Housing, transit major issues at District 4 town hall

Councilmember Keith Powers and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at the town hall on Tuesday. (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Top priority for residents at a City Council District 4 town hall this week was affordable housing and transportation issues, in addition to addressing homelessness.

The town hall, hosted by Councilmember Keith Powers and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson this Tuesday, was held at CUNY’s Graduate Center and was attended by more than 300 residents.

Susan Steinberg, president of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, brought up the issue of affordable housing and the new rent laws for the first question of the night.

“Right away landlords went into a tailspin,” she said of the strengthened rent laws. “Blackstone who are the owners of Stuyvesant Town, have decided that they had to regroup and re-strategize because their business model no longer worked. And the way they did this was to hit the pause button on renovating vacant apartments and making them unavailable, so it’s tantamount to warehousing. And we were very concerned about that.”

Steinberg added that this issue isn’t necessarily unique to Stuy Town and potentially could become a citywide issue, so she asked Powers and Johnson how that can be prevented.

“One way is to come to your elected officials, and you raise this issue to them and we are advocates to either the property owner or the manager and find out what’s going on here and see what laws apply,” Powers said. “We also work with our state elected officials like Assemblymember [Harvey] Epstein, and we have to make sure that the law, when it’s enforced is what it’s intended, and that if it doesn’t match up, we have to make changes to the law and address that in Albany.”

Powers also noted that state agencies will need to be held accountable in doing enforcement and doing so will also require them to be fully funded.

“And we have to push that to do their jobs,” he said. “I am confident that in our neighborhood, we will be able to work through these issues with you.”

STPCV Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg

Johnson praised Steinberg and the advocacy work that the TA did in helping to strengthen the rent laws but said that there will likely be an adjustment period while New York State Homes & Community Renewal (DHCR) figures out how to conduct enforcement and education of tenants will be key.

“The number one issue that I get calls about my district is housing-related issues, and we hear of all sorts of issues, with heat and hot water or demolition, that are happening illegally,” he said. “We need to ensure the city agencies and the state agencies are partnering to enforce the rent laws that were strengthened, and the way as it was intended.”

Waterside Tenants Association President Janet Handal said that she had concerns about the affordability deal that local elected officials brokered for residents to keep apartments affordable because the city and Waterside Plaza are still working out the details.

“I want to thank Councilmember Powers for the work on the deal with Waterside because there’s so many people that are going to benefit from that,” she said. “But what’s happening is that it was voted on by the City Council last January and now HPD and Waterside are stuck in a legal negotiation and the people that need to benefit from the rent reduction cannot do so.”

The deal that was agreed on earlier this year included tenant protections and rent relief for tenants who have been living on the property since before it left the Mitchell-Lama program, and would provide rent reductions for some of those tenants.

Powers, who helped negotiate the deal with Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), said that he has been in touch with Waterside about finishing the deal by October.

WTA President Janet Handal

“It’s a meaningful deal, but it has no meaning if it’s not in place,” he said, noting that even if the deal is not completed by October 1, he wants residents to be able to take advantage of the rent reductions now. “It might cost a little money for the ownership there but I think it’s worth it. And we have a responsibility now to people that I know are in this audience who have been fighting for this. It is not fair that we’re at this point a few months later. I’ve been pushing that on both sides to do the work they need to do to get the deal done.”

Powers noted that he spoke with the property owner earlier that day and they understand his position, so are hoping to have a response in the next few days.

“But most importantly, they should put the deal in place and you should be able to live there for as long as you want,” he said.

Community Board 6 transportation committee member Gene Santoro raised the issue of a bill that Johnson introduced mandating a “master plan” for the use of streets, sidewalks and pedestrian spaces from the Department of Transportation every five years.

“Cars are increasing, bike usage and pedestrian usage are all way up,” Santoro said. “This bill mandates that DOT started planning numbers on specific numbers of bus lanes and bike lanes and all that sort of stuff. So in light of the changes with the dramatic increase in usage, I invite you to comment on what you want this bill to do.”

Johnson said that the purpose of his bill is to change the way that the city thinks about transportation and how people get around.

“We’ve seen 20 cyclist fatalities this year, far surpassing last year’s total fatalities and we have seen a 20% increase in pedestrian fatalities, and so anyone who lives on the east side or the west side knows how clogged and heavily congested our streets are with buses and trucks and cars, and what we really need to do is we need to reorient the conversation,” he said. “That means we really need to change how we plan our city streets. We need to prioritize pedestrians and mass transit users. Part of what we need to do is we need to really revolutionize how we lead our city streets. The bill you’re referring to says we’re not doing this in a piecemeal way anymore.”

Johnson added that he feels pedestrian and cyclist deaths can be prevented by smarter planning and by changing the design of city streets.

Claire Brennan, a Stuyvesant Town resident who is also a member of the CB6 transportation committee, asked how city government could encourage more New Yorkers to use mass transit and Johnson said the best way to increase usage is for the system to work.

“You get it to work in a reliable way and you’ll see more people take it and see fewer cars in the streets of New York City,” he said. “[The MTA’s $50 billion five-year capital plan] is going to allow us to re-signal the system, which is the most important thing. And so I think that’s the major thing we need to see the numbers go up, and the service has gotten a little bit better. It’s like playing the lottery every day, whether or not you’re going to get to work on time. But I think that’s the best way to do it. And I think we’re on a path to get there.”

Brennan also said that she was curious about how placard abuse can be enforced when the abuse can come from the NYPD while the NYPD is the agency designated to its enforcement.

Johnson explained that employees of various city agencies, including the NYPD, get parking placards, but the placards don’t entitle drivers to park on sidewalks or in front of fire hydrants, so Traffic Enforcement Agents are supposed to enforce the rules. But Johnson said that his office has been hearing that if members of the NYPD put placards on their dashboard, the TEAs are afraid to enforce against an agency that they’re a part of, so he has introduced legislation that would change the way that the placard system is enforced.

“The city would be required to do a number sweeps in areas every single week as reported by 311,” he said. “So if there are a lot of complaints outside of a police precinct, the city will be required to go and document with photographs what is happening there and do real enforcement and the Department of Investigation, which is a separate city agency, would have oversight over this so you don’t have to conflict between agencies.”

Powers noted that placard abuse is something that his constituents have complained about to his office as well.

“It’s a real issue for neighbors who live in the area,” he said. “They get frustrated because those spots are really are outside their house and there’s somebody misusing it.”

He said that he also has a bill in the package of legislation Johnson was referring to that would require all agencies to give a reason for why somebody needs a placard and create a tracking system.

“That’s the way that we help keep them accountable,” he said. “And to me, it’s public corruption. People are abusing their privilege. I’m entitled to a placard, but I don’t use it. I think that there’s so much abuse out there, I’m really happy to be doing something.”

Another topic raised was the issue of street homelessness in the district.

“It seems you can walk more than a block or two without tripping over a homeless person,” resident Michael Murray said. “And many of them are to the point where you can tell if they’re alive or dead. And I don’t have a clue as to what I need to do to help them. What is being done about this? How do we go on and tell ourselves we’re the greatest city in the world and at the same time, let this be on our streets?”

Johnson said that if someone seems like they could be in trouble, the best response is to call 911, but he noted that one of the major issues for many of the people who are visibly homeless on the street often have an untreated mental health condition and some kind of substance abuse problem, which prevents them from being able to take advantage of the shelter system.

“Supportive housing is how we can help people that have untreated mental health conditions or addiction issues to get them off the street,” he said. “I have the largest supportive housing building in the entire city in my district, the Times Square Hotel, and in six years, the number of complaints I received from there is zero. They don’t have a sobriety requirement so they get people off the street. Because we know that housing becomes healthcare. If you get a roof over someone’s head, you can stabilize them on the medicine that they need, you can get them to the doctor, you can hopefully get them into recovery, and maybe turn their life around.”

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