New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days—a partnership between The Nation and City Limits.
Last year, Michael Bloomberg’s final state of the city address fell on his birthday and took place in the gleaming Barclays Center, the NBA arena at the centerpiece of the controversial Atlantic Yards development project. There were banners hanging from the rafters celebrating the mayor’s accomplishments. The Nets dancers performed. A man waving a massive New York City flag led the mayor in.
Today, Bill de Blasio’s first State of the City was in the arena at a community college in Queens. There was a sign-language interpreter on stage who would extend her arms upward and shake her hands when people clapped. But she didn’t use that sign too often, because de Blasio’s speech featured a lot of long, very serious passages devoid of applause lines.
Symbolism is cheap. Bloomberg, last year, was giving a valedictory talk; de Blasio is just a rookie. But the packaging wasn’t the only difference between the speeches.
There were direct policy disagreements. Bloomberg used his final SOTC to defend stop-and-frisk, while de Blasio threw a few more clumps of dirt on the policy’s casket. De Blasio championed broader paid sick leave, an expanded living wage, a higher minimum wage for the five boroughs and municipal ID cards for everyone regardless of immigration status. De Blasio also set an ambitious goal: that in eight years, most people in the city with skilled technology jobs will be public-school products. It was a de Blasio twist on Bloomberg’s commitment to building the tech sector in town, which was a wise move but one whose benefits—in the absence of policy to correct their course—might bypass the city’s lower- and moderate-income people.
But it was more than that. De Blasio’s oratory about income inequality sounds familiar by now. But he continues to sharpen the critique of what’s wrong in the city. Here’s one passage:
…[M]ake no mistake about the motives of those in our most hard-pressed communities. They don’t typically look to the rich with anger…. they aren’t consumed with jealousy or spite. They are simply in search of the city that they signed up for—one that rewards not just wealth, but work. A city that honors the notion that a single mom taking the subway to her job as a housekeeper deserves to see her efforts rewarded, just as readily as the family who owns the home she cleans. That the young man who stocks the shelves deserves the same respect and chance at a decent life as the executive who owns the store.
New York will only work when it works as one city. And here’s why: Despair does not dissipate. Those who are discouraged—even hopeless—about their future…cannot contribute their labor or energy or values to their neighborhoods, or to the neighborhoods that sit just a short subway ride away. It’s as simple as this: the American dream does not work without hope. The dream that New York has always been…does not function if people believe their chance at a better future is out of reach.
By no means did De Blasio’s more sober staging of the SOTC make it more modest than Bloomberg’s.
In lieu of the Nets dancers or a man with a flag, de Blasio’s first SOTC featured Catherine La Guardia, granddaughter of the late mayor. “Many mayors have wanted to be compared to him,” she said of her grandfather. “Bill de Blasio plans to actually earn it.” Someday we’ll argue over whether he has, but it is striking to read in Mason Williams’ excellent book City of Ambition, which chronicles the relationship between La Guardian and FDR, about how the Little Flower sized up the economic crisis of his day:
The fundamental cause of the economic crisis, La Guardia (and many other progressives) believed, was not the advance of technology or greater production in itself; rather it was the fact that the benefits of labor saving machinery had gone almost entirely to the wealthy. Recovery would come only when the economy was adjusted such that the benefits of mechanized production went to all—not only those who owned machinery …”We cannot stop progress; but the trouble is that legislation has not kept abreast of progress in the sciences, in chemistry in electricity, in mechanics, in transportation and in other modern methods of production,”[La Guardia said].”
The mayor continued, Williams writes: “Our situation is not temporary.”
Read Next: D.D. Guttenplan on what de Blasio can learn from New York’s last radical mayor, Fiorello La Guardia
Development defined Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty. Whether you think the former mayor revitalized a stagnating city with its work at Hudson Yards and the Brooklyn waterfront, or blasted a gentrification superhighway through places like Harlem and Greenpoint—or did some combination of both—Bloomberg’s approach to land use is central to your admiration or critique.
That’s no surprise. Land is the ultimate non-renewable resource and decisions about it shape the city for decades. The tenure of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who as a councilman was not usually a foe of big real-estate projects, will be shaped by how he handles development. What gets built and for whom is a factor that helps drive income inequality and determines the kind of lives the haves and have-nots lead in the city.
On Friday, de Blasio named one of his transition co-chairs, Carl Weisbrod, to be the new chairman of the City Planning Commission and the commissioner of the Department of City Planning. Weisbrod will play a crucial role in crafting de Blasio’s development impact. Everyone will be watching to see how his approach to big projects (like the controversial East Midtown rezoning that the council killed during Bloomberg’s last weeks in office) differs from that of his predecessor, Amanda Burden.
But to some city planners, focusing on zoning will only repeat the mistakes of the past.
“Zoning is only a regulatory framework,” says Tom Angotti, a Hunter College professor and veteran planner. “When we teach planning, we teach the general consensus that zoning should follow planning. First you decide what kind of city you’d like, then you come up with the regulatory framework to support that.”
What Angotti means is that zoning just determines how big the buildings can be and whether you can build a factory or a supermarket or an apartment building (or all three) on a particular corner. It doesn’t figure out where to locate bus lines, or how to obtain the classroom space that new residential buildings will necessitate. It doesn’t figure out how a particular neighborhood’s change is going to fit into what’s happening all over the city.
Some of the Bloomberg administration’s zoning changes did reflect a deeper sense of where the city is going—the planning around the waterfronts are one example. But even these were isolated from broader thinking. Did it make sense to build so much on the water’s edge with sea-level rise more inescapable reality than mere risk? PlaNYC grappled with some of these issues but never drilled down into the details that would make it an actual, comprehensive plan for New York, which is something the city has never had.
And it’s not just the lack of a plan that hurts—it’s the lack of a process. Comprehensive planning (it doesn’t have to be citywide, maybe by borough, Angotti says) would force the city to adopt a process that involved communities early on, inviting them to offer ideas and not just react—usually negatively—to proposals for change that are dropped on them as faits accompli. That dynamic rewards developers, who have the resources and focus to drive the agenda.
“Right now the system works very well for developers, and doesn’t work for others,” says Michael Mintz, like Angotti a member of a progressive Planners Network. “Progressive planning would basically switch that around.”
Critics will say that delving into a years-long, very expensive, inclusive planning exercise will only produce a plan that’s out of date before it’s done. But what Mintz and Angotti have in mind is something more nimble, and ongoing. And let’s face it, not having a plan doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan: It just means the plan is being crafted narrowly and episodically by developers or the few neighborhoods that have access to the levers of political power (like the broad swath of Staten Island that achieved a sweeping downzoning early in the Bloomberg era).
Improving the city’s planning process, and its plan, takes more than principle. The Department of City Planning pulled off quite a feat by rezoning 40 percent of the city during the Bloomberg years on a modest budget. It will need more resources to help the city craft a borader map for our future. De Blasio’s budget, due soon, may indicate whether the new administration will simply give us fewer, or less offensive, development-driven rezonings, or a blueprint into which the aspirations of residents and real-estate companies all fit.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg asks, “Can Bill de Blasio stop gentrification?”
The Gay Officers Action League on Friday released a statement on Mayor de Blasio’s decision to not march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan.
“It’s 2014, 17 states allow gay marriage, and public attitudes across the country show support for equality and equal treatment for LGBT people. I appeal to the organizers to re-evaluate their position on exclusion and follow the lead of the Boy Scouts of America. Stop trying to divide NYC and do the right and moral thing: allow LGTB people to march in this important parade,” said Carl Locke, the president of GOAL and an NYPD detective.
A GOAL statement continued: “A city employee’s decision to not march due to discrimination is a personal one that sends a powerful message to the organizers, like Mayor de Blasio. We welcome and encourage such allies to come forward. GOAL hopes the organizers are listening and paying attention. GOAL, however, respects the decision of city employees and individuals who march in the parade to express their Irish pride.”
If you didn’t like Bill de Blasio’s politics or personality, surely the fact that he clearly adores his wife Chirlane McCray would endear him to you a little bit, no? Their mutual affection was on display yesterday when the mayor named the first lady to chair the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, a twenty-year-old nonprofit that’s legally and financially independent of city government but raises money to support public initiatives.
The mayor also named Gabrielle Fialkoff, the finance chair of his inaugural committee, as director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships, which oversees the Mayor’s Fund and other nonprofits, including the Fund for Public Schools and the Fund for Public Health.
These organizations do a lot of good. The Fund for Public Health fights obesity and tobacco use. The Fund for Public Schools upgrades school libraries. And the Fund to Advance NYC has helped keep the absolutely critical Summer Youth Employment Program alive.
They also raise and spend a lot of money. According to the most recent available tax documents, in 2011 the school fund had a $25 million budget, which is more than the combined budgets of all five borough presidents. The Fund to Advance spent $37 million, which is more than the city spends on the departments of investigation or city planning. The Fund for Public Health spent $51 million, which is … well, just a lot of money.
The funding for these organizations comes from donations, and that’s where things get fuzzy. Only donations of $5,000 or more have to be reported to the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board. There we learn that last year, for example, donors to the mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City included Coca-Cola, Bank of America, News Corp., several local real-estate players and other businesses, as well as individual donors and foundations. But we don’t know very much about what each gave, because those donations are reported only in broad categories, like $500,000 to $999,000.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with people making donations; my organization, City Limits, would not exist but for the generosity of foundations and individual donors. Most of the donors to these mayoral funds give for the very best reasons. But the concern that arises is whether these funds allow businesses and people to circumvent the campaign finance system—both its limits and its disclosure—by cutting a check to support a mayor’s pet causes. The Fund for Public Schools, for instance, did a lot of work on teacher evaluation (one of Bloomberg’s faves) under the former administration.
“People with business before the city can make contributions to people running for office, and make gifts to nonprofits that clearly support elected officials’ agendas,” says Dick Dadey, head of Citizens Union, a good government group. For the city-linked nonprofits, “the level of disclosure and reporting is nil and as these organizations have grown in size and influence, it’s something we should take a look at.”
Needless to say, this is not a concern that arises because de Blasio is mayor or because the first lady is going to be running one of the funds. Potential problems created by the expanded role of philanthropy in the public policy sphere—and of a public servant, Mayor Bloomberg, in the philanthropy sphere—came up several times during the previous mayor’s three terms.
When Bloomberg was pushing to overturn term limits, and nonprofits whom he’d supported came forward to testify in favor of an extension, it struck a lot of us as unseemly. Earlier, when a high-priced consultancy did work for the Fund for Public Schools, and then parlayed their inside position into a lucrative, no-bid contract with the city Department of Education, it stuck a lot of us as very shady.
There is always a deeper question about where the line between government and private charity should lie. That debate goes back centuries. Funding public policy outside the checks and balances of government allows innovation, and limits oversight. It also gives weight to private choices in a way that the tax system doesn’t. The tradeoffs are clear.
But the new mayor doesn’t have to choose a side in that debate to improve the system. Full disclosure of all donations to these funds would provide more transparency without rebuffing anyone willing to cut a check to help the city.
Read Next: Laura Flanders interviews NYC’s new public advocate Letitia James.
Bill de Blasio is not going to take part in New York City’s main St. Patrick’s Day parade in March because the organizers bar gay and lesbian groups from marching. He’ll become the first mayor to skip the parade since David Dinkins did in 1993—an election year—two years after Dinkins had beer cans thrown at him by parade observers for the affront of marching with gay groups rather than at the parade’s head. The city comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will refrain from marching this year as well.
Some want the city to go further and bar uniformed police officers and firefighters from participating. James, Mark Green and dozens of other current and former officials joined in signing an open letter to de Blasio arguing that “the presence of uniformed police and firefighters in such a procession sends a clear signal to LGBTQ New Yorkers that these personnel, who are charged with serving and protecting all New Yorkers, do not respect the lives or safety of LGBT people.”
But de Blasio yesterday refused to take that step. “I believe that uniformed city workers have a right to participate if they choose to, and I respect that right,” he said.
St. Patrick’s Day, which has been celebrated with a parade in New York since 1762, is a Catholic feast day on the anniversary of the death of a historical figure who, the story goes, drove the snakes out of Ireland, and who personifies the island’s Christianization. The Catholic church considers gay and lesbian sex sinful. So the argument parade organizers have made in barring gay groups (individual gays are officially welcome to march, as they doubtless have for centuries) is that it’s a religious celebration.
But St. Patrick’s Day has long had other connotations, most fundamentally in the “wearing of the green,” which is essentially a nationalist homage to the United Irishmen, who fought, lost, were tortured and killed in the rebellion of 1798—one of many attempts to end the occupation of Ireland by the British Crown, which did everything it could to exterminate the Irish language, culture and, yes, religion. Irish national identity and faith are inextricably linked, but they are not synonymous: Wolfe Tone, one of the heroes of the 1798 rebellion, was a Protestant. The song about the rebellion and the “Wearing of the Green” includes a nod to American notions of inclusion and equality:
But if at last our color should be torn from Ireland’s heart, her sons with shame and sorrow from the dear old sod will part.
I’ve heard a whisper of a country that lies beyond the sea, where rich and poor stand equal in the light of freedom’s day.
Oh, Erin! Must we leave you, driven by the tyrant’s hand? Must we ask a mother’s welcome from a strange but happy land?
Where the cruel cross of England’s thralldom never shall be seen and where in peace we’ll live and die a-wearing of the green.
Let’s face it, modern St. Patrick’s Day has little to do either with Catholic practice or the enduring hope of unifying all thirty-two counties. Frankly, it has little to do with being Irish. “Danny Boy” was written by an English guy who apparently never set foot in Ireland. Some of the naughtier “Kiss me, I’m Irish” gear is not the sort of garb old St. Pat would let his sister wear. Green beer and plastic hats? So embarassing.
Still, the notion that people should be able to stand up and say who they are—Irish, Catholic, gay or whatever—is one of the threads that links the day and the parade to something meaningful and resonant for all people.
Eventually, the St. Patrick’s Day parade will realize that excluding gay groups defiles that legacy, because society’s evolution on LGBTQ rights is inexorable. For now, though, its organizers have the legal right to exclude whomever they want. The issue is whether the city, which does have the right to prevent a uniformed city employee from wearing that uniform to an event, should allow cops and firefighters to participate in uniform in a parade that bars groups because of their sexual orientation.
“The NYPD and FDNY’s participation in the parade is hugely questionable under the law—and the fact that the mayor doesn’t seem concerned with remedying this problem is as disturbing legally as it is morally and politically,” said Alan Levine, an attorney associated with the Center for Constitutional Rights, after de Blasio’s statement. “If the guarantee of respect for equality and dignity that is embedded in human rights law and the constitution means anything, it surely means that uniformed police—who are charged with equal enforcement of the law—should not be parading down a public street conveying a message of contempt for one of our city’s communities.”
De Blasio is taking a significant step by not marching as mayor. He doesn’t want to alienate cops and firefighters, whom he needs to keep the city safe and with whom he’s locked in contract negotiations, by telling them not to march.
Fair enough. The man's got a lot of fish to fry right now. But this year, as a first step, he could do more than simply say that those workers have a right to march. As politically conservative as many of them are, the vast majority of cops and firefighters are decent people who embrace their role as heroes. The mayor could appeal to that decency, and ask the cops to do the right thing and pressure parade organizers to include LGBT groups. Who knows, the organizers may well relent if a core constituency asks for change. Then the whole controversy could go away, and we could all get back to our corned beef. It can't hurt to ask, and appeal to the best in people. It is certainly better than just staying home.
An impossible dream, you say? Not more so than one dude getting all the snakes off an island. I mean, apparently there were never any snakes there, but you know what I mean.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on Russia’s anti-gay legislation and the Sochi Olympic games
In an editorial today, The New York Times calls on Mayor Bill de Blasio “to be bold to the point of confrontational, to endure name-calling, resentment and lower poll numbers. The rap on him is that he hasn’t run anything,” the editorial continues. “The rap on liberal Democrats is that they can’t run this unruly city.”
The Times was specifically referring to de Blasio’s first budget—due February 12—and the tone it will set for negotiating new deals with all the unions representing city workers. More on that in a minute. But the “rap on liberal Democrats” is something Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart brought up Monday night when de Blasio appeared on The Daily Show. The host asked the mayor about fears that the city could return to a time “when it was less orderly and things were more chaotic and how do you tell people that is not the case?” Here was de Blasio’s answer:
“Whenever you see a progressive moment, whenever you see progressive leaders come in to office, that charge is thrown in one way or another.… It’s specious. It’s not true. The bottom line is, we know the great threat to this country is inequality, the great threat to this city is inequality.… People need a core hope in our society. They need a core amount of visible opportunity. And that’s been slipping away. So if you want to talk about destabilizing realities in our society, talk about inequality.”
As Dan Morris—the former Red Horse Strategies consultant who recently launched a new advisory firm called Progressive Cities—notes, de Blasio’s ability to deliver real change in the city actually depends upon a sense of emergency. “You need to create and sustain an urgency of crisis around an issue,” like universal pre-k (UPK), Morris says. That’s why de Blasio has clearly pursued an inside strategy in the corridors of power in Albany, and a very aggressive public campaign, rallying union leaders, business bigshots and nonprofit and academic luminaries to the cause; he even had his wife voice a commercial hyping it.
The lack of a sense of crisis around economic justice, at least in the mayor’s suite at City Hall, is one reason, Morris adds, “so much of the progressive urban policy over the past decade happened in other cities and then served as a model for people in New York and elsewhere in other cities to replicate.” San Francisco led the way on paid sick leave, Los Angeles broke ground on the living wage and community schools took root in Cincinnati.
Here in New York, when finally acknowledged as real, inequality was often dismissed as something that municipal policy couldn’t really address. “I know the argument, but I’ve never been persuaded by it. It’s total nonsense and rubbish,” Morris argues. “If that were true then why would there be this growing movement to get paid sick leave? Why this growing movement to get the living wage?”
But that notion fueled the naysaying around the UPK plan, which was treated as a pie-in-the-sky idea by many during the mayoral campaign. Now, a month into de Blasio’s mayoralty, “they’ve already re-framed the debate and gotten Cuomo to move very far on this issue,” Morris notes. “They haven’t won yet, but they’re in a winning position.”
What it all means is that de Blasio is walking along a few different tight-ropes. He has to neutralize the fear of a return of an urban crisis when it comes to crime and the budget, but cultivate a sense of crisis around inequality. At the same time, he has to make it clear that the inequality crisis is not so overwhelming that city policies can’t make a difference. And he has to avoid alienating anyone enough that his large store of political capital gets whittled down.
So far the latter seems to be what’s happening; the business community has been pretty acquiescent about the expansion of sick leave and the UPK tax push. “One of the things he prides himself on is he’s a person who looks at every issue from every angle like a masterful strategist,” says DC37 political director Wanda Williams of de Blasio. “I suppose what’s happening is he’s trying to figure out how to be accommodating—I don’t mean giving anything up to the business community, but making them comfortable with him.”
One way de Blasio has done that is with his totally un-radical personnel choices so far. More are supposed to come today or later this week, which is good because the slowness of the transition empowers people who want to go back to that rap the Times referenced. (DC37, at least, is not alarmed by the slow roll-out. For her part, Williams says, “I think one of the things he’s been very good at is assembling a staff. I think he’s been very deliberative at finding people who share his values.”)
As the Times points out, now de Blasio has to figure out how to deal with the unions and their pent-up demands for raises, both for the future and for past years. This might not be as difficult as everyone thinks. At least publicly, some in labor are talking modestly about what they expect to get. “We are hopeful that we’re going to get something—it might not be everything we want, but unions in the past four few years have gotten nothing from the previous administration,” Williams says. Workers want raises, but “it’s also important to us that people have a decent city to live in.”
It might not be as simple or friendly as that when unions and de Blasio’s negotiators are across the table from each other. Everyone seems to know that the city is going to pay a big tab left over from the Bloomberg years, but probably not the full IOU the unions are presenting. Since it’s known that it will be a costly episode, the big thing for de Blasio is to just get it out of the way, and not have the labor negotiations become a crisis unto themselves.
Once the labor deals are done, and the UPK fight ends, the question is what will come once those two familiar storylines are gone. “What you’re likely to see is a large-scale effort, spanning a number of priority issues for the left, to sustain a political moment that’s conducive to getting things done,” says Morris. There are lots of crises to talk about.
Read Next: The editors on Obama’s “Year of Action” to fight inequality
Snow is falling in New York City today, meaning Mayor Bill de Blasio’s skills as a manager are again being tested. While less than a foot of snow seems more like a quiz than a test, the new mayor is still in his probationary period. Everything carries a little more weight.
But although de Blasio and the city are still getting used to each other, some clear themes of the de Blasio era are emerging just thirty-four days into his mayoralty (one-third through the first 100 days, but who’s counting?):
1) Elections matter, a lot
The de Blasio administration has moved very swiftly to change policy—like dropping the city’s appeal of the stop-and-frisk program, ending the NYPD’s impact program, pursuing a new law to expand paid sick leave and signaling less financial support for charter schools. None of these moves were surprises, as they’re what candidate de Blasio campaigned on, but that’s precisely the point: he promised a break with the Bloomberg era, and that’s very much what we’re getting.
2) It takes him a long time to make very safe personnel choices.
Word is de Blasio is going to make a slew of appointments this week, which is good news, as the pace of the transition has begun to worry even his allies, what with de Blasio’s first budget due soon. The slow pace would seem to confirm the notion that management is not the new mayor’s strongpoint, but the names he has settled on are such veteran, establishment players that he’s insulated himself from any mainstream criticism that he’s not steering straight. De Blasio says he’s taking a long time because he wants to be sure he’s naming the right people to the job. Some on the left are hoping to see a few inspiring choices among the next batch to strike a balance between de Blasio’s need to demonstrate that the city will be well-run (by installing Bloomberg and Giuliani veterans in key posts) and the desire for change that the voters expressed by electing him.
3) Does New York have a new “fucking steamroller”?
Eliot Spitzer infamously called himself a “fucking steamroller,” a description of the take-no-prisoners approach that ultimately undercut his governorship even before we learned about the call girls and the black socks. De Blasio would never say anything so indelicate. But his role in the election of ally Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker and his announcing a plan to expand sick leave via legislation that most of the City Council hadn’t yet seen made it clear that de Blasio—who often mentions the size of his electoral mandate—is not shy about using power aggressively.
While there’s no evidence yet that the mayor is vindictive (so far we’ve not uncovered an e-mail reading “Time for some traffic problems on the approach to the Holland Tunnel… er, I mean, more traffic!”) people in the advocacy world are very careful about saying anything critical of the new mayor lest they tick him off. And the AIPAC incident suggested that de Blasio’s vow of transparency is a secondary priority to personal ideology and political calculation (his rip-roarin’ pro-Israel speech was laced with both).
4) Like Bloomberg, he makes bold promises.
Mike Bloomberg famously promised to substantially reduce homelessness and poverty, and he notably failed on either count. In the twilight of the Bloomberg mayoralty some wondered if his successor would be so bold/foolish as to make similar big promises. It appears de Blasio is that bold/foolish. His goal of zero traffic fatalities—and his resetting of NYPD enforcement priorities to accomplish it—is very ambitious. Like Bloomberg, he’ll get credit for trying. But the city’s progress will depend on millions and millions of driver-pedestrian interactions over which the mayor has no control, and will be monitored by an aggressive set of advocates.
5) That inequality stuff? He meant it.
It’s typical for politicians to dial back their rhetoric when they get into office and move from, to paraphrase Mario Cuomo, the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing. But far from de-emphasizing his campaign theme of the tale of two cities, de Blasio has continued to stress inequality at every juncture. Those who were skeptical of de Blasio’s commitment to that cause must be feeling a little more convinced that he meant what he said. By sticking to his guns on the universal pre-k (UPK) tax, forcing Governor Cuomo to go from lukewarm interest in the idea to support for a statewide version of it and then to promise to give the city a “blank check” to pay for it. Even if the tax doesn’t get done, the mayor has already shown the logic of his refusal to consider Plan Bs to pay for the plan over the course of his campaign.
Of course, with forty-seven months remaining in his current term, there’s still plenty of time for de Blasio to prove everything I’ve written above as totally off-base. Over the next few months, we’ll see the remaining appointments, how he navigates the UPK endgame, his approach to getting a budget passed and what kind of deal he strikes with the municipal workers’ unions. When today’s slushy stuff is pushed to the curb, bigger tests await.
Read Next: The editors on why de Blasio is wrong to pander to AIPAC
On Thursday the legal war over the NYPD’s “stop, question and frisk’ policy—which resulted in the questioning of hundreds of thousands of innocent people over the years—ended. Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to settle the case along the lines set out this summer when a federal judge ruled the policy had been carried out unconstitutionally: A court-appointed monitor will oversee the City’s reform of the policy, and the City will engage community members in the reform process.
The announcement was more epilogue than earthquake. The landslide election of de Blasio, whose surge at the end of a long Democratic primary campaign was fueled in part by a brilliant TV ad addressing stop-and-frisk, the fate of the controversial and ineffective program. The court decision, which was briefly marred by a judicial review board criticizing the judge and removing her from the case (only to backtrack a few weeks later), was an earlier nail in the coffin. But the real end of stop-and-frisk as we knew it came months earlier.
In the first quarter of last year, the NYPD stopped 99,788 people—50 percent less than it did over the same period in 2012. In the second quarter, the number of stops dropped 56 percent over 2012. And in the period from July through September, the number of stops in 2013 was 80 percent less than in 2012.
As the Times’s Jim Dwyer noted last month, this statistical reality was almost never acknowledged during the campaign or even after it. But that wasn’t just de Blasio milking an issue that had been good for him. Mayor Bloomberg and then-Commissioner Ray Kelly also acted as if nothing had changed. The argument over stop-and-frisk had become such a clash of principles that no one seemed to notice they were wrestling with a ghost.
Nor did anyone—especially not Joe Lhota, de Blasio’s Republican opponent, who’d darkly warned of the return of the “bad old days”—note that the early evidence was in on the question of whether less frisking would mean more crime. Last year the city saw an overall decrease of stop-and-frisk of around 59 percent, a 20 percent decrease in shootings and a 20 percent decrease in murders.
This strange shadow debate would have been a mere curiosity but for the fact that, after a year when we were all talking about something that no longer existed, now we’re not sure what we’re talking about. De Blasio’s campaign tried to make clear the difference between stop-and-frisk as a strategy and stop-and-frisk as a tactic. The strategy the NYPD employed of stopping hundreds of thousands of people each quarter (often not even with the pretext of suspicion of weapons possession, the ostensible reason for the program) was going to stop. The tactic of allowing police to stop and frisk people whom it suspects of committing a crime was going to continue, because cops have to enforce the law and sometimes you need to touch people to do it.
But what that means is that we don’t know exactly what stopping and frisking under Bill Bratton and de Blasio will look like, or how often it will occur, and whether those things will depend on what the crime rate does. In my reporting for the mayoral campaign this summer, I focused on Brownsville—the almost exclusively black Brooklyn neighborhood where de Blasio made today’s big announcement—and a lot of middle-aged and elderly people there were pretty blasé about stop-and-frisk because they were worried about their safety and wanted cops to be active. The politics of stop-and-frisk aren’t as simple as we’d like to think.
Still, things are moving, because the NYPD saw the political writing on the wall, a federal court saw unconstitutionality, the voters saw something they disliked and the new mayor kept his promise. That is more than Nathaniel Williams, then 25, expected when City Limits reporter Jeanmarie Evelly interviewed him in 2012 about life in an NYPD sector—the sub-precinct area—that had seen among the city’s highest rates of stops.
“It’s like cops and robbers from way back when,” he said. “It’s never gonna change.”
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Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked a good deal about being part of a national effort on behalf of the nation’s cities to get the federal government to recommit to creating affordable housing and upgrading American infrastructure. Just last week he said President Obama “has long been a champion of our cities.” But if Obama did seem to ride—albeit in the shallow waters—the progressive wave that de Blasio’s victory augured, his focus was on popular, big-ticket issues like the minimum wage, healthcare and unemployment insurance.
The proposed hike in the minimum wage is a big deal: for one thing, it would moot the debate over the last four years in New York about whether to impose a “living wage” on firms that build or locate in taxpayer-subsidized developments.
Mayor Bloomberg fought the concept tooth and nail, and the City Council last year passed a version of the idea that was drenched rather than merely watered down. De Blasio has said he’ll expand the law, which mandated wages of $10 an hour, with benefits, or $11 an hour without. Should the federal minimum wage increase to $10.10, it’d significantly close the gap between the state’s current minimum of $8 and the city living wage proposals. (Of course, full-time work at $10.10 an hour gets you just over $21,000 a year—enough to stay above poverty for families of three or fewer, but only enough to afford about $525 in monthly rent, since rent is supposed to be about 30 percent of what you make.)
Obama talked inequality, à la de Blasio, and he called for tax reform to (besides lowering the tax rate for corporations) generate savings for “rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes.”
He also repeated his call for Congress to “help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old.” And he wants to enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit, which narrows the after-tax inequality gap between top earners and those at the bottom.
Finally, the president said he’d “keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook,” although he didn’t say exactly when or what kind of gun control he might support.
But where Obama offered specific policies, they were either familiar (like the minimum wage) or modest (setting up another six federally supported high-tech manufacturing hubs). Obama is sticking to known crowd-pleasers to boost Democrats in the November midterms.
Last week, de Blasio suggested that the nation’s mayors ought to target local members of Congress and the Senate who haven’t voted in cities’ best interests on stuff like funding public housing—which one veteran political insider, speaking just before de Blasio’s inauguration, called “a time bomb” for the new mayor.
Obama mentioned housing twice in last night’s speech—once in reference to a bill on homeownership, and one in boasting that the housing market is rebounding. Maybe next year.
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Mayor Bill de Blasio cannot be accused of haste in filling out his administration. Three weeks into his term, we still have Bloomberg commissioners running housing, social services, fire, sanitation, finance, and on and on. None of those high-profile gaps on the de Blasio depth chart will matter, of course, if in six months’ time the city seems well run, and de Blasio achieves big items on his agenda. In fact, it’s some of the lower-profile posts, which almost no one is talking about, that will make the biggest difference for those living through the worst of times in de Blasio’s “tale of two cities.”
High and rising rent doesn’t cause income inequality—income does—but it’s what makes life truly difficult for people who aren’t rich, because it’s the biggest expense for almost all households. Several government programs try to relieve that pressure, including public housing, Section 8 and the city’s twenty-eight-year commitment to subsidizing the construction and renovation of affordable housing. All are vital, but none really offer much resistance to the insatiable beast that is the New York City real estate market. The only weapon that really does is rent stabilization. More than 987,000 apartments in New York—nearly half of all rental units—are rent-stabilized, meaning annual changes in rent are set by a body called the Rent Guidelines Board, or RGB.
The mayor appoints all nine* members of the RGB—a chair, four “public members,” two people designated to represent tenant interests and two who speak for landlords. In approving rent increases, they are supposed to take into account changes to the costs landlords bear (heat, taxes, labor and so forth) and other economic factors. Every year the RGB has a hearing about how much to raise the rent; in a ritual of political theater as dependable as the tides, tenants and landlords scream at each other and activists do their best to drown out anyone who talks a line they don’t like.
During the Bloomberg era—when the then-mayor saw rising rents as a sign of New York’s success and a validation of his policies—the RGB regularly approved substantial increases in legal rents. An apartment renting for $700 when Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, where the lease was renewed annually, could legally go for $966 to $1,007 by the time Bloomberg headed back to the corporate world. That’s well ahead of the growth in family incomes.
Even during the depths of the recession, as renters’ incomes stagnated and cost increases for landlords were minimal, the RGB increased rents: in 2006 through 2008, the board approved one-year increases as high as 4.5 percent and two-year hikes as high as 8.5 percent. The trend continues: the RGB revealed last year that net income for landlords had increased for seven straight years, that tenant incomes had dropped, that evictions were up and that landlord operating costs were expected to rise a mere 2.6 percent this year. Yet the board, using its formula, raised rents 4 percent.
The impact of these increases went beyond the monthly rent bill; if a rent-regulated apartment’s monthly rent exceeds $2,500 and it is vacated, it exits the rent stabilization program. Last year, 6,700 units lost their rent protection that way. Every time the RGB raises rents, it moves every apartment in the system closer to the exit door.
As of today, there are three vacancies on the RGB that de Blasio can fill—the chair, one public member and one tenant member. Two other members of the board (the other tenant rep and one landlord member) saw their terms expire last month; de Blasio could reappoint them. While he cannot replace any of the other members except for cause, the mayor certainly could swing the RGB into a pro-tenant body with his picks.
“Coming off the Bloomberg years, any appointees who are committed to rent stabilization and do not simply represent real estate interests would be an improvement,” writes Celia Weaver, the assistant director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteaders Assistance Board, in an e-mail. She’d be happy just to see RGB hearings in the outer boroughs. And she adds: “It’d also be great if the RGB prioritized things beyond operating costs in determining increases. In the last few years rent has continued to climb while wages have stagnated, and the RGB should take that into account.”
The de Blasio appointments to the RGB will be a test of how he squares his commitment to progressive action with his political need to keep the real-estate/development community—who donate a lot to campaigns—reasonably happy.
Last year, de Blasio attended an event called the People’s RGB and, according to attendees, called for a rent freeze. “We believe the data on the housing market provided by the RGB’s statistical staff consistently supports tenants’ calls for a rent freeze,” writes Katie Goldstein, the director of organizing at Tenants & Neighbors, in an e-mail. She notes that some members of the RGB in recent years “have been unfamiliar with rent-regulated housing” and says advocates are pushing to tighten the qualifications for RGB membership.
For now, she adds, “There is no shortage of smart, experienced, dedicated people who could sit on the RGB and represent the real needs of the majority of New Yorkers.”
* A previous version of this post erroneously reported that there were eight members of the RGB.
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