By Maria Rocha-Buschel
All eleven candidates in the District 4 City Council race gathered at Waterside Plaza on Thursday evening for a debate co-sponsored by Town & Village, the Waterside Tenants Association and Waterside management, covering issues important to the neighborhood.
Democrats Alec Hartman, Jeffrey Mailman, Keith Powers, Marti Speranza, Rachel Honig, Vanessa Aronson, Maria Castro, Bessie Schachter and Barry Shapiro and Republicans Melissa Jane (MJ) Kronfeld and Rebecca Harary discussed affordable housing, concerns for seniors, the fate of small businesses and the sanitation garage planned for the neighborhood over the course of the two-hour debate. WTA President Janet Handal and T&V editor Sabina Mollot moderated the event, each asking two questions of the nine Democrats and two Republicans on the stage, who are running to replace term-limited Councilmember Dan Garodnick.
Harary, a nonprofit founder and Upper East Side resident, said that there is not enough affordable housing in the city, a sentiment echoed by most of the other candidates. One solution that she suggested came from a previous mayoral administration.
“Mayor Bloomberg started a program using modular units, costing $300,000 per unit,” she said. “There are 2,000 vacant lots in the city and there’s no reason we can’t build on those lots.”
Powers, Mailman and Speranza all supported the idea of using vacant land to build more affordable units and pushed creative solutions for solving the problem, with Powers suggesting that the land be used specifically for new Mitchell-Lama developments. Aronson, a former public school teacher, suggested that one opportunity in the neighborhood to create more affordable housing is a site visible from Waterside Plaza.
“One of the alternative plans I’ve seen for the Brookdale campus includes affordable housing for seniors and that’s a plan that should be taken seriously,” she said, referring to the land on East 25th Street where the city wants to build a sanitation garage.
Mailman, an attorney and former legislative director for Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, said that he supports legislation to provide counsel for tenants in housing court facing eviction and suggested providing counsel for tenants who are being harassed.
“At the City Council level, I’ve worked on bills advocating for the right to counsel for tenants who are facing eviction in housing court and I think the city should also provide representation for tenants who are being harassed,” he said. “Tenants getting harassed by their landlord likely can’t afford an attorney so the city should provide funding for that as well.”
Mailman argued that passing such legislation would be good for the city because it would keep tenants from becoming homeless and would decrease shelter costs.
Hartman, a tech entrepreneur, as well as Aronson, said they support the repeal of the Urstadt Law. The law, enacted in 1971 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was part of the governor’s vacancy-decontrol legislation and prohibited New York from adopting rent limitations that were more restrictive than the laws already in effect.
Shapiro, a Peter Cooper Village resident and retired IT project manager, noted that it was worth examining the origins of how affordable housing programs were originally created for ideas.
“We used government to cap what the rents were and out of that came rent control and rent stabilization,” he said. “We should be taking away benefits developers get rather than extending more.”
Schachter, an Upper East Side resident and a former aide for State Senator Liz Krueger, did not specifically oppose the credits but said that the program, known as 421A, should have more oversight.
“Landlords have been given subsidies and in exchange they’re supposed to build affordable units,” she said. “We should be conducting audits to recoup the money that isn’t actually spent on creating those units and to find out how many units have been lost (from rent stabilization) because of lax oversight.”
Castro, a government relations consultant, agreed with Shapiro that developers should not be getting more tax credits for creating affordable housing but added that the city should take stock in the cost/affordability ratio.
However, Kronfeld, a former New York Post reporter and a Midtown East resident, said that she supports such incentives for landlords.
“We need tax abatements for developers to spur affordable housing,” she said.
Kronfeld suggested that a creative solution for creating more affordable housing would be building more micro-units, while Honig, a public relations consultant and Upper East Side resident, said that rezoning can increase affordable housing.
“There are policies in place that are not being adhered to that could help with affordable housing,” she said of possible rezoning.
The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) program was a major topic of discussion for the candidates concerning a question from Handal on “aging in place.”
Shapiro noted that while the SCRIE threshold was increased in recent years to $50,000, he felt that some middle class families might exceed that threshold due to combined Social Security benefits and 401ks. He said that he would advocate for increasing the threshold to $75,000 or $100,000.
“We need to freeze the rent for seniors at a reasonable age so they don’t have to worry about being put on the street,” he said.
Schachter and Speranza, former director at Women Entrepreneurs (WE) NYC and a NoMad resident, both noted that they would focus on outreach because SCRIE enrollment in the District is so low.
“SCRIE can be a saving grace for seniors,” Schachter said.
Schachter, Powers, Aronson and Speranza all advocated for street redesign to make neighborhoods more accessible for seniors. Speranza said that she would specifically focus on bike lanes to make sure that they were not a hazard for seniors while Aronson, who is a disability advocate, said she is particularly concerned about the wheelchair ramps on sidewalks and the lack of elevators in the subway system.
“We pay billions of dollars for the subway and it’s still inaccessible for large parts of the population,” she said. “We need to hold the MTA accountable.”
Speranza echoed Aronson’s call in the discussion on affordable housing to look at the alternative plans for the Brookdale campus, specifically in the context of creating housing just for seniors.
“We need more senior housing,” she said. “The bookend parcels of the Brookdale site could be used for senior housing.”
Harary suggested offering discounted apartments to healthcare professionals in communities like Waterside and Stuy Town-Peter Cooper that have a high population of seniors so doctors on call could provide care quickly before EMTs arrive.
Kronfeld also suggested a plan for better accessibility to doctors in the neighborhood, but she said that she would instead create a network through a digital platform for professionals who are interested in donating their services for free, although she said that it wouldn’t be limited to medical professionals and could include other services, like dog walkers, and would connect seniors to other members of their community.
“More government is not the answer,” she said. “Seniors don’t want a caseworker. They want loved ones taking care of them. We should be empowering the community rather than demanding that government spend more money on programs that are not proven to be very effective.”
Powers, a Peter Cooper resident who has previously worked for two Manhattan elected officials, said that especially on the East Side, buses are a priority for seniors.
“Bus service is how we get around in these neighborhoods,” he said. “The Second Avenue Subway should be coming eventually but the bus routes are more important in this community than in most.”
Asked about the city’s disappearing mom-and-pop shops, the candidates had mixed views on the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). The legislation, which has been languishing in City Council for the last 30 years, attempts to give small businesses rights in the commercial lease renewal process.
Kronfeld said that the legislation doesn’t address the main issues. She said she supports Councilmember Garodnick’s bill to increase the commercial rent tax threshold, which Speranza, Castro and Hartman said they support as well, but Kronfeld said that an alternative to the SBJSA is to work with commercial landlords and come up with creative solutions for vacant spaces.
“This is a shared economy and we should let small businesses share spaces if the government can provide the platform,” she said.
Shapiro said that high rents are pushing beloved, longtime businesses out and the legislation might help keep them open. He cited the employee-owned Capucine’s on Second Avenue that closed after being pushed out with a rent increase.
“The SBJSA is at least a leverage point,” he said. “We want these places that are essentially viable to stay in business.”
Aronson said that while she supports the legislation, one issue she has is that it only offers protections for current businesses.
“There are dozens of vacant storefronts in my neighborhood on the Upper East Side,” she said. “This is a market failure. The rents should be going down as a result but they’re not. We need to take away incentives that landlords have that keep storefronts vacant.”
Powers noted that Borough President Gale Brewer has ideas aimed at helping small businesses, including a plan to remove tax from grocery stores, which he supports.
“We should be encouraging developers to include small businesses in all the new luxury developments that are being built,” he added.
Mailman said that one way to approach the issue is to create a task force to analyze what’s going on with small businesses.
“We need a task force with relevant stakeholders to analyze the issues and to find out why storefronts are vacant, and we should follow up with recommendations from the results of that,” he said.
Honig, who said that small businesses are a major focus of her campaign, said that seeing the effect of the Second Avenue Subway construction on the Upper East Side on small businesses spurred her to be an advocate for owners who suffered through the project.
“The city didn’t support the businesses that were affected,” she said. “That’s eventually going to make its way down here and it’s essential to show businesses that we’ll take care of them when the construction starts.”
She has said she would like to see some version of the SBJSA get passed. Speranza has said she also supports the legislation.
All candidates at the debate opposed the garage that the Department of Sanitation has proposed for the Brookdale Campus on East 25th Street. Harary said that she would support turning the campus into a vocational high school but also suggested siting the proposed garage on the Con Ed ball field, an idea that elicited a few boos from the audience.
Powers, who is on Community Board 6, which has opposed the project, said that the board has proposed alternative sites to DSNY but the plan is currently on hold.
“We’d like to see a new plan because we have concerns about siting something that big in this neighborhood,” he said.
Speranza again suggested using the site for senior housing instead of a garage, and Kronfeld echoed this idea.
“The senior population is going to double in upcoming years,” she said. “This would be a good place for senior housing. This (garage) won’t happen on my watch.”
Castro added that she felt housing for seniors would be a more appropriate use for the space as well, especially since the building is already a dormitory for students.
“The best solution is accommodation of students and senior housing so one can help the other,” she said.
Honig said that she had concerns about the plan because of its proximity to healthcare facilities.
“Siting this adjacent to multiple hospitals makes no sense,” she said. “The lack of transparency, lack of pragmatism and lack of common sense is highly problematic.”
Schachter argued that the city hasn’t allowed for the proper amount of community input for the project.
“They have not had a conversation about putting it on an alternative site,” she said. “I don’t want it here without an appropriate conversation.”
Mailman suggested re-examining alternative sites to find more appropriate locations, as well as conducting further analysis about the neighborhood.
“We need to do a fair share analysis so no one in the district bears too much of the burden,” he said. “I have experience in opposing bad policies and would do that in this case.”
The primary election will be held on Tuesday, September 12.