By Sabina Mollot
A Peter Cooper Village resident and executive at a lobbying firm has become the most recent candidate to join the race for the City Council seat that’s now occupied by Dan Garodnick.
Keith Powers, 32, has already led a pretty politically active career, having previously worked for two Manhattan elected officials, and until recently served as president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club.
Though he stepped down from that volunteer position earlier in the year, last month he took on a new role as one of three new board members of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association. He’s also been serving as chair of Community Board 6’s Business Affairs and Street Activities committee, which focuses heavily on nightlife and liquor licenses. He’s still involved with Eleanor Roosevelt, too, as the club’s district leader.
“I bring a certain amount of experience and I think it’s a great next step for me to be running to replace Dan,” said Powers. He added, “With term limits you don’t have a lot of time to play catch-up.”
It was back in February when Powers, the 32-year-old vice president of Constantinople & Vallone, a lobbying/consulting firm for nonprofits and government, told Town & Village he was considering running for Council. At the time, he explained that he wanted to focus primarily on affordability in the district as well as tenant protections and quality of life.
He’s since made his candidacy official and has just begun the process of fundraising. Powers declined to share numbers yet, but said he’d be reporting the contents of his war chest in July.
If elected to the Council, Powers said his first priority would be housing, “to make sure our housing laws are fair and equitable and to provide tenants an opportunity to stay in their neighborhoods for the longterm.”
While issues such as rent regulations are decided at the state level, Powers said it’s important for the Council to support any tenant-friendly efforts in Albany, while also focusing on tenant concerns in the district.
“A lot of issues that affect neighborhoods, the Council member has some direction over,” he said. “We need to have strong tenant representation if someone unfairly gets a rent increase or (residence challenge).”
Powers, who’s a third generation resident of both Peter Cooper and Stuyvesant Town, now has a fourth generation on the way — his niece or nephew, since Powers’ sister also lives in the community.
Though Powers said he never found himself in the unenviable but in recent years common situation of having to fight to keep his apartment, he can recall having to help numerous friends and family fight off primary residence challenges aimed at getting them out of their rent-stabilized homes.
“It’s very disappointing when you’ve lived in a neighborhood a long time and all of a sudden they tell you, ‘You don’t live there anymore,’” he said.
He then expressed some optimism about the recent change in ownership, saying, “So far it’s been a good relationship.” He noted that the biggest change is that the current owner doesn’t appear to be interested in ousting rent-stabilized tenants.
That type of tenant harassment was also something Powers tackled while working as chief of staff for Upper East Side Assembly Member Jonathan Bing. His responsibilities included helping tenants gather the proper documentation to prove their tenancy.
“Some people ended up in court. Some don’t. You hope you don’t,” he said.
Powers also worked, after completing an internship during his college years, for another East Side elected official, State Senator Liz Krueger, as her campaign manager. It was she, he said, along with Bing and Garodnick, who inspired his own political aspirations.
On Krueger, he recalled how in the district she was often able to help constituents in a very hands-on way. “I liked the way Liz handled herself as a smart progressive advocate for her constituency,” he said.
On Garodnick, Powers said, “I think he’s done a great job. Dan’s done a good job of being an independent, responsible voice on budgetary issues and especially on land use issues.”
He added that if elected, he’d want to continue some of Garodnick’s initiatives like East Midtown Rezoning, which ties development to transit infrastructural improvements.
Along with tenant and development issues, Powers considers education a priority. In the district and throughout the city, one concern is making sure there are enough Pre-K seats. Additionally, he said he’s focused on accessibility to after-school programs and advanced placement programs, which are issues he’s pushed for through his lobbying work, along with LGBT advocacy.
District issues of concern to him include the planned sanitation garage on the CUNY Brookdale site, which is staunchly opposed by neighboring residents.
“I don’t think the city’s plan right now addresses the concerns of the surrounding community,” he said.
Another concern is balancing the needs of developers with those of community residents. “I think the East Midtown Rezoning sets a good precedent,” said Powers, referring to the exchange of transit infrastructural improvements in exchange for the ability to build bigger and taller. “I don’t think it’s a universal thing, but we should be able to tie in growth and infrastructure.”
Powers also raised the subject of short-term rentals, saying the effect of companies promoting the service, sometimes hawked illegally, should be looked into.
“Things like Airbnb can help drive prices up and we need to seriously consider how that impacts the affordability of market rate apartments,” he said.
Powers, who got involved with the community board in 2011, frequently engages with businesses as the chair of the BASA committee, which he’s done since 2015.
The job, he explained, mainly entails sure there’s “the right blend” of businesses’ need to profit with the needs of the community. “People want to be able to go to their favorite restaurant and still be able to sleep soundly at night.”
When asked about the struggle of mom-and-pop shops to remain open in a city that’s been bleeding retail diversity in favor of chain stores, Powers said he thought a way to help would be to ease restrictions on business owners.
“I think we need to look at ways to decrease taxes and licensing fees that small business constantly get hit with,” he said. “They shouldn’t be a cash cow. We can’t look at businesses as a way to raise money (for the city).”
Asked about the pending and highly controversial Small Business Jobs and Survival Act, which is aimed at securing 10-year lease renewals for existing commercial tenants, Powers, said, he would have to look into it further if elected.
On his own community, he added, “We — we being the people who’ve lived here a long time — want to be in a place where you can raise a family and go to the schools we went to. I want people to have the experiences I had.”
It was his passion for preservation that got him involved in the Tenants Association a decade ago. At the time, the TA was gathering support for an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the property. Though Stuyvesant Town was soon sold to Tishman Speyer, Powers said he was impressed by the influence of TA around the city.
“We represent a big community of folks impacted by rent regulations and predatory lending. So we’re really an important voice.”