New Yorkers feared that the mayor's embrace of the 421-a program and his call to make mandatory the inclusionary zoning program for affordable housing coupled with his plan to green-light 160,000 market-rate apartments would speed up gentrification, specifically in Brooklyn, which would act to displace more low-income tenants.  Opposition from another city neighborhood, East New York, Brooklyn, has organised to oppose the mayor's affordable housing plan out of fears of further gentrification and spikes in real estate prices and rents. 

(Some media were left wondering how gentrification all of a sudden became a concern for voters, even though the media has a huge role in determining what issues politicians address in shaping public opinion.)  

Another critical area in terms of housing, where the mayor's proposals did not address, was the lack of attention to the $18 billion deficit in the capital fund of the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.  In a neoliberal move, the de Blasio administration approved the privatisation of some NYCHA buildings to real estate investors in a deal that was supported by the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs LLC, where the mayor's new appointee to the city's Commission on Human Rights, Jonathan Greenspun, is a lobbyist.  Amongst the areas where the real estate lobbyist, Mr. Greenspun, will now have jurisdiction include disputes over housing discrimination.  It's unclear how a big business representative, like Mr. Greenspun, can be objective in cases that pit tenants against deep-pocketed landlords, raising reasonable concerns of the judgment on behalf of the de Blasio administration as it concerns housing discrimination.  

On the night of the mayor's State of the City address and on the night after, a New Yorker named Frances from the East village sent e-mails to the NY1 news program, The Call, to express opinions that the wealthy and influential Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, stoodto gain from the mayor's green-lighting of so much real estate development.  

Some New Yorkers may have reason to worry about the conflicts of interest between the de Blasio administration and real estate developers.  

The lobbying firm, Berlin Rosen, represented the real estate developer, Two Trees, in the transaction to develop the Domino Sugar refinery in Brooklyn into a $1.5 billion waterfront project -- at the same time when Berlin Rosen was representing the mayor's own lobbing outfit, the Campaign for One New York.  

Moreover, Mayor de Blasio campaigned for office denouncing the $1 billion luxury condo conversion of St. Vincent's Hospital, yet the mayor's campaign allied itself with one of the lobbyists on that deal, James Capalino, and, now, in office, Mayor de Blasio has appeared to ally himself with the real estate patriarch of the development company that was responsible for that luxury condo conversion, William Rudin.  

The lobbyist, Mr. Capalino, was a member of the host committee of a fundraising event at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that raised $1 million for Mayor de Blasio's campaign committee.  

These examples of duplicity raise questions as to whether real estate developers, and their lobbyists with close ties to the mayor, will hold too much of a sway over the proposed affordable housing initiative.

Other New Yorkers are concerned about the mayor's trustworthiness.  Mayor de Blasio likewise campaigned on promises to save Long Island College Hospital, even getting arrested for the cause in an act of civil disobedience.  Yet, the mayor turned his back on his campaign promise, allowing the hospital to close in favour of still yet another luxury condo conversion deal.  New Yorkers wonder whether Mayor de Blasio's promises to deliver affordable housing will turn out to be just empty promises, like those he made about saving Long Island College Hospital.

Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has yet to take action to overturn approvals for "poor doors,' which allow for the segregation within a building of tenants in affordable apartments from tenants in market-rate apartments.  One developer receiving approval for a poor door was Extell, developer of the $2 billion One57 tower.  Individuals connected to Extell made over $18,000 in contributions to Mayor de Blasio's campaign committee.  When he was a member of the New York City Council, Mayor de Blasio voted to approve the poor door, raising questions of whether the mayor voted to approve a legislative agenda amenable to his campaign contributors.  

In a speech two weeks ago at New York Law School, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara spoke about the corruptive influence of money and lobbyists in shaping government policy.  After discussing the federal corruption cases against former Councilmember Daniel Halloran (R-Queens) and former State Assemblymember Eric Stevenson (D-The Bronx), Mr. Bharara said, "Given the allegation in case after case after case, how many other pending bills were born of bribery ?  And worse, how many passed bills were born of bribery or improper influence ?  How about items in the budget ?  How much of the work of the city and state government is tarnished by tawdry graft ?"

Transportation

Mayor de Blasio proposed a new ferry service that would serve all five boroughs principally along an East River corridor that would begin service in 2017.  Residents in Far Rockaway, Queens, were outraged that Mayor de Blasio had just eliminated their ferry service a few months ago under the pretense that the city budget could not afford to subsidise ferry service any longer.

On Twitter, former New York City Councilmember Sal Albanese questioned why Mayor de Blasio's ferry service proposal would begin during an election year with no guarantees for funding. 

Some Queen residents believe that Mayor de Blasio was deliberately timing the return of ferry service to coincide with an election year to compensate for Mayor de Blasio's neglect of Far Rockaway.  Last summer, one local publication, The Rockaway Times, published an editorial, calling the mayor a "One Term Bill," as a result of community frustrations over Mayor de Blasio's disregard and neglect of their community's needs.

In response to the mayor's 2017 ferry plan, The Rockaway Times published a cover asking whether the plan was a "ferry tale or fairy tale."

After just one year in office, Mayor de Blasio has engendered so much skepticism about his credibility. 

Government reform

Although Mayor de Blasio called on Albany to enforce New York City's rent regulations, Mayor de Blasio did not address two main points :  the political corruption crisis currently playing out between New York City and Albany and the corruptive role of real estate developers and their lobbyists in corrupting Albany's role in New York City's rent regulations.  

The omission of the political corruption crisis from Mayor de Blasio's address ought to be concerning, given that U.S. Attorney Bharara addressed the issue in his own speech of two weeks ago, when he said of state legislators, "They decide about how much we pay for rent and housing and taxes," adding that these were some of the "issues that go to the core of the case" against former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side). 

As the city élite were assembled to hear Mayor de Blasio deliver his state of the city speech, Councilmember Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) was arrested and arraigned on five new counts of corruption.  Yet, Mayor de Blasio was silent about the on-going arrests of elected officials in New York City and in Albany, indicating a denial about the political realities that corrupt or thwart reforms, even those like his plan to minimally increase or preserve affordable housing stock in New York City by only 200,000 units.  

Police reform

On the morning of Mayor de Blasio's state of the city address, a group of activists protested outside Baruch College in sub-freezing temperatures, calling attention to Mayor de Blasio's broken promise to end race-based policing, specifically the Broken Windows theory of policing that deliberately targets low-income and minority communities, by the New York Police Department.  

As it was, with protesters outside the site of Mayor de Blasio's address, he did not address the demands for police reform during his speech.

One day after Mayor de Blasio's address, his failure to address police reform issues triggered a backlash press conference on the steps of City Hall by police reform groups with close political ties to Mayor de Blasio, leading former Councilmember Albanese, who is seen as a supporter of police officers, to note that Mayor de Blasio had managed to alienate both rank and file police officers and police reform activists.

Further conflict with Governor Cuomo

Governor Cuomo has expressed his disapproval for a large-scale construction project of affordable housing over Sunny Side Yards, telling NY1 that the mayor's proposal was "problematic," adding that he wants the site to remain as a rail yard.  Governor Cuomo has confused his position by also saying he continued to support his won proposal to construct a large convention center over Sunny Side Yards.

With Mayor de Blasio undeterred, the situation is expected to set up another clash in priorities between City Hall and Albany, similar to the conflict that erupted last year over Governor Cuomo's support for charter schools as Mayor de Blasio sought funding for an expansion of pre-kinder.

During the state of the city speech, Mayor de Blasio also pressed for an increase in the minimum wage for New York City to $13 per hour by 2016.  Under Mayor de Blasio's proposal, the minimum wage would be indexed to inflation, promising, under Mayor de Blasio's optimistic forecasts, to reach $15 per hour only three years later, by 2019, even though the change in the unadjusted 12-month Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers in the United States for the period ending December 2014 was 0.8%, making a three year rise to $15 certainly unrealistic and entirely impossible. 

To add insult to Mayor de Blasio's unrealistic minimum wage proposal is that Governor Cuomo has said that the state legislature would need to approve of the mayor's minimum wage plan.  Under the influence of big business campaign donors and their lobbying interests, the Democratic Party-controlled Assembly and the Republican Party-controlled State Senate would face opposition to the mayor's wage plan.