By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The L train shutdown and the lack of local affordable housing were among the main concerns of East Side residents who packed a town hall hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilmember Keith Powers last Wednesday evening. The mayor, along with numerous representatives from city agencies as well as Powers and other local elected officials, answered questions from more than 300 advocates and community residents during the event at Hunter College.
Stuyvesant Town resident and former ST/PCV Tenants Association president Al Doyle got in the first question of the night, asking the mayor if he would actively support a return to rent stabilization of all apartments that had been deregulated due to vacancy decontrol.
The mayor admitted that he couldn’t necessarily commit to that, at least at this point, despite wanting to.
“What is the right way to approach it, what’s fair, what’s practical, I don’t know the answer,” the mayor said. “I love the idea, but I’ll have an answer as I have more research on it. I know we can end vacancy decontrol, we can do fundamental MCI reform so people don’t pay for anything more than the actual repair, I know we can change the approach to preferential rent. You will hear the sky will fall and the landlord lobby will say this will destroy life as we know it, but we managed to do two rent freezes in New York City with our Rent Guidelines Board and the world kept going. We’re going to be working with the representatives in Albany on it.”
Regarding affordable housing, Waterside Tenants Association president Janet Handal then pushed the mayor to expand protections for tenants under the city’s recent affordability deal for the complex’s “settling” or former Mitchell-Lama protected tenants.
“Thirty percent of settling tenants won’t be able to take advantage of this deal,” Handal said. “It may be a budget constraint but when these people retire, they’ll be low-income. They’ll have to leave, and they’ll qualify for other affordable housing. It makes sense for the city to find money to keep these settling tenants in their homes at Waterside.”
She added, “There are 30 percent of our still-working settling tenants who are not able to participate in the aging-in-place aspect of the deal.”
This was in reference to tenants who won’t be retiring by next year and therefore won’t be eligible for the plan. “The fact of the matter is when these still-working people retire, as they will in two to eight years, they will go from middle income to low income, making 80 percent of AMI. They will no longer be able to stay at Waterside, even with the rent freeze, which is one of the aspects they get. But at the same time, they’re going to qualify for affordable housing so you’re going to move them out of affordable housing that they’re in that’s been their homes for 30 or 40 years and then make them go into the other senior affordable housing lotteries, of which there are now 200,000 people in that. So we think it makes sense for the city to find money some way somehow to keep these 30 percent of our still-working settling tenants who are still at Waterside.”
A representative for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said that the agency would be exploring other tools to look for solutions but the mayor said that the problem doesn’t have an answer yet.
“I don’t have a solution at this moment but I’m hopeful that we can come up with something because the aspiration should be to keep people there,” he said.
Community Board 6 member Gene Santoro expressed frustration at the town hall about working with various city agencies as part of the borough president’s L train task force, noting that the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Buildings, among other agencies, have been unresponsive to concerns about barriers, ongoing construction during the shutdown and the impact on street fairs.
The mayor noted that coordination between city agencies before and during the upcoming shutdown is crucial.
“This is a good example of where more transparency is warranted,” he said.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg noted that the DOT is trying to work with other agencies about ongoing work that’s been authorized or would be authorized by other city agencies before the shutdown begins.
“We’ve been looking at all upcoming projects and doing everything possible to minimize impacts, not just on 14th Street but on neighboring streets,” she said. “We are very focused and want buses and bikes to be able to move.”
Another resident who lives near East 14th Street and Avenue B said that she was worried about the work on the project that has already started now, especially because of the dust in the air from the digging.
“(The MTA) has to do a lot of upgrades like for elevator access (before the shutdown starts) but they are supposed to be wrapping up that digging within the next month or two,” Trottenberg said about the preliminary work.
Powers said that NYC Transit President Andy Byford came to the site and Powers asked Transit for air quality monitors, and he requested that the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection validate that data to make sure that the air quality isn’t being adversely affected by the work. DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza confirmed that the agency would be sending inspectors to check the monitors as well.
At the beginning of the meeting, local elected officials also pinpointed the L train construction, climate change, the rent laws and overdevelopment as major issues affecting the district, with State Senator Liz Krueger pointing out that Democrats will be back in the majority in January, which she said will help local elected officials further their agenda, in addition to advocacy on behalf of Powers.
Mayor de Blasio emphasized his focus on protecting affordable housing throughout the city, thanks in part to the affordability deal brokered between the city and the Blackstone Group and Ivanhoe Cambridge in 2015.
“We have focused on trying to protect the jewels that we have in this community where working families, middle-class families have found a place that they can afford, in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, Waterside,” he said. “It has been the approach of this administration to keep these places affordable for people who need them and not let them slip away. A few years ago, affordability was starting to slip away in places that were historically affordable and I think with the great cooperation of the Councilman (Keith Powers) and (his) predecessor (Councilmember Dan Garodnick) and the great work at HPD, we’ve been able to do something that’s really lasting for affordability in this community.”
Borough President Gale Brewer mentioned climate change specifically in the context of the plan to create protections from flooding for the East Side.
“We need to consider climate change and create coastal protections but we really want to look at the plan around Asser Levy because we don’t want a wall completely around it,” she said.
State Senator Brad Hoylman said that public transit overall is one issue he’s most focused on. “First and foremost in my mind is fixing the MTA,” he said. “We have to find revenue sources. Congestion pricing is one of those (possible sources) so we need to get behind it or find something else.”