New York is still a tale of two cities

March 14, 2017

Vincent Michael looks at the failures of the de Blasio administration in New York and argues that they are a warning to those seeking to make change "from the inside."

IT WASN'T so long ago--four years in fact--that Bill de Blasio's election as mayor of New York City inspired hopes that he could make the city into a model of progressive policies and be a catalyst for a national revival of left-wing politics inside the Democratic Party.

Locally, many people believed that the de Blasio administration would make a sharp break from the neoliberal, "tough-on-crime" politics of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote that the incoming mayor--along with the dozen newly elected City Council members who had been backed by the Working Families Party--represented the dawning of a "new era" in New York City politics. "[T]he town's most progressive government in five decades," Gonzalez called it.

On a national level, Peter Beinart argued that de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were leaders of a "new new left" that threatened the neoliberal orthodoxy that the Democratic Party has been dedicated to for the past three decades.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio tours the subway in Brooklyn
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio tours the subway in Brooklyn (NYC Department of Transportation | flickr) and some other publications on the left were more dubious about the incoming mayor's political record and how willing he'd be to challenge the entrenched power of the real estate and financial industries.

As we near the end of Mayor de Blasio's first term, it's clear that most of his policies, especially in the important areas of housing and policing, have largely tacked to the same status quo that candidate de Blasio denounced in 2013 as an unequal "tale of two cities."

But the one arena in which de Blasio has remained consistent with his earlier persona is self-promotion. He has been traveling the country to sell himself as a national liberal figure--this time as a leader in the resistance against Donald Trump in the White House.

Any resistance to the White House that the mayor of the largest city in the country can help generate will be welcome. But the fact is that de Blasio's ineffective reforms have left many New Yorkers vulnerable to the worst of Trump's reactionary agenda.

LET'S START with the question of affordable housing.

The de Blasio administration has been more tenant-friendly than the Bloomberg administration. The Rent Guidelines Board passed rent freezes for one-year leases of rent-regulated units citywide the past two years, which is vitally needed in a rapidly gentrifying city where more than half of households are rent-burdened.

But at a time when radical action to protect and provide affordable housing has never been more urgent, de Blasio's housing policies are limited by their reliance on profit-driven private developers. The result is that they fall far short of creating truly affordable housing, and could even accelerate gentrification in many neighborhoods.

Upon entering office, de Blasio announced a $41 billion housing plan to build 80,000 affordable units citywide and to preserve an additional 120,000 by 2024. Last spring, the City Council approved a key component of that plan: the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program (MIH), in which developers are allowed to build larger buildings in newly rezoned neighborhoods, but must set aside a certain percentage of the units as permanently affordable.

Although an improvement on Bloomberg's voluntary program that called for developments receiving tax breaks to set aside 20 percent of units for affordable housing, MIH is still fundamentally flawed, as revealed by the experience of East New York, a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood that is the first area to be rezoned under MIH.

Encouraged by the promises of new large-scale development, real estate speculators have descended on the neighborhood like vultures. As a result, five months after de Blasio announced that East New York would be one of his 15 neighborhoods slated for rezoning, land prices in the area tripled and real estate transactions increased by 1,500 percent from the year before.

Here is the contradiction in de Blasio's reliance on zoning for affordable housing development: Even as private developers are required to build some less expensive units, existing affordable housing is lost as the influx of luxury housing encourages profiteering on the part of landlords and speculators.

Ironically, the city government has acknowledged this problem by committing funds for free legal representation for East New York tenants who are facing a new wave of harassment from landlords.

MAKING MATTERS worse, many of the new affordable units created under the MIH program will not actually be affordable to the current residents of the rezoned neighborhoods. The program's most affordable units are for households making 40 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), which the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development argues is beyond the means of almost 30 percent of the city's households.

This is not a new problem. During the Bloomberg era, over 160,000 "affordable" units were produced in predominantly low-income neighborhoods, but many were too expensive for the residents of these areas.

When residents of gentrifying areas who understand what's at stake in rezoning have organized to shape development in their communities, they've been chastised by their progressive mayor.

Organizers in Inwood and Washington Heights have slowed down rezoning to negotiate for more amenities from the city. De Blasio's response has been to criticize the organizers for their impracticality, claiming that the neighborhood is going to gentrify regardless of their efforts.

Meanwhile, Chinatown Working Group, a planning initiative of local activists and three local community boards, had its community-led rezoning plan rejected by the Department of City Planning because it would preserve too much affordable housing.

The city's housing crisis has been intensified by austerity policies at the federal level. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which owns the nation's largest stock of public housing, with about 400,000 residents in almost 180,000 units, has seen its federal funding cut nearly in half since 2001.

The agency faced a budget deficit of between $6 and $13 billion over the next five years, and that was before Trump's new housing chief Ben Carson started talking about a potential new round of massive cuts in federal aid.

De Blasio's attempt to address this admittedly horrible situation follows a familiar playbook: Sweeten the pot for private developers. His "Next Generation NYCHA" plan aims to reduce the budget deficit by selling off NYCHA land to private developers who then must build a certain percentage of permanently affordable units.

ONE OF the starkest signs of the housing crisis in New York City is that homelessness has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. The shelter population has risen by 20 percent under de Blasio, from 51,000 to 62,000, of whom 40 percent are children.

While this crisis pre-dates de Blasio--the homeless population doubling under Bloomberg --his approach to the problem has been far from sufficient, starting with the fact that his housing plan does not prioritize affordable housing for the poorest third of city households, the group most vulnerable to becoming homeless.

The mayor recently called for opening ninety new shelters, a plan what was been met with harsh criticism from homeless rights advocates.

"Homeless people need housing, not shelters," said Jose Rodriguez, a member of Picture the Homeless. "Homeless people don't want to be warehoused in these demoralizing institutions that break up communities and families... [de Blasio] needs to create real housing for the poorest New Yorkers, not bogus so-called affordable housing that doesn't benefit the people who need it most."

Even among New Yorkers not immediately facing eviction, the struggle to get by has not gotten any easier under de Blasio. The overall cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Economist, the city has gone from being the world's 49th most expensive city in 2011 to being the 7th most expensive last year.

When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced plans for yet another fare increase on buses and trains, advocates pushed de Blasio to offer half-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. De Blasio said it was a "noble idea" but that the city would probably not be able to afford the costs, which are estimated to be $200 million a year.

But the same city is set to pay for a significant portion of the $2.5 billion streetcar system that will connect Queens' rapidly gentrifying waterfront with Brooklyn's rapidly gentrifying waterfront, lining the pockets of developers and landlords.

DE BLASIO'S lackluster results in making the city more affordable go along with his continuation of the aggressive policing he campaigned against in 2013, when he made a name for himself by opposing the NYPD's racist "stop-and-frisk" policies.

One of de Blasio's first actions after taking office was to withdraw the city's appeal against the Floyd v. City of New York ruling that found stop-and-frisk to be in violation of the 4th and 14th amendments.

Yet the new mayor also appointed Bill Bratton, the former NYC police chief who helped to first implement stop-and-frisk under Giuliani, as the new Police Commissioner, and affirmed his support for the Bratton's "broken windows" theory that encourages highly aggressive and pre-emptive policing.

According to the Police Reform Organizing Project, there were 300,000 criminal summonses issues in 2015 for "crimes" as frivolous as "open alcohol container" and "biking on a sidewalk"--the vast majority of those ticketed were African American or Latino. All told, 80 to 95 percent of total punitive actions taken by the NYPD, including 95 percent of juvenile arrests and 89 percent of stop-and-frisks, were against New Yorkers of color.

In 2014 de Blasio and Bratton directed police officers to lay off arrests for small amounts of marijuana, but the NYPD is still making tens of thousands weed arrests a year. Misdemeanor arrests costed the city over $1 million per day in 2015, and in that year alone the NYPD paid out $203 million to settle claims brought against the NYPD.

These policies undermine de Blasio's promise that New York will be a refuge from Trump's anti-immigrant policies.

While the mayor declared that he would challenge Trump's executive order to strip funding from "sanctuary" cities, he has clarified that he's not talking about non-cooperation between the NYPD and ICE. In fact he's open to expanding the list of 170 deportable offenses which will trigger cooperation with the federal authorities.

As it is, the NYPD's agressive tactics feed Trump's deportation machine by increasing the number of immigrant New Yorkers who have a criminal record and thus enter the dragnet of Immigration and Customs Enforceent (ICE).

"Broken windows" policing creates a kind of de facto cooperation between the NYPD and ICE. Indeed, the New York Daily News has reported that that ICE agents "have even been waiting outside Manhattan misdemeanor arraignment courts in recent days to nab people after their court appearances."

THE TRUMP presidency will undoubtedly worsen the situation for working-class people and people of color in New York City. We can expect more cuts to in federal aid, more terror unleashed on undocumented immigrants and more bloodthirsty support for "law-and-order" policing.

But as we figure out how to build a resistance to Trump, we need to look at the strategies that haven't worked in order to find ones that can. Once again there is a lot of talk about how progressives can build a left wing inside the Democratic Party, but there's not enough sober assessment of how this went last time--not generations ago but in 2013.

The limitations of Bill de Blasio's time as mayor should make clear that we cannot rely on the progressive words of mayors and city council members to solve the city's ongoing problems with housing, homelessness and racist policing, or to protect the most marginalized of New Yorkers from Trump's racist, anti-immigrant policies.

Instead, we have to build up independent political organizations and social movements, from Black Lives Matter to the emerging sanctuary movement, that eventually grow powerful enough to beat back Trump's agenda and fight for the necessary reforms that can't come from relying on market forces.

Ryan de Laureal contributed to this article.

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