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In State of the City, De Blasio Promises More from Government to Improve New Yorkers' 'Quality of Life'


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Mayor de Blasio gives his 2019 State of the City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Delivered his sixth State of the City address on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio loftily touted his accomplishments of the last five years and pledged ambitious efforts to make New York City “the fairest big city in the country.” Speaking at the Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the mayor unveiled new ideas aimed at improving the lives of working New Yorkers and reiterated sweeping proposals that he announced earlier this week on everything from health care to paid vacation days, early childhood education to bus speeds, and much more. He also outlined much, if not all, of the agenda he wants passed at the state level this year.

Before a packed auditorium filled with fellow elected officials -- including Attorney General Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council members, state legislators, and congressional representatives -- de Blasio spent nearly an hour invoking the themes of the “tale of two cities” that first got him elected mayor in 2013, with a newly stated focus on improving people’s “quality of life” and underscoring a call for the redistribution of income.

“Life in the fairest big city in America should never feel impossible,” he said, speaking of the personal struggle that he and First Lady Chirlane McCray faced when raising their children and also caring for their ailing parents. “We shouldn’t feel such pressure on the quality of our lives.”

The mayor articulated how working New Yorkers feel those pressures, and vowed new initiatives to provide relief. “Millions of people in this city, tens of millions across the country, are boxed in to lives that just aren't working for them,” he said. “You haven't been paid what you deserve for all the hard work. You haven't been given the time you deserve. You're not living the life you deserve.”

Among those proposals were two that the mayor announced this week, garnering national attention by releasing the announcements through national media. The first is an expansion of the city’s health care programs to provide care to 600,000 uninsured residents by increasing enrollment of insurance-eligible individuals in the city’s public option, MetroPlus, and by creating NYC Care, which would give undocumented immigrants and those who won’t or otherwise can’t join MetroPlus access to primary and specialty care, mental health services, and more. NYC Care, which aims to provide a health care card to as many eligible individuals as possible and match all of them to a primary care doctor, is expected to cost $100 million annually once fully implemented by 2021.

The second proposal is a push for City Council legislation, sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams since 2014, to guarantee two weeks of paid personal time to workers, which the city estimates could affect more than 500,000 full-time and part-time employees who currently receive no paid time off. It would apply to anyone working at a company or organization of more than five employees.

“For decades, working people have gotten more and more productive,” the mayor said. “At the same time, they've gotten a smaller and smaller share of the wealth they create. Here's the truth...there's plenty of money in the world. There's plenty of money in this city. It's just in the wrong hands.”

Though de Blasio has repeatedly called on state lawmakers to increase taxes on higher earners, and he did so again on Thursday, de Blasio has not convinced Governor Andrew Cuomo or state legislators to follow his pleas. Appearing somewhat resigned to that fact, even in a new Albany era where Democrats control the executive and legislative branches, de Blasio laid out a variety of other proposals he believes will foster greater equity.

Riding high on his successive policy announcements, the mayor seemed more emboldened and enthusiastic than during past State of the City addresses, which have at times been more sobering. Last year’s speech contained few novel ideas save for his announcement that he would convene a Charter Revision Commission to explore campaign finance reforms and improvements to voting and civic participation (the commission’s eventual proposals, including lower campaign contribution limits, a new civic engagement commission, and term limits for community board members, were overwhelmingly approved by voters in November). And that speech came on the heels of a successful 2017 reelection campaign in which de Blasio offered almost no new policy plans, largely pledging to deepen and expand ongoing work.

The mayor had more to offer on Thursday, though much of what he discussed also fits under the category of expanding existing programs, like a faster rollout of his 3-K initiative to provide free early education to three-year-olds. He announced a number of new proposals including expanding the mandate of the city’s consumer affairs department. De Blasio rechristened the agency the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, reflecting its new responsibilities of safeguarding the interests of all temporary and permanent workers, even undocumented ones, with a new focus, he said, on freelancers, nannies, and others who may not have traditional benefits through their employers.

The mayor also signed an executive order on the spot to create a new Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants, aimed at tamping down tenant abuse and combating predatory landlord practices. He also vowed that in cases of the worst landlords, who fail to rectify their behavior after repeated fines and violations, the city would move to seize buildings and transfer them to nonprofit management. It’s unclear whether the new mayoral office’s mandate would overlap with the Department of Buildings’ Office of Tenant Advocate, which was created by the City Council through legislation passed in 2017.

De Blasio also announced new public transportation initiatives, including an expansion of the NYC Ferry system, such as connecting Staten Island to the west side of Manhattan, and improvements to the bus system to ensure faster travel time, installing new protected bus lanes and an NYPD tow unit dedicated to keeping those lanes free of parked cars.

He did of course make it clear that the greatest transit priority for the city was funding the MTA to fix the subways -- he reiterated his support for a dedicated additional tax on high earners -- but seemed to acknowledge there’s more momentum for other options like congestion pricing, which he has warmed to without actually expressing support for. He called on his fellow elected officials to lobby the state before the budget is due on April 1. “In the next 80 days, the fate of the MTA, the fate of our subways and buses, will be determined once and for all,” he said.

Boasting of the success of his universal pre-kindergarten program, de Blasio also touted the expansion of prekindergarten to 3-year-olds, which he announced in 2017. The program is expected to reach 20,000 children in the coming school year, he said, outlining several new neighborhoods where the program will open soon. He also announced a new plan to recruit and retain more teachers at schools in the Bronx and an expansion of an existing partnership with Warby Parker to give free eye exams and glasses to kindergartners and first-graders across the city.

Early in the speech the mayor reviewed what he sees as some of his major successes, including early childhood education, higher graduation rates, record-low crime and traffic fatalities, more tenant protection, paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage, and more. He very briefly mentioned areas of significant challenge to his administration, such as management of crumbling public housing and reducing homelessness.

At different points, de Blasio ticked off aspects of what he wants to see from state government this year, especially from now until a new state budget is due April 1, a list topped by MTA funding, but also including criminal justice and voting reforms, an extension of mayoral control of city schools, and stronger rent regulations that help protect tenants.

Toward the end of the speech, de Blasio said the city would help establish retirement plans for all workers who lack them in the city. In 2016, the mayor had attempted to move forward with a “Retirement Security for All” plan but it was eventually hamstrung by federal regulatory changes signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. City Council Members Ben Kallos and I. Daneek Miller reintroduced the legislation before the Council earlier this year and heralded the mayor’s announcement, which follows a new state law with a similar goal. The city plans to help workers set up private retirement accounts and may mandate some businesses to offer the option for workers to make contributions to their accounts, but no public or private money will be contributed to the accounts, only a portion of workers’ income, if they choose to participate.

“This country has spent decades taking from working people and giving to the one percent,” de Blasio said. “This city has spent the last five years doing it the other way around. We give back to working people the prosperity they have earned. And we are just getting started.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Gives Little Mention to Several Major Challenges in State of the City Speech


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio touted significant accomplishments of his five years in office and laid out a new agenda for expanding his fight against inequality during his Thursday State of the City speech, he made little or no mention of a number of important challenges facing the city and his mayoralty.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the mayor barely mentioned the city’s public housing, which is crumbling, mismanaged, and mired in negotiations with federal authorities over its future, or many other issues he must deal with in 2019 and beyond. De Blasio’s opportunity to shape the narrative around the state of the city under his leadership was a chance for him to discuss safer streets, low crime, high employment, and the expansion of city government that he has overseen in his efforts to provide more of a safety net and greater equality. The annual event also afforded him the venue to lay out the next steps of his vision, and he certainly couldn’t address every issue, but after all the tumult around NYCHA in 2018, it spoke volumes how little the mayor spoke about the city’s public housing, as well as other topics of great importance.

“We're also showing public housing residents that we can begin to reverse decades of disinvestment and make their lives better,” de Blasio said, at the start of his sixth year in office. “The New York City Housing Authority has a plan to bring brand new everything to 175,000 NYCHA residents, from new roofs to new kitchens and bathrooms,” he added, but did not mention what is being done for the other 225,000-plus residents, or the issues of lead abatement and heat and hot water outages. He did not try to explain to or sell the city on his recently-released and controversial plan to increase the amount of new housing development on NYCHA land to bring in much-needed revenue to make repairs.

But NYCHA wasn’t the only important challenge he left mostly or completely on the sideline. De Blasio made minimal mention of the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis and what he’s doing about it, though he did discuss plans to enhance efforts to prevent evictions.

“We still grapple with too many people in this town who need our help because they're homeless,” he said, and highlighted that his administration has “moved more than 2,000 homeless New Yorkers off the streets and into a permanent situation where they can be taken care of and they can get the help they need” and that the city has closed 180 shelters. But he did not use the pulpit to reiterate his plan of opening up dozens of new shelters or to remind New Yorkers that all must work together to help those in need, including by accepting the opening of shelters in their neighborhoods.

The limited attention to what de Blasio has repeatedly said is his top failure as mayor reinforces the timidity of his goal of reducing the shelter census from roughly 62,000 to 57,500 over five years, and his refusal to adjust his affordable housing plan to provide more homes to those coming out of shelter.

De Blasio did not talk at all about increases in rape reports, failing to address the issue head on and assure New Yorkers that they should continue to report such crimes and that the city is enhancing its efforts to both prosecute offenders and help survivors. He did not mention police accountability, despite the fact that the officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s 2014 death is about to stand trial at the NYPD and the police commissioner has empaneled a special commission to suggest improvements to the disciplinary system that has regularly led to few, if any, consequences for officers who break the public trust. He did not discuss efforts to reduce racial disparities in law enforcement, even as he touted how arrests and the jail population are down significantly since he took office, while most major crimes are also down.

The mayor made a very brief mention of corporate giant Amazon agreeing to build a new campus in Queens, despite the fact that just two months ago he announced the deal among the city, the state, and Amazon as a major victory for the city and its residents. That deal has been the subject of intense protests from elected officials and activists, with de Blasio distancing himself from some of the subsidies involved and insisting that while it’s a big net positive for New Yorkers, he’ll be working with Amazon on its labor practices, relationship with federal immigration authorities, and more. De Blasio shied away from centering the Amazon deal in his argument for how New York is becoming a more fair city with opportunity for everyone.

Early on in his remarks, he said, “New York City is now one of the world's premiere tech hubs, and all those jobs are now here for the people of New York City. The major new announcements from Amazon and Google show that the world's most innovative companies want to be here, and they want to hire New Yorkers.” And that was it for Amazon.

Even as he repeatedly talked about efforts to make New York “the fairest big city in the country,” de Blasio made no mention of the new Fair Fares program whereby low-income New Yorkers will get reduced-priced Metrocards to more easily ride the subways and buses. The glaring omission of a program the mayor just held a mostly celebratory press conference about reinforces the notion that he has not prioritized Fair Fares, which he rolled out late and in underwhelming fashion.

De Blasio did not address the city’s most-struggling schools, even as more of them face potential closure and his program to rescue them, Renewal Schools, is not showing the results that were hoped for, even promised. He announced an expanded program to get free eyeglasses to young students who need them and additional neighborhoods that will see his 3-K program for three-year-olds, and he talked up the city’s graduation rate, but he did not dive into the most difficult aspects of the education system he runs, like work to integrate the city’s deeply segregated schools, even as he talked about needing state government approval later this year to allow him to keep running it.

De Blasio also did not talk about impending neighborhood rezonings, where the city is aiming to add to its list of communities where it has changed land use rules in order to build more housing, some of it affordable, and make investments as part of the mayor’s much-discussed housing plan.

That housing plan and some of the rezonings that have occurred have been the target of significant criticism as de Blasio has repeatedly dismissed calls for his housing plan to better serve lower-income New Yorkers and people experiencing homelessness, though he has tweaked the plan multiple times. He has also been questioned for almost exclusively upzoning low-income communities of color, as opposed to seeking more housing density, including many affordable units, in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Like on other fronts, it was a missed opportunity to make a very public pitch for his plans, lay markers, and sway public opinion behind them.

While the mayor raised many eyebrows and grabbed some national headlines with something of a reinvigorated approach to his annual speech and several new and exciting proposals -- from increasing bus speeds to mandating paid vacation time, some of which, if implemented well, promise to improve people's lives -- he glossed over several significant crises facing the city, leaving others to give a more sober assessment of its state.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's 2019


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Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


January 9, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's 2019

jill jorgensen jan 9Mayor de Blasio had a tumultuous and somewhat sleepy 2018, the first year of his second term after winning reelection in a race where he offered few new ideas, but has come out of the gate in 2019 with new energy and proposals. Jill Jorgensen of the Daily News, who has covered de Blasio closely for most of his tenure as mayor, joined the show to discuss where de Blasio stands as the new year begins, his recent proposals and choppy rollout of the Fair Fares discount Metrocard program, his impending State of the City address, and other important matters and dynamics.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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