It’s been four years since Bill de Blasio first stood on the steps of City Hall and, placing his hand on a Bible that had once belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took the oath of office to become New York City’s 109th mayor. It was a frigid day, bitter and blustery, but after 20 years without a Democratic mayor, his inauguration seemed to herald a new moment of egalitarian possibility in New York City. De Blasio had run for mayor as an unabashed progressive, energizing a previously untapped base of urban activists—and earning The Nation’s endorsement—through what we called his “commitment to reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms.” As he stood at the dais, tall and slender as a skyscraper, he vowed to make good on his campaign promises.
“Today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” de Blasio declared in a speech that invoked the word “progressive” six times in just 1,885 words. “So let me be clear. When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it.”
Four years later, as de Blasio heads back to City Hall, this time after taking the oath of office from Bernie Sanders, he finds himself at the helm of a city that is, indeed, less Dickensian. Thanks to a collection of creative interventions, New York has made real progress on the path to a more humane city. It has instituted a universal pre-Kindergarten (UPK) program that provides free early-childhood education to nearly 70,000 young New Yorkers—and has saved parents an estimated $1.4 billion. It settled almost all of the municipal-union contracts that had expired under the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, giving retroactive pay raises to thousands of New Yorkers while recommitting to the principle of collective bargaining. It has expanded paid sick leave; instituted a municipal ID card; and adopted a $15 minimum wage for both city employees and nonprofit human-services contractors—all of it adding up to what veteran journalist Juan González hailed as “an unprecedented multibillion-dollar improvement in the economic life of the city’s working-class and poor majority.”
Along the way, the de Blasio administration has engineered other interventions, often less visible but no less worthy. It overturned years of harsh welfare policy that had victimized poor New Yorkers from the days of Rudolph Giuliani through Bloomberg. It created new protections for freelancers as well as an Office of Labor Policy and Standards to enforce labor law and educate workers about workplace rights. It spearheaded a Community Parks Initiative, and far more.
And yet: with expectations often come disappointments, and de Blasio’s first term has not been without its failures and reversals. Pay-to-play corruption allegations have hobbled the mayor’s credibility, while recent revelations that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) failed to conduct lead-paint inspections for four years—and then covered up the lapse for at least one year—suggest not only an egregious management failure but also a shocking disregard for the lives of the city’s poorest residents. At the same time, the mayor has too often tiptoed back from the edge of truly bold initiatives, frustrating some of the very allies who helped catapult him to the west side of City Hall four years ago. And while poverty has declined during his tenure—dropping from approximately 21 percent to 18.9 percent at the end of 2016—New York remains, unmistakably and unremittingly, a tale of two cities.
Now, however, the mayor has a second chance, a final, four-year opportunity to make good on his promise to make New York “the fairest big city in America”—and to do so at a moment not only when so many of his own constituents remain desperately in need, but also when the very idea of effective, democratic, compassionate government is under daily assault. To do this will not be easy and will require tenacity, vision, and a progressive compass firm enough to weather the inevitable opposition. It will also require juggling multiple actions on multiple fronts at once.
Here are five areas where de Blasio can, and must, go bold if he is to seize the opportunities of a second term and make the deeds of his mayoralty match his soaring rhetoric.
As rents continue to skyrocket, zooming north at twice the rate of wages, New York’s affordability crisis has become the signal symbol of inequality in the city—and the challenge the de Blasio administration must confront, with vigor and creativity, if it is to narrow the gap between the two New Yorks. To his credit, the mayor has advanced a number of critical initiatives, including right-to-counsel legislation for low-income New Yorkers facing eviction and a two-year rent freeze. But his administration has fumbled in other areas, most notably advancing an affordable housing plan that, for all its ambitions, fails to meet the needs of the poorest New Yorkers while risking gentrification of low-income neighborhoods in the process.
As a first crucial corrective, the administration must rework this housing plan, funneling the majority of resources toward building deeply affordable housing—the kind that’s available to extremely low-income households—which is where the need and numbers are greatest. This may well require scaling back the overall scope of the plan and dipping deeper into the city’s capital budget; it may also require revamping its development model to rely even more on mission-driven developers than on for-profit ones; and it will certainly require instituting an across-the-board policy that reserves all public land for affordable housing—but in an age when a third of the city’s renters spend more than half their income on rent and utilities, these steps are not only justified but necessary.
Similarly necessary: the mayor must continue to lobby Albany to tighten rent regulations—specifically, to remove (or, at the very least, dramatically increase) the $2700 rent-stabilization cap as well as to dump the “vacancy bonus” (known by its critics as an “eviction bonus”) and the preferential-rent system. New York is a city of renters—a town where two-thirds of all dwellings are occupied by people who pay by the month—which means that progressive changes to the rent-regulation regime can have sprawling, positive effects. It also makes it all the more outrageous that the mayor must head to Albany, hand extended, to beg the governor and state legislature to do what’s best for his constituents. But he should keep doing it, keep pushing for better rent laws and for a mansion tax to fund affordable senior housing. New Yorkers will cheer him as he does.
A society is measured by the fate of its most vulnerable, and with more than 60,000 people sleeping in homeless shelters each night, and many more on the street, the city clearly needs to do better. De Blasio’s recent move to begin converting 800 cluster-site units into permanent housing is a necessary step in the right direction and one that should be expanded as time goes on, since the ultimate solution to homelessness is, and always has been, a home. But the city can do more to move people out of shelters, beginning with reserving at least 3,000 NYCHA apartments for homeless families each year as well as carving out units for homeless families in its affordable-housing construction plan.
Now that de Blasio has proved with UPK that he can successfully roll out a sprawling educational game-changer, it’s time for him to turn the energy and resources he poured into that effort into transforming the school system for the remainder of New York City students—namely, the 1.1 million kindergartners through 12th graders who attend public school each year. So far, his efforts have been more mixed in that realm. Despite a number of noble new programs—among them, universal free lunch and expanded free after-school activities for middle schoolers—the system remains cloven by inequality, with a cohort of wealthier, often whiter students enjoying top-notch schools with flush PTAs, while a poorer, browner majority struggle to graduate from more challenged programs.
As a critical first step to narrowing this educational chasm, de Blasio must begin to take on—and dismantle—the extreme segregation that defines the school system. While the mayor and his outgoing schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, offered up a “diversity” plan this past June, critics rightly labeled it as too tentative to make any kind of meaningful change in the system. More vision and, yes, more audacity, are required, beginning with setting more ambitious integration benchmarks, as well as more aggressive goals for reducing economic stratification. Another crucial step: calling the situation by its name—segregation.
Class size and school overcrowding also remain pressing concerns, with roughly a third of all students stuffed into classrooms with more than 30 kids, according to a report by the nonprofit Class Size Matters. It will be up to the mayor and new chancellor to find the resources to bring down the numbers—to continue, for instance, to push Albany to fulfill its obligations under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit—as well as to innovate in a raft of other areas. The good news is that de Blasio does seem to be aware that he needs to do more, having vowed that education will be “the mission I will be most focused on” during his second term. Now he needs to fill in the details.
When de Blasio was first elected, partly on the strength of his promise to end the city’s racially-charged stop-and-frisk practices, he faced the double challenge of living up to his commitments to communities targeted by the Police Department while facing down skeptics who warned that the new “soft-on-crime mayor” would return the city to its “bad old days.” Four years later, the skeptics have been proved overwhelmingly wrong. As 2017 draws to a close, New York is on track to log the fewest homicides, as well as the fewest major felonies, since the city began keeping reliable records. And the crime rate has dropped even as the NYPD, spurred by de Blasio administration policies, makes fewer arrests and pulls back on practices like stop-and-frisk. It has also initiated a community-policing program.
Yet, even amid the good news, New Yorkers of color remain disproportionate targets of the NYPD, their lives upended, their children incarcerated, their parents harmed and abused by a criminal-justice system that remains riven by injustice. As he moves into his next term, de Blasio’s job will be to close this justice gap, even if it means bumping up against the Police Department, and he can do this by continuing to press the NYPD to further rein in stop-and-frisk and by jettisoning what remains of the city’s “broken windows” policing, which involves aggressively cracking down on petty crimes like public urination and has not been shown to work. (Thanks to legislation passed by the City Council in 2016, the NYPD has started to take some of the sting out of broken-windows policing, but activists warn that poor New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color still face excessive police enforcement for low-level infractions, including marijuana possession.)
As important, de Blasio must dig down into the gnarled and complex process of closing Rikers Island and advance it—accelerate it—to such a point that the complex will be irrevocably on the path to closure by the time de Blasio exits Gracie Mansion. This will require real political risks and the skill to navigate those risks. It will mean rethinking how the city approaches pre-trial detention and where to situate smaller replacement jails and whether any one borough can forego housing a jail simply because it would be politically unpopular. None of this will be easy, but it is necessary if the mayor wants to rid the city of an institution so backward and malign it wouldn’t have been out of place in Dickens’s London.
Finally, the time has long come for the de Blasio administration to get serious about police accountability, to make sure that officers who engage in brutality or abuse—officers like Daniel Pantaleo, who was responsible for Eric Garner’s death—are stripped of their jobs and brought to account. Otherwise, there is little hope of building community trust.
With 662 miles of track transporting more than 1.75 billion people a year through five boroughs, night and day, the New York City subway system is a colossus of urban public infrastructure and a fundamentally progressive force. It is also, however, falling apart, having been underfunded and neglected by successive New York State governors as well as the federal government.
As the problems have become apparent, de Blasio has responded in ways that are accurate but not necessarily adequate: by simultaneously reminding New Yorkers that responsibility for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) lies with the governor and calling on the state legislature to instate a modest “millionaire’s tax” to fund the system. While both make solid sense—the MTA is the governor’s baby, and a “millionaires tax,” in which the city’s wealthiest chip in to fund repairs to the country’s largest public-transit system, is a fundamentally equalizing measure—the mayor needs to do more. He needs to step off the sidelines and into the role of straphanger in chief, to ride with New Yorkers, rage with them, and make demands for them.
The millionaire’s tax should remain one of those demands, but it is also time for the mayor to embrace congestion pricing. The Move NY Fair Plan, which has been endorsed by anti-poverty and transit advocates, is a truly progressive proposal that would ease traffic while raising as much as a billion dollars a year to fund subway improvements. It would also subsidize reduced fares for low-income New Yorkers—although the need for “fair fares” is so pressing that de Blasio should go ahead and fund them from the city’s budget in the interim.
Another critical step? Showering the subway’s oft-forgotten step-sibling, the bus system, which serves a disproportionate number of the city’s poor, disabled, and elderly, with some much-needed attention and innovation. Although the MTA owns and operates the city’s buses, the city’s Department of Transportation oversees bus lanes and bus rapid-transit services (known in New York as Select Bus Service), giving de Blasio not only an opportunity but an obligation to improve transit for some of New York’s neediest residents. Is it sexy? Not particularly, but neither was “sewer socialism.”
There are no shortcuts to transforming a city warped by decades of inequality, and the task of doing so, of refocusing government to serve as a force for equity rather than a lever of the powerful, will not be easy. It will require skill and audacity and the ability not merely to juggle the affordability crisis and the subway meltdown but also a host of other policy challenges, from ramping up the mayor’s sustainability and environmental-justice agenda to managing the opioid epidemic. And de Blasio will have to do all of this while contending with a federal government that, under the destructive grip of Donald Trump, has gone from stingy friend to confirmed enemy. The GOP tax bill, for instance, may well rip broad holes in the city budget, hobbling the mayor’s most expansive plans even as it makes the need all the greater. And should the Republican Congress decide to go after Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare in the new year, the blow to New York could be crippling.
De Blasio also faces challenges closer to home, most notably in the figure of the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose penchant for undermining the mayor by blocking his most ambitious proposals has all too often taken its greatest toll on their shared constituents. There is little reason to expect the governor to change his ways this next term, but, with so many essential initiatives requiring approval from Albany—from tax increases to education funding to the fate of the subway—de Blasio must continue to try. He must continue to press and push, to fight for his city, because the people of New York have few advocates left in power and the stakes haven’t been as high in generations.
And he won’t just be fighting for New Yorkers; as he champions creative interventions to remake New York in a more humane image, he will be fighting for the idea of progressive governance itself and for the larger movement that has begun to take root in city councils and state legislatures around the country. When The Nation endorsed de Blasio in the summer of 2013, the magazine wrote of its hope that a de Blasio victory could mean that “for the first time in a long time, New York might become a national model not of flagrant inequality but of forward-thinking efforts to create true opportunity for all its residents.” That hope still remains. And while de Blasio may not be able to end the tale of two cities in the next four years, he can prove that it’s worth it—no, essential—to try.
The Nation will follow the journey with great interest, open eyes, and, yes, hope.