Interviews & Profiles

Mark Levine talks housing, casinos and the scourge of sidewalk sheds

Mark Levine talks housing, casinos and the scourge of sidewalk sheds

Mark Levine caught up with City & State to discuss his plans for new construction to house Manhattan residents, his fight against sidewalk sheds and the coming bidding war for new downstate casino licenses.

Mark Levine caught up with City & State to discuss his plans for new construction to house Manhattan residents, his fight against sidewalk sheds and the coming bidding war for new downstate casino licenses. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

Can Manhattan build 73,000 new homes and take down the stubborn eyesores that are sidewalk sheds? Borough President Mark Levine sure hopes so. 

The Democrat and former City Council member caught up with City & State to discuss his plans for new construction to house Manhattan residents, his fight against sidewalk sheds and the coming bidding war for new downstate casino licenses.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your recent housing plan identified 171 sites in Manhattan where you estimate more than 73,000 homes could be built. These are lots, boarded up buildings, an abandoned bus depot. What are going to be the biggest challenges of implementing this?

In a borough like Manhattan where average rents are $5,000 a month, we are at risk of becoming a city where only the millionaires can afford to get an apartment. So people have responded with unbelievably positive feedback – community board members, elected officials, regular activists. But there's still going to be pushback when it comes down to the approval process at the local level. It's just inevitable that people will raise objections. And most of these (sites) will require some public process. They're either neighborhood rezonings, or they are sites which might be owned by a city agency where there will be public action. We've all got to be ready to make the case. Of course, we want to be sensitive to neighborhood context, we want to be sensitive to quality of life and livability of neighborhoods. But we have an imperative here. We have got to build more housing, and that cannot take a backseat anymore. Or we're all gonna get priced off this island.

The plan specifies that more than 40% of the proposed new homes would be affordable. Can you talk about the details of that, and how deep affordability would be worked in?

We're projecting that as many as 30,000 of the units that we identified in the plan would be income targeted (and) would be affordable. That's just an astounding number. The potential to add that kind of affordable housing would be a game changer for so many Manhattanites. There are so many different sites in the plan that there's a variety of different housing programs we expect would fund that housing, so we think we could have income levels up and down the socioeconomic scale. I don't believe in neglecting the lowest end of the economic ladder, which is what we've done for too long. But I'm also aware there are people who, while not wealthy, are making $60,000 or $80,000 a year, and they too can’t afford housing in Manhattan. So we envision a plan which has some income targets that are accessible to working class families as well.

And is there a cost attached to this plan?

We did not calculate a cost. So much of this is going to be driven by private investment because we've created Mandatory Inclusionary Housing that mandates developers do affordability on their dime. So we're taking advantage of that. On our public sites, and we have about 80 public sites that we identified in the plan, there, we are calling for 100% affordability. And that's going to require public investment. And we do have a challenge there, I want to be honest. The main vehicle that we have used for decades to finance affordable housing in the city, especially for 100% affordable projects that we do on public sites, is something called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. It's federal money, and New York is running out. We are running out of our allocation. And it's leading to delays of years. These are projects, including in Manhattan, where everybody agrees there should be affordable housing. It’s not a NIMBY issue. The city agrees, it’s not an agency in the city fighting to keep the space. It’s just that there’s not enough tax credit allocation. And we're really going to need help from our federal partners on this.

Are these conversations that you’ve had with the city, the state and the federal government on this? 

Yes. The United States is not running out of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. But there's a volume cap on regions. And New York City is hitting its cap, even while other regions of the country are leaving some of their tax credits unused. So we could solve this problem without adding a penny to the federal budget or the deficit. Just allow us to use the tax credits which are not being applied in other parts of the country. Allow us to get out from under our cap. 

We also have City Council primaries coming up in just a few months. Do you expect housing creation to be a potent issue? In Harlem, for example, Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan has faced criticism from opponents over her opposition to the failed One45 development.

I think for a long time in New York City politics, questions of rezonings and development and housing have been a potent issue. But it’s almost always just been on one side. People opposing housing creation. There was just about always a political upside in that. Sometimes the only competition was who could be more oppositional. In the last six to 12 months, there's been a real shift. I think that people are so alarmed at the lack of affordable housing, that the conversation has changed. And you do have voters actually now demanding from their elected officials that they create more housing. In the Harlem race, the candidates aren’t competing to be the most against that project, they’re all talking about ways to get it done. That’s new in politics. 

You also recently drew attention to the scourge of sidewalk sheds. What do you see as the low-hanging fruit to address these structures that have been getting complaints for a long time?

New Yorkers are pissed off about this. They have every reason to be. There are 4,000 sidewalk sheds in Manhattan alone. Over 200 have been out for five years or more, and some have been out for 10 or 15 years. There are smart policies we can put into place that will ensure facade work is done more quickly, which is ultimately the problem. We're proposing carrots and sticks to do that. We want to create a loan fund that would help to finance facade repairs if there's a case of a building who wants to do the right thing, but just can't afford it. But we want sticks too. We want to increase the fines for the buildings that are just refusing to do the right thing. And in extreme cases, we want the city to go in and do the work – prepare the facade, take the scaffolding down and bill the landlord, put a lien on the building. 

There are a handful of proposals in Manhattan for one of the three new downstate casino licenses coming from the state. Do you want to see a casino built in the borough?

We are very early in the process. It is too soon to rule anything out or in because we only have vague outlines of the plans. We have to look at the potential upsides and the potential downsides. There is potentially real economic benefit, employment benefit, and that shouldn’t be minimized. There's also possibly a negative impact on quality of life and there's a risk of gambling addiction. So we have to weigh it all when we know more about these plans. I’ll have a voice on every proposal in Manhattan through the local committees. It’s too soon for me to render a yay or nay. I think this is the time to ask tough questions about what these projects mean for neighborhoods. And boy, I’m having a lot of conversations. We're hearing from the applicants more and more frequently. It seems like every lobbyist in town has been hired by one bid or another. I don't think New York City has ever seen anything like this. And it’s happening fast, the main local piece is going to happen this calendar year. So fasten your seat belt.

At the beginning of this week, New York was dealing with the collapse of Signature Bank. A few days in, are you feeling like customers can rest a bit easier? And did you have any money there?

No, I didn’t. I'm relieved that the state stepped in and the FDIC is now managing day to day. I think it was the right decision for the federal government to guarantee everyone's deposit there. But it doesn’t appear that we have completely calmed the waters yet. There are other small regional banks in New York City. I've spoken to leaders at several of them, and they are holding steady for now. Perhaps New Yorkers don’t realize just how many small and mid-size banks there are. It’s not all J.P. Morgan and CitiBank. And the smaller banks are more vulnerable. But I have confidence in the state Department of Financial Services. They acted with a steady hand and with appropriate speed, and I have faith that they’ll continue to manage this crisis well.

What are some of the smaller and mid-sized banks that you’ve had those conversations with?

I think I'm not gonna mention any by name, because I’ve had confidential conversations. But there are plenty of them. I'm keeping in touch with a few where I have contacted leadership. And so far, the reports are reassuring.

As you noted, we marked the third anniversary of the first recorded COVID-19 death in New York City this week. And you’ve mentioned that there’s still not a permanent memorial to the victims of COVID-19. What would you want that kind of memorial to look like and include?

We just didn't have adequate opportunity to mourn, just because of the scale of the loss and the fact that it was such a long crisis. If you look at 9/11, as horrific as it was, we were able to very quickly pivot to identifying and profiling every victim from the initial attack. And over time we’ve lost more people to 9/11-related illness, but we've been able to appropriately identify them as well. And the truth is that most people who died from COVID were never even named in the press, let alone get an obituary or proper memorialization. I do think that for the city to heal, we need a space, a place that represents our anguish and our loss. There are a number of interesting, inspiring ideas that I've heard – none of which are far enough along. There’s talk about the old smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island serving this function. (That’s) an important site in the history of our battle with infectious disease. I’ve heard a great suggestion that a memorial – or the memorial – be in Corona, Queens, at Elmhurst Hospital, because of that being the epicenter of the epicenter. But none of these projects are far enough along. And that, to me, is disappointing.