By Sabina Mollot
Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, who sailed to victory at the polls in the special election in April, just two months after getting the support of the county committee in February, will be facing primary challengers in September.
Those challengers are Democrats Akshay Vaishampayan, a former finance compliance consultant who lives in Kips Bay (profiled by Town & Village last week) and Juan Pagan, an East Village resident who ran against Epstein in the special election on the Reform Party line.
This week, Town & Village spoke with Epstein about his legislative and district efforts since taking office four months ago as well as goals for the next legislative session in Albany.
One of the goals is making the state capital a more organized place since currently, there could be any number of similar bills floating around, authored by different lawmakers.
“I think there’s a lot of legislation but not a lot of coordination, which is surprising,” said Epstein. “I think there are a lot of competing bills that dictate similar things.”
His other priorities include affordable housing, transportation — in particular planning for the L train shutdown next year — infrastructure, public education and early voting.
“I think the L train is a big issue,” said Epstein, who lives in the East Village. “For a lot of us, it affects our day-to-day.” In fact, it was the top concern raised by Stuyvesant Town residents during mobile office hours held earlier in the month at the community center.
Since the preliminary work on the L train repairs and upgrades began, the noise has been a constant for people whose apartments face East 14th Street. While Epstein acknowledged it’s still very much a problem “for the next year and half,” he said the MTA has agreed to some concessions during recent conversations with him and Council Member Keith Powers. The result is that the agency has agreed to install more sound barriers and have less diesel machinery onsite.
Another issue of major concern is the expiration of the rent regulations in Albany next summer.
“It’s not enough to strengthen them; we need to do more,” said Epstein.
He also is concerned about the fact that some leverage tenants used to have in the form of the 421-a tax abatement program for developers now sunsets on a different year than the rent regulations. However, like all Albany Democrats, he is hopeful that things will be different after November, if his party can succeed in flipping the Republican-controlled Senate.
Since taking office, Epstein has introduced a dozen pieces of legislation and co-sponsored over 200. Two of his bills have already been passed by both the Senate and the Assembly, and one has been signed by the governor. One the bills relates to authorizing those in the healthcare field to take a leave of absence to care for people with Ebola. The other extends the 8A loan program, which would help the Department of Housing Preservation and Development finance affordable housing projects by allowing owners to make improvements to properties in exchange for affordability.
Another highlight of his months in office was his participation in the recently announced agreement to keep 325 apartments at Waterside affordable in exchange for lowered Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) for the owner.
For Epstein, this was the first time in five years that he hadn’t had a say in what the annual rent increases for the city’s population of rent-stabilized tenants would be. He’d previously been one of the board’s two tenant members, always calling for a rent freeze, which the board voted into reality for two years in a row in 2015 and 2016 for tenants signing one-year leases. On this year’s increase, Epstein said he was disappointed that they were higher than they’d been since Mayor Bill de Blasio was first elected. Epstein and numerous colleagues had signed a letter to the board prior to the vote calling for a rent freeze.
“It’s unfair,” said Epstein, echoing the sentiment of many tenants that the board’s five public members are out of touch with the public.
A social justice attorney who used to work for the Urban Justice Center, Epstein is expected to win the primary over his two unknown opponents.
Still, he’s been doing what all candidates do before a primary, which is pound the pavement in the scorching heat, trying to get potential voters to look up from their phones and take a glossy flyer. When he manages to get their attention, people in the district usually tell him their top concerns are affordable housing, MTA problems and that they want stronger public schools.
Additionally, despite Epstein’s opponent, Vaishampayan, telling Town & Village last week that many district residents he encountered while campaigning were unfamiliar with the position of state Assembly member, Epstein said he hasn’t personally experienced this.
“(Assembly) is a term, a nomenclature, but people understand government and this is part of the legislature,” he said.
That said, he and members of the local Democratic County Committee have also been embarking on what Epstein referred to as “community workshops” aimed at educating people about local races. “We’re planning to expand that across the district,” he added.
Epstein said he is actually optimistic about this year’s primary being more well attended than the usual dismal turnout, following a 35 percent spike in votes for the June Congressional primary. In that race, Congress Member Carolyn Maloney faced off against her first well-funded, serious opponent in nearly a decade, though she still held on to her seat.
“I think we have a lot of energy that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Epstein. “Not just in the state, but around the country.”
The primary will be held on Thursday, September 13, this year, since Tuesday that week falls on September 11 as well as Rosh Hashanah.