In what was dubbed the first real “debate” of the 2013 election cycle, six New York City mayoral candidates squared off at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn last night on the topic of housing. The event was hosted by the Daily News in conjunction with Metro IAF, and drew a packed house, with audience participation a hallmark of the forum.
The candidates–City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former comptroller Bill Thompson, Comptroller John Liu, former MTA chairman Joe Lhota, and Manhattan Media Publisher Tom Allon [Manhattan Media is the parent company of City & State]–were posed housing-related questions by different audience members, who delivered personal anecdotes to give issues like affordable housing and housing for seniors a face and a name, lending a human interest aspect to the discussion.
Because of the time constraints, not all of the candidates were able to expound as much as others. Notably, the two Republicans on the panel, Lhota and Allon, got considerably less speaking time than their Democratic counterparts. Still, for the most part each candidate had their moment to shine, although rather than “debating” the housing issues by offering different ideas, the candidates were mostly complimentary of each other, with many proposals overlapping.
Quinn and de Blasio stood out the most–mainly because they took the most license with their speaking time–although with very contrasting styles. De Blasio, as well as most of the other candidates, chastised the Bloomberg administration for its perceived lackluster record on housing and the Hurricane Sandy recovery, comparing the mayor’s attitude toward the latter to former President George W. Bush standing on an aircraft carrier after invading Iraq under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished”. Thompson echoed that sentiment in a biting statement referencing the city’s botched plans for a marathon in the week after Sandy.
“This is a city administration that wanted to run a marathon while people were just moving into shelters and bodies were still being found,” Thompson said.
When the topic turned to the New York City Housing Authority and the myriad of self-inflicted problems the agency has had, de Blasio said that part of the problem is a lack of leadership from the mayor’s office, invoking a Sicilian expression, “a fish stinks from the head.”
“NYCHA can’t work if the mayor doesn’t care about people in public housing,” de Blasio said. “I have a huge critique of [NYCHA Chairman] John Rhea and his senior staff, but they’re not going to be able to fix NYCHA unless the mayor of the city says, ‘these 400,00-plus New Yorkers are a priority.’ Michael Bloomberg spends a lot of time looking the other way when it comes to NYCHA.”
Quinn, generally hesitant to criticize the mayor, who is one of his chief allies, took the opportunity to propose substantive solutions to the lack of affordable housing in the city. Quinn made the case for stronger rent protection laws that the state Legislature has “eroded,” and called for “a Mitchell-Lama program for the 21st century”–referring to the public housing program initiative developed in the 1950s–to spur the growth of new affordable housing units. She also committed to “politely” lobbying Albany for some of these changes.
“It’s just not right for people in Onondaga County to make decisions on our rent laws in New York City,” Quinn said.
The event was not without its colorful moments, with many of the candidates strategically dropping a well-placed soundbite to generate a response from the audience. De Blasio, when asked whether Congress is hampering the city’s relationship with Shaun Donovan, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the public advocate responded, “They’re having a little party in Congress, the problem is it’s a Tea Party.” He added that he felt the federal government had abandoned public housing at the behest of conservative, rural legislators with vastly different priorities.
Allon, despite not having as much speaking time as the others, slung some zingers to the audience’s delight. On the topic of mold remediation in homes affected by Sandy, Allon said, “The Department of Health, instead of chasing after people who are drinking 32-ounce soft drinks needs to declare a public health crisis,” mocking Bloomberg’s controversial soda ban. He also called NYCHA Chairman John Rhea “the Cathie Black of NYCHA,” a reference to the under-qualified former Schools Chancellor.
As the newest candidate to the race, and one who has received a fair amount of publicity in recent weeks, there was an expectation that Lhota might use the forum as a launching pad to present some of his campaign platform. Instead, Lhota looked tentative, as if he were wading into uncharted territory, rarely speaking with authority. He redeemed himself toward the end of the town hall-style debate when he made an interesting suggestion for rehabilitating NYCHA facilities, proposing that the ground floor of NYCHA buildings be converted into retail storefronts such as delis or cleaners, or even restaurants, and to use a portion of the money brought in from those businesses to help make repairs to the housing units.
“What are we going to do differently to improve the quality of life for people that live in NYCHA? One of the things that’s always bothered me about the housing facilities within NYCHA is that when you look at them, they’re not communities, they weren’t built that way, and I don’t know why it’s like that.” Lhota said.
One can be sure that this won’t be the last time the topic of housing is brought up during the mayoral race, and you can bet that in this part of Brooklyn, with housing projects lurking mere blocks away and dominating the skyline, that voters will not let the candidates forget it.
Tags: 2013 Mayoral Race, affordable housing, Bill De Blasio, Bill Thompson, Cathie Black, Christine Quinn, housing, joe lhota, John Liu, John Rhea, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Metro IAF, Mitchell-Lama, New York City Housing Authority, New York Daily News, rent protection, Sandy recovery, Shaun Donovan, soda ban, Superstorm Sandy, Tom Allon