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De Blasio Focuses on Affordability Crisis in State of the City Speech


De Blasio at State of the City

Mayor de Blasio delivers State of the City speech (Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


At his fourth State of the City speech on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared an ambitious agenda to create thousands of jobs while continuing to expand affordable housing for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Speaking at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, de Blasio acknowledged in blunt terms that New York City is facing an affordability crisis that has been years in the making, resulting from rising rents and relatively stagnant incomes. “This affordability crisis threatens who we are, threatens the very soul of this city,” he said, stressing the need for his administration to do more to alleviate the economic anxiety felt across the city.

The mayor chose initially to forego his traditional style of rattling off key initiatives under the umbrella of his larger agenda, instead delivering an overall sobering message that the city’s successes from the last three years have not been felt equally among all its residents. Although he touted the progress of his affordable housing plan, which has so far financed and preserved more than 62,500 units of housing, he said the city also needs to ensure that incomes are keeping apace. “Everything we've been doing so far is necessary,” de Blasio said. “I believe it's right. But it's not sufficient...We have to now focus on the other half of the equation. We have to drive up incomes.”

His proposed solution was a broad plan to create 100,000 “permanent good-paying” jobs over the next ten years, with 40,000 created in the next four years. Some of this promised growth will come from plans already underway, the mayor said, including 9,000 jobs in the life sciences industry and 10,000 jobs created through the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

He also announced two new major initiatives. The city will invest $136 million to create a “Made in NY” manufacturing center for the fashion, film and food industry in Sunset Park. Construction on the campus will begin next year and by the time it is completed in 2020, it will create 1,500 permanent jobs and 543 temporary positions. De Blasio also pledged $2.6 billion over the next decade to retrofit public buildings with eco-friendly infrastructure, which he estimated will create about 30,000 construction jobs.

In last year’s State of the City speech, de Blasio seemed largely optimistic that the city was on the right track. On Monday, however, he noted that his administration’s major achievements from the last three years -- record-low crime levels, record-high school graduation rates and the implementation of universal prekindergarten for roughly 70,000 children, to name a few -- were “overshadowed” by the continuous struggle many New Yorkers face in an increasingly unaffordable city.

The speech struck a tone similar to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address last month, which focused on a middle class left behind in the state’s economic recovery since the Great Recession. The mayor similarly noted the economic “pain” that punctuated the national discourse during the 2016 presidential election and is still being felt by the public. He promised to directly address that prevailing sentiment while standing up to potentially harmful federal policies. “There's a lot of people in the city right now who fear for what's happening, and they fear that Washington won't have their back, that Washington is against them,” he said. “I want to say clearly to all of them, New York City will have your back.”

A few of the big initiatives the mayor mentioned include measures of housing affordability that were announced in the lead up to Monday’s speech and are meant to work in lockstep with the administration’s focus on creating jobs. These include a $1.9 billion capital fund commitment over the next seven years to provide 10,000 more units of affordable housing for New Yorkers making less than $40,000 a year. Half these homes will be dedicated to seniors and 500 will be set aside for veterans. The mayor also pushed his proposal of a Mansion Tax, a 2.5 percent levy on the sale of homes costing $2 million and more, which he said would raise $336 million in revenue that the city could use to subsidize rents for 25,000 seniors. The tax would require authorization from the state Legislature.

A third initiative, announced jointly with the City Council, is a program to provide universal access to legal services for tenants in housing court, with free representation for low-income New Yorkers earning below $50,000 a year. The city will allocate $15 million to the program in the 2018 fiscal year, increasing it to $93 million by fiscal year 2022, in addition to an existing $62 million yearly commitment to anti-eviction legal services. De Blasio also promised further policy announcements on homelessness, the opioid epidemic and traffic congestion in the new few weeks.

The mayor’s broad overtures to New Yorkers during a time of uncertainty at the national level are likely to carry forward as he begins to campaign in earnest for a second term. His chances of reelection remain strong with just under half of likely voters approving of his performance in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, a number that has slowly improved over the last few months. He also has few primary challengers, although that may change if there are any major developments in the ongoing state and federal investigations into his administration and his fundraising practices. The mayor maintains that his behavior and that of his associates did not violate the law, and none of them have been charged with a crime.

On Monday, de Blasio’s speech was reminiscent of his first campaign. “The message to the people of the city is, this is your city,” he said. “It's not something that belongs to those who happen to be most advantaged. It belongs to the people who made it great. It belongs to the people who built it. It belongs to the people who gave it its character, its culture, its heart and its soul.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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