By Maria Rocha-Buschel
City Council candidate, attorney and Kips Bay resident Mary Silver says that she got her political education in the schoolyard.
“When one of my daughters was in kindergarten (at PS 116), there were $250,000 in budget cuts and the moms and dads jumped in to help,” she said. “We put the school on the map to bring in funding through the PTA, school leadership and community board. We created a network that was beneficial for the community and for public schools. Once you learn how to build those relationships, you can use them to benefit schools. Those were community-based efforts.”
Silver, who has been an education advocate since her now-grown daughters were in local public schools, said that parents and teachers encouraged her run to replace term-limited Council Member Rosie Mendez for District 2.
Silver said that she wants to bring similar tactics to City Council that she has used in organizing and advocacy for public schools.
“I want to bring community-based solutions to the City Council,” she said. “It’s about neighbors getting together to find solutions.”
As a member of the Community Education Council, Silver worked with other parents to find a new site for a school in the district because of overcrowding, ultimately finding the space for PS 281, the River School on East 35th Street in Murray Hill.
“We got in touch with developers and worked on community-based solutions,” she said.
Silver said that she supports local public schools first and foremost but is open to the idea of charter schools.
“I was part of the community education council that called for a moratorium on charter schools but at the same time, it is working for some kids,” she said. “I do support traditional public schools but I don’t want parents to feel like they aren’t being supported. If you don’t get it right, our kids get derailed. Every kid deserves the opportunity to fulfill their destiny, to make sure they can get an education they can be proud of.”
In addition to getting developers to work with schools, Silver also wants to hold those in real estate accountable when it comes to getting the most of out of the tax breaks they receive for creating affordable units.
“With 421-a, developers are getting billions in tax exemptions and we’re getting very little in impact of our affordable housing needs,” she said, referring to the program that gives tax exemptions to developer in exchange for including affordable housing in new developments. “Those billions would be better used if we built 100 percent affordable housing ourselves. We need to ask if we’re getting schools, benefits to infrastructure, renovations. We’re not making ridiculous demands. We need to exact demands from developers.”
Connected to the issue of affordable housing in the district is the homeless crisis, and Silver has been working with other members in the community to mitigate problems in the area specifically around the 30th Street Men’s Shelter. She is on the advisory board for the shelter, which was formed in 2015 after a woman was raped in a nearby bar by a shelter resident who was a registered sex offender.
“Sex offenders were being held at the shelter so (the advisory board is) making sure that the shelter is being compliant,” she said, noting that those on the registry are not supposed to be housed there because of its proximity to a school. “Lots of resources came to the shelter since then. We advocated for more peace officers in the area and worked on getting involvement from the 13th and 17th Precincts, which are all enhancements that benefit both the shelter and the community as a result of collaboration.”
She added that the board has also been working with the shelter to improve conditions specifically for its residents as well.
“We’ve been working with the shelter and focusing on employability,” she said. “We’ve been working on community-based solutions.”
Silver said that she is a supporter of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, legislation that is meant to protect small businesses but that hasn’t been passed since it was introduced almost 30 years ago.
“Think about how many businesses have gone under since (it was introduced),” she said. “(Small business owners) make our neighborhoods feel like neighborhoods. We lose community and character when these businesses close. They invest their blood, sweat and tears, and their money and time. The least we can do is offer them renewals and arbitration. It’s a blot on us that we don’t help these businesses with rent regulation, lease renewals and the commercial rent tax. The fines on small business owners are a huge burden.”
Silver said she feels one of the main roles of a City Council member is making sure that vulnerable populations, such as seniors and the disabled, are taking advantage of programs that are available to them. She said that she wants to launch an awareness campaign to enroll eligible tenants to help preserve the current affordable housing stock, but aside from a lack of education about the existence of programs like SCRIE and DRIE, which freezes the rent for seniors and those with disabilities at a certain income threshold, Silver said that low enrollment numbers may also be due to fear of retribution from building owners.
“Some seniors are afraid that enrolling in these programs will draw attention with their landlords and they’re trying to stay under the radar,” she said. “They’re frightened they’ll get pushed out. We’re almost in a humanitarian crisis with housing displacement.”
Silver also feels that city legislators should have more control over rent regulation, especially because real estate developers influence lawmakers outside the city who vote on issues that affect city residents, since rent regulation is controlled by the state.
“How do we get local control of rent regulation?” she said. “(Upstate legislators) don’t know what it’s like to be 70 or 80 in New York City and getting kicked out of their homes.”
Silver, who grew up in Long Island and went to Hofstra University for undergrad, has been living in District 2 since she was a graduate student at NYU, where she received a PHD as well as a law degree. But she said that her passion is community and public service, which she has been involved in for the last 25 years. She was previously an attorney with the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore and has also been providing pro bono legal services to protect seniors living in affordable housing.
“I’ve been on the community board and advisory boards. This wasn’t a paycheck,” she said. “I want to help and want to make a difference. I used to live in the Lower East Side, working with artists and putting on art shows in bathrooms. Now those artists are getting pushed out. I want to focus on the most underserved populations, those in public housing, seniors, those who are disabled. That’s what you do in local government.”