NEW YORK — Bill de Blasio, the public advocate and Democratic mayoral candidate, first got elected to city government in 2001. Well known within political circles but not yet a household name, he is seen as the liberal choice in the mayoral race, angling to represent the increasingly assertive influencers living in the outer boroughs, especially in the "new Brooklyn," where he resides with his family in Park Slope. In a recent interview, he spoke to the Gotham Gazette about the city's budget, the role of the private sector in public education and the need to reform the public housing agency.
GG: The Department of Education has received considerable financial and professional support from the private sector. What role should the private sector — either business people or companies — play in financing, shaping or steering the DOE and its policies?
DE BLASIO: One, I want to continue the charitable support we get obviously. Two, I've said, not to the private sector, per se, but to folks who've done well financially — I've proposed a tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers, those who make a $500k and more for five years — I think that will be a game changer in our schools. The money would go to early childhood and afterschool programs at the middle school level. I think that will profoundly improve our school system and the rest of the resources will be better utilized because we are building a stronger foundation.
But in terms of the role of the business community in schools, I'd like to intensify it, first at the high school level on down to the middle school level to the maximum extent possible, linking individual businesses and or sectors, tech sector, film, TV, media etc., to specific schools.
GG: How does that work?
DE BLASIO: I think one of the things that's happening is that a lot of young people, aren't being given a sense of a pathway, after school. A lot of folks are going to have trouble affording higher education or completing it, because of the cost. Right now, our school system, including our approach to career and tech education, really doesn't key into the current economy and where the jobs are going to be, in the economic future.
But, if you link, a specific business to a school, that comes with internships, mentoring possibilities, that really changes our approach, and certainly what young people get to see as possible for their future. So I want the business community deeply involved.
And, in terms of strategy, when it comes to career and technical education, we should be regularly sitting with leaders of the business community to figure out what skills we should be teaching to help prepare our workforce of the future.
GG: Throughout much of the budget process, the mayor's Office of Management and Budget has been criticized by some observers because of what they see as a lack of transparency. As mayor, what will you do to make the OMB be more accountable to both the public and elected officials.?
DE BLASIO: A lot of what we do with the budget process can only be described as primitive, it's based on a lot of secrecy, not allowing the public to know what the real revenue projections are, you know, playing games with that.
I don't even need to go into the problem of member items in the City Council, which I've called for abolition of, the way that the budget process keys in on the mayor offering the Council, a very small amount of the budget, and using that as a tool of political control, how the Council speaker uses that same small allotment to control the members as opposed to actually having a larger public debate on our budgetary priorities and where the real money is.
The Council is arguing over that small amount of funding they get to work with. That is less than one percent of the overall budget. The big questions are, what are we doing with our major choices, like education, affordable housing, health care? Those are things we put a huge amount of money in.
I want to move us to a more mature, more transparent, more publicly involving approach, somewhat like what you see at the Congressional level. And I think the public needs to have a role from the beginning.
GG: I have to ask this. There's been some press and a lot of talk, in particular the mayor himself, about what some are calling New York's coming fiscal cliff. Some have put the figure owed at around $7.8 billion, and one of you is going to inherit that. Unions in the city haven't gotten any new raises in over four years [Editor's Note: Clarifies that there have been no new raises. Union members have received incremental salary increases under old contracts]. How do you foresee handling that?
DE BLASIO: Look, I have confidence that we can work our way through it. I think everyone knows they're going to have to make compromises in this process. The Bloomberg approach had two features that I think we really need to move away from. One was the irresponsibility of not dealing with the contracts as they came up. As mayor, well, I'm watching the Bloomberg example carefully to know what not to do. You have to deal with these things in real time. It's like any household budget, when you let stuff build and build it becomes insurmountable. But, two, is the mayor has often used his bully pulpit to attack municipal labor. And, interestingly, that has correlated with his inability to get realistic agreements including some of the productivity changes we need because the attacks have just hardened the position of municipal labor.
GG: So, as mayor, how would you engage municipal unions on this issue?
DE BLASIO: What I plan to do is sit at the table with union leaders and say look, here's our financial reality. We want to try and do that which we can for you. We can only do that with what we have and we can't surpass the resources we have — we are legally obliged to balance our budget. So, what I will ask of every union, is show me every kind of savings, every kind of productivity improvement, and tell me your priorities. And then I'll tell you what I have to work with. I'll tell you the different policies we can work together on to improve working conditions, etc. And we'll come to some kind of balance point.
And I'm convinced, even if it means, if it takes several years to resolve all the outstanding issues, and stretch out some of the payments, so we can afford them, we'll get through it.
But we'll only get through it if there's a cooperative atmosphere, and if we treat labor leaders like they're mature people, who know how to handle a difficult situation, certainly the experience in the 1970's fiscal crisis suggests that when treated as partners labor can be fair and balanced in their approach.
GG: On to real estate and climate change. In light of the widely held assumption that our sea levels are rising, what will be your specific approach to waterfront development. How will you work with the real estate community on construction issues related to climate change? Some say developers could stand to lose with stronger restrictions — then again, could they stand to profit from smarter building science?
DE BLASIO: I think more the latter. Look, I'm going to borrow a couple of pieces from Bloomberg, then an important piece from Cuomo. I think Bloomberg is right, we are a coastal city and we should not assume otherwise. There's climate change, we have rising sea levels and we're going to face greater challenges than before, but, that does not mean a retreat, it means changing how we build.
I think it's fair to say, even taking the extraordinary example of Sandy — and Sandy really was a quote unquote perfect storm — when you look at all the things that sort of happened simultaneously to make it have the impact it had, had we had in place the kind of building codes the mayor is proposing now, such as generators weren't in the basement, we would have had a very different outcomes.
So I don't think we have to retreat, but we have to build very differently. I think that will afford perfectly good opportunities to the real estate industry to continue to profit. They're doing very well right now. Values in this city are extraordinarily high and the appeal of this city is extraordinarily high and I don't think that's going to change.
I think the governor made the point that some of the low lying areas, even areas that are below sea level such as a few areas on Staten Island, we have to incentivize people to move from areas that are no longer sustainable for the long term. I think we have to see how far we can go with the incentivization, and hopefully get that to work. But, that's a fairly small number of areas. But even the Rockaways, which was hit so hard — I agree with the mayor's focus in his plans, for example, [for] dune restoration and wetlands restoration. These are approaches that have been working around the world.
But even in the real life example of the Rockaways during Sandy, some areas that had built up the dunes, did quite well; other areas, of course, were hit very hard. I'm optimistic we have of the tools and, thank God, we have a lot of the federal funding, not everything, but a lot, and we will find a way to make the right adjustments and continue to be a successful coastal city.
GG: This year, news came out that the city’s Housing Authority had yet to spend nearly $1 billion in federal money despite a backlog of complaints from residents seeking repairs and a growing waiting list of applicants. In June, NYCHA announced that it would cut back on services and lay off staff due to $205 million in budget cuts resulting from the federal sequestration. How do you make NYCHA more accountable to taxpayers and residents? And what would your administration do to address the agency’s ongoing budget problems?
DE BLASIO: To the first point, just about affordable housing in general, there's an affordability crisis in this city and it cannot be solved with business as usual. The Bloomberg administration was often very lenient to the real estate industry. And, when you look at the final figures on the Bloomberg years, and the affordable housing they created or preserved verses that which was lost because of loss of Mitchell Lama units, rent regulated units, we really didn't end up with much of a net of affordable housing.
So, the plan I put forward, 200,000 units, is based on a much more aggressive approach by the public sector towards the real estate industry demanding that affordable housing be a part of every major development and be required, mandatory inclusionary zoning. And a series of other steps, investing pension fund dollars etc.
The big point, I want to make, is that we have to change a lot of our approach to housing or a huge number of people will not be able to live here. We will not be an economically diverse city. And we have to continue to be an economically diverse city.
GG: And public housing?
DE BLASIO: The current Bloomberg plan I do not support because I think it was rushed, as so many other things the mayor has done lately. I don't think it makes clear to public housing residents that we will disallow privatization, I think residents worry its a first step towards privatization of public housing units, which would be fundamentally destructive and unacceptable. It didn't involve community members properly in the process and doesn't offer guarantees in terms of employment or where any resources from development will go to people in the surrounding areas.
I think its an ill conceived project that has to be stopped. I think the next mayor needs to look at the whole question of any available NYCHA land very differently, and start with the residents and what will benefit the residents of NYCHA and start with some of these huge repair backlogs.
GG: What about that billion dollars?
DE BLASIO: The billion dollars that has not been spent effectively is a huge problem but the bigger problem, in my opinion is that there's been a history of inefficiency at NYCHA and poor labor management relations. A lot was not done, with even the money we've had.
As public advocate, the number one complaint that I got, is from public housing residents calling about serious repairs, they needed health and safety oriented repairs, and not being able to get them, even after years of being on a wait list.
That showed me, and we've researched this extensively, that NYCHA is simply not professionally managed. And we have to go back and do some serious restructuring, not just at the board level, but on the whole managerial approach and the labor relations.
Beyond that, we have to find a way to change the federal government involvement which used to be much, much greater in NYCHA, that's going to take time, but it's something I believe ultimately can be achieved because of the importance of New York City to the future of the nation's economy.
So a lot of different pieces, but it starts with much deeper reorganization of NYCHA to make more efficient use of the money we have now.