There were well over 200 forums in the race for mayor of New York City this year. Forums on housing and crime, on youth issues and senior centers, on the environment and animal rights and health and more. At these forums, candidates got to say what they were going to do to solve problems. Rare was the forum where someone didn’t say they were going to “work to get the federal government to do its share” or something like that. It always sounded like a bit of a dodge.
Turns out Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, at least, was serious about making the pitch to Washington. At an event last week when he named his deputy mayor for health and human services, de Blasio said that he was “going to begin a mission that I look forward to working with my fellow mayors on, certainly work with the president on, to slowly but surely turn the congressional focus in particular back to investments in education, infrastructure, mass transit, housing, the kinds of things that would change New York City so fundamentally,” as highlighted by Bloomberg News.
Mayors of New York have long sought and often gained a national spotlight, from John Lindsay’s role investigating urban riots (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Rudy Giuliani’s reputation as crime-fighter (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Mike Bloomberg’s anti-gun and pro-environment stances (he considered running for president but didn’t bother).
There was an element of self-promotion involved in each of these bids for coast-to-coast attention. Duh. But they were driven by policy reality, too. Bloomberg’s bid for sane gun laws was a reflection of the fact that the city is never going to solve its violence problem until the flow of guns purchased legally in other states stops. And even if every building installed a green roof and every worker biked in to the office, climate change was never a problem that New York was going to solve alone.
This is particularly true for de Blasio’s agenda. The skeptic’s trump card these days on income inequality is not that it’s nonexistent or nonproblematic, but that it’s the result of massive economic forces like globalization and increasing returns to technology—forces that the city of New York cannot resist by its lonesome.
That’s not entirely true—from its tax system to its approach to zoning and development, there are ways city policy affects the distribution of income and wealth—but it’s true enough that if de Blasio is going to make good on his promise to, as he put it last week, “address income inequality forcefully and directly,” he’s going to need federal help.
Even just maintaining city services as they are will be an effort. About 11 percent of the city’s current $72 billion budget comes from federal grants—which, in the Bloomberg administration’s current projection, are set to shrink from $8.1 billion this year to $6.3 billion in fiscal 2015.
Few areas of city policy are as directly affected by federal budget decisions as housing—especially public housing, which has suffered mightily from inadequate funding of annual operating expenses and capital support going back several years. The New York City Housing Authority, which houses a city the size of Baltimore in its traditional public housing and Section 8 apartments, has a $6 billion capital backlog and faces a nine-figure operating deficit this year. If de Blasio could simply get Washington to stop cheating on its commitments to public housing, that would be a major win for low-income people in the city. But the very strength of public housing’s role in New York, compared to most places, complicates the national argument. The five boroughs have 179,000 units of traditional public housing. The number-two city, Chicago, has 23,000; New York has more public housing than the next twenty-two cities combined. So, while public housing is no doubt important to all those cities, thanks to two decades of initiatives to demolish and replace federally constructed homes, New York has a lot more to lose than anywhere else if public housing is allowed to wither on the vine.
Other aspects of the urban agenda—mass transit, for instance—might have more universal appeal. But the federal ambivalence towards cities is not a Tea Party trend. As the mayor-elect noted last week, “The federal government used to feel a commitment to our cities. That has been cut and cut and cut some more since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980,” even as cities have become more important to the country’s economy.
Urban issues drove the last two waves of progressive national policy. The New Deal reflected, to a great extent, a partnership between the Roosevelt administration and forward-thinking urban leaders like Fiorello LaGuardia and Edward Flynn, the Bronx Democratic boss who was one of FDR’s key advisers. The Great Society aimed squarely at urban poverty and political engagement. The former wave reshaped many cities; the latter didn’t get much chance to, overtaken as it was by a conservative wave that wrapped itself around a rural, agrarian myth of the “real” America. President Obama promised to change that, creating a cabinet-level post for urban policy and some pilot programs to foster transit-oriented development and attack concentrated poverty, but these were all slowed down by the budget wars with Republicans.
Now de Blasio will try to change that. “All of the capacity that our cities have being maximized is the best thing that could happen to the United States,” he said last week. Meanwhile, his predecessor Mike Bloomberg will, according to a City Hall notice, give his final major speech this week “on the rise of American cities, the strategies needed to continue urban progress and the threats cities face.”
Read Next: Rick Perlstein on the military-industrial complex in Chicago.