By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Real estate attorney Erin Hussein, a candidate for City Council, said that she was motivated to join the race because she’s invested in her neighborhood, the East Village.
“I’m running for District 2 because of District 2,” she said. “I’ve lived here for more than 20 years and it’s been intertwined with my entire life.”
Hussein, a Democrat, is running to replace term-limited City Councilmember Rosie Mendez. She moved to the city for college in 1988 after growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut. While New York is a bigger city, Hussein said she sees neighborhoods that make up the communities as similar to small towns like hers.
“Cities are organisms,” she said. “It’s a collection of neighborhoods, a collection of people. But we’re becoming less focused on people and more focused on buildings, and on the very wealthy elites.”
She said that these changes have had an effect on communities through issues from small businesses to real estate development, as well as affordable housing.
“Zoning has left the neighbor hoods susceptible to overdevelopment,” she said. “There are five to six story buildings that are getting replaced with something that’s out of context. Context for a building doesn’t mean they have to all look the same but it should be folded into the neighborhood.”
Hussein noted that despite overdevelopment, zoning isn’t necessarily a bad thing but is a tool that should be used to put limits on developers.
“There’s a big narrative that developers are evil but they’re human just like we are,” she said. “They just want the highest possible return on their investment. I liken this to my kids getting an open box of cookies. My job (as a mom) is to say, two Oreos for you and two for you. That’s the job of a legislator. We make the rules around the cookies. We can’t take away their right to make a profit off their property but we can balance the impact on neighborhoods.”
Hussein ultimately tries to view the influx of new development in a positive light but one of her main focuses is on preserving affordable housing aside from creating more.
“I look at it as an opportunity,” she said. “Twenty to thirty percent affordable units (in new developments) is a great idea but the problem is that once it’s built and leased, the issue becomes keeping it and not allowing it to leak out of the system.”
She noted that one tool that could be put in place is a city agency that accounts for vacant apartments to keep track of the affordable housing stock.
“It should become a matter of public record,” she said. “A public database would keep apartments from leaking out of the system.”
She noted that even the closure of Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s buildings in the neighborhood when the hospital ultimately downsizes has effects beyond healthcare for residents in the community and will impact development in the area.
“This is an opportunity to talk about zoning and what will happen,” she said. “What zoning is and what it should become. Zoning is a very site specific control by people of their surroundings and we can use it to our advantage.”
Hussein said that she is closely following the changes going on at Mount Sinai Beth Israel and if elected, would focus on making sure the needs of the neighborhood are met, especially with the high population of seniors.
“Aging is one of the most important issues in these neighborhoods, and that includes senior mental health,” she said. “We need to focus on patient services and insist that they stay in our neighborhood. We also need to know what will happen to that land and should have a say in what will happen to it.”
Hussein said that landlords in buildings for small businesses, similar to developers, are also motivated by profits and don’t consider the impact on the community of not offering lease renewals. She said that she supports the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would require landlords to offer lease renewals.
“Retailers submit sales figures to landlords and they know how much their tenants can afford,” she said. “They’re not thinking about how their one dark storefront is affecting the block. (The SBJSA) puts the two parties together in a room.”
She added that although rents are beginning to decrease, changes are still only happening slowly.
“Rents are coming down but retailers are less interested in brick-and-mortar and there are more vacancies,” she said. “We want landlords to keep businesses in storefronts and landlords that want to operate on a retail footing. We want to preserve that. The act is a win-win.”
On education, Hussein said that she supports Mayor de Blasio’s pre-K initiative but feels that there should be additional focus on moving schools away from punishment-based models.
“We need to stop the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “We need to teach resiliency to children and support their path to resiliency. Our classrooms need to be incubators for using restorative justice-based models.”
She added that young children are especially vulnerable and having a support system for them in schools can have an impact.
“It only takes one teacher believing in a child,” she said. “But it also only takes one teacher punishing a child. Both can turn a child’s life around in different ways. It all goes hand in hand. I feel strongly about the positive learning collaborative and when that happens, we have healthier people and a healthier city.”
Hussein, the granddaughter of Muslim immigrants and daughter of a one-star general, is also a mother of two.
The primary for the City Council election is on Tuesday, September 12.