Opinion: Where is the vision from New York’s leaders?

Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul should pursue transformative policies like free universal child care, a Social Housing Development Authority and tuition-free public education at CUNY and SUNY schools.

Ana María Archila and Jasmine Gripper were named co-directors of the New York Working Families Party in October 2023.

Ana María Archila and Jasmine Gripper were named co-directors of the New York Working Families Party in October 2023. New York Working Families Party

An easily forgotten fact about New York City is that until 1940, the subway system was operated by three separate corporations. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia understood that the city’s future depended on a single, unified transit system. So in 1940, the city made a bold and transformative decision: it purchased all three transit systems. The acquisition of the transit systems not only made it possible to plan for the city’s growth and for new neighborhoods to take root but also recast the subway in the eyes of New Yorkers as a public good meant to benefit all people.

When we think of New York’s most effective and longest-tenured executives, each has made a vital contribution to the city’s social and economic development. Ed Koch invested billions to revive housing in the Bronx, Harlem, and Central Brooklyn. In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched a precursor to the New Deal with the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, providing life-saving relief to families and creating new public jobs. David Dinkins opened dozens of health centers in many of the city’s least resourced communities. 

If you ask New Yorkers about Mayor Eric Adams’ achievements, it’s harder to think of what’s been added than what’s been taken away. Public school and child care funding has been slashed. Library hours have been dramatically scaled back. And New York’s landmark “right to shelter” law has been left in tatters. Similarly, at the state level, Gov. Kathy Hochul has failed to make the kind of deep investments in the public good that many New Yorkers had hoped for. Instead, her marquee project is a publicly-funded stadium for the Buffalo Bills that’s already running hundreds of millions over cost estimates.

Most recently, Adams and Hochul gave their blessing to the NYPD's violent crackdown on students protesting the catastrophic war in Gaza, repeating the mistakes of our past.

So the question is, where is the vision from New York’s leaders?

There are countless policy ideas that could have a transformative impact on New York’s economy and lower the cost of living for working people. Why not start with child care? It’s one of the largest monthly expenses for most families, and the unreliability of our current system impacts the ability of working parents to stay in their jobs. On the other side of the equation, many child care workers barely make enough money to pay their bills. A universal child care system would lower costs for families and provide a major boost to our entire economy.

For over one hundred years, CUNY was free for qualifying students, until tuition was phased in beginning in 1976. The city’s free college system created opportunities for generations of New Yorkers, including many Black, brown and low-income New Yorkers who had historically been denied access to higher education. Making our CUNY and SUNY systems tuition-free would once again allow New York to build one of the most educated workforces in the nation and give students of every background a pathway to higher education.

Earlier this year, Assembly Member Emily Gallagher and State Sen. Cordell Cleare introduced a bill to establish a Social Housing Development Authority. Decades ago, thousands of co-op and rental units were built under the Mitchell-Lama program. These apartments are still in high demand today. Yet despite the success of these programs, our state shifted resources away from public development toward a wasteful system of private tax breaks and incentives that have failed to deliver the amount of affordable housing we need. A 21st-century Mitchell-Lama program can play a vital role in addressing our state’s housing crisis.

These policies may seem ambitious, but many of New York’s greatest achievements seemed similarly lofty at the time. What was different in the past is that we had leaders with the political will to carry out their visions, even if that meant ruffling the feathers of the ruling class.

Make no mistake, we don’t look at New York’s past with rose-colored glasses. New York built its wealth on the backs of Black, brown and immigrant New Yorkers, communities that have continued to be denied an equal slice of the economic pie. The racial wealth gap in our state is one of the highest in the nation. But while our leaders are quick to talk about racial disparities, their words are seldom backed up with a vision for meaningfully addressing the inequality.

New York is a place of strivers and dreamers. That is what’s made our state such a powerful beacon for people from all around the world. No matter where we come from or when we arrived here, we all dream that our loved ones will be taken care of and our children will have it better than we did. We dream of having rewarding careers, safe and loving homes and time to spend with our families. And we deserve elected leaders who dream like we do.