Kathryn Garcia (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Kathryn Garcia is running for mayor chiefly on her city government experience, but she’s also pitching voters on her ideas for the future, and where the two merge: the notion that she has the right plans and can execute them. The city sanitation commissioner for six years until she stepped down to run for mayor, Garcia has also been interim chair of the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, the covid emergency “food czar,” and in other roles under Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom she has sharply criticized early on in her mayoral campaign to succeed him, and worked in city government during the Bloomberg administration.
Garcia launched her campaign in December with a long list of policy planks on several topics, and has since built out some of those ideas, particularly through the release of her first detailed policy plan, which is focused on combating climate change and creating a more resilient city. She has also provided additional details on her ideas on several important issues on her campaign website and in public appearances such as candidate forums, a public interview with a housing advocacy group, and more.
Early in her campaign, Garcia has offered her most detailed vision for the future of the city on the topics of climate and housing, while providing a number of principles in areas such as recovery from COVID-19, improving how government works, transit, education, and policing. She has said that her top three focus areas are defeating and recovering from the pandemic, providing basic city services well, and dealing with the impacts of climate change.
One of many Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for mayor in the upcoming June primary, Garcia is part of a diverse and still-growing field, but believes she can separate herself based on her government experience, especially as a “crisis manager,” and her focus on delivering city services and advancing the best interests of the city regardless of political allegiances or special interests. Like several other prominent candidates in the race, Garcia has never run for elected office before, but she says that the covid crisis, and de Blasio’s mismanagement of it and his budget cuts to the sanitation department, pushed her to leave government and jump into the race.
“The next mayor’s going to inherit a shitshow,” Garcia says in a video on her website, saying that the city’s financial situation is “worse than the 1970s” and that her management experience qualifies her to fix it.
Garcia is running on accomplishments she cites included helping to design and usher in an overhaul of the private waste-carting industry; establishing the city’s composting program; contributing to the city’s effort to ban many uses of styrofoam; and work she did under Bloomberg at the Department of Environmental Protection to secure the city’s fresh water supply.
Along with the substance of the plans and principles she has offered so far, and in comments at forums and interviews, Garcia displays her detailed knowledge of government, frequently emphasizes the need to reduce or streamline bureaucracy, and says it is essential the next mayor better manages the city, in part by setting clear goals for agencies in order to hold them accountable.
Covid Recovery and Better Government
Garcia’s ideas for recovery and better government, though light on details, offer broad initial strokes with some big and precise ideas, and emphasize improving economic mobility and minimizing unnecessarily bureaucratic processes.
According to Garcia’s initial outline for the city’s recovery from COVID-19, when she takes office in 2022, she’ll make sure that every last New Yorker gets vaccinated and take a “public health focused, risk-management approach to reopening.” COVID-19 recovery, Garcia recognizes, also requires economic relief.
Her recovery sketch says that as mayor, she would ensure universal broadband and offer free childcare for 1-to-3-year-olds whose families make less than $70,000.
Her administration would create a pipeline from CUNY colleges to jobs and guarantee city jobs to graduates of trade schools, she pledges. Garcia would subsidize wages for “youth who face barriers to employment” and work with the private sector to offer 10,000 internships to high school students. She’d expand the Summer Youth Employment Program to include employment opportunities in the private sector. Her education plan says she’d also put work-based learning coordinators in all high schools.
Garcia would “increase access to credit and non-dilutive capital for the City’s vital and at risk enterprises at amounts less than $100K and support innovative financial mechanisms that serve small businesses,” her recovery outline says.
She would seek to streamline laws and regulations for restaurants and nightlife establishments and cap third-party app commissions, helping restaurants that work with delivery apps. Garcia is also pledging to update zoning rules so that spaces can be used in different ways — for example, converting office space to housing — and to work with the state to reduce commercial vacancies.
“Government at its best should be seamless for New Yorkers,” Garcia says in a video on her website.
All mayoral initiatives and agencies should share metrics and “be transparent and accountable to the public,” including, her plan says, the Office of Management and Budget.
Her better government plan says that as mayor, she would also eliminate “redundant inspections and enforcement” and “obsolete and unnecessary rules” that slow government down, she says, though she names only a few initial examples. And she would make it easier to obtain permits and apply for benefits so that people can do so with only a smartphone, though she does not yet explain how.
Garcia has repeatedly said she wants to speed government up so the city can see more economic activity, more housing development, and other benefits. She would also focus on completing city capital projects on time and within budget constraints.
The city’s departments dealing with buildings, housing, water, transportation, and more should all be better aligned for New Yorkers who are trying to open a businesses or build housing or do a number of other tasks, she says, and while many agree with this and other principles, Garcia argues that she is the candidate best suited to actually get these dry but essential goals accomplished.
Her plan for better government points out that agencies often have to choose the cheapest contractor even when that contractor has a history of poor service. “We won’t tolerate that anymore,” the plan says.
She’d “pursue reforms” of the role of the city comptroller in capital projects so that more agencies can bypass its “office bureaucracy without sacrificing quality, accountability, or transparency,” arguing that a system in place that has helped speed things up for the School Construction Authority should be extended to “NYCHA and the rest of the city’s transportation, housing, parks, and infrastructure projects.”
“We don’t stop doing what we need to do waiting for a plan,” Garcia said in a recent interview with Open New York, an organization focused on encouraging more housing development in the city, especially in wealthier areas. “I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We need things to be happening right now and not in five years or ten years.”
Climate and Resiliency
“Climate change is the defining issue of our time,” Garcia says in a video on her website. Her climate plan is focused on expanding green infrastructure, reducing waste and carbon emissions, recycling, and building resilience.
Her plan says she’d increase green infrastructure citywide. Converting Rikers Island into a “renewable energy zone” with solar panels, large battery storage, composting sites, and electric charging stations for the city’s electric buses is one big idea within the plan. Garcia would “maximize every opportunity” to build bluebelts for storm management, rain gardens to soak in rain water runoff, and cool roofs, the plan says.
She would convert all Department of Education roofs to green roofs and implement green schoolyards, starting with schools more than a half mile away from parks and in areas that are most sensitive to floods or intense heat. A Garcia administration would also expand the city’s free air conditioner program to mitigate the adverse health effects of extreme heat.
In order to reduce the city’s carbon emissions, Garcia would focus on heat and hot water in housing, incentivizing the use of “highly efficient heat pump technologies” instead of burning fossil fuels. The plan says she’d explore an innovative “carbon trading program” for buildings and incentivize energy efficiency upgrades at smaller buildings where the carbon emissions caps and other mandates of Local Law 97 do not apply.
Garcia’s plan includes switching to electric cars and buses. It says her administration would triple the availability of public car chargers, use parking discounts and property tax rebates to incentivize people to install their own car chargers, electrify more than 10,000 school buses, ensure the MTA bus system is electric by 2040, and develop additional grid capacity to accommodate the increased number of electric vehicles, including sanitation vehicles.
In order to move closer to zero waste, a Garcia administration would focus on waste reduction. It would pursue “extended producer responsibility” (EPR), and strengthen city procurement rules so that city construction and purchasing requires using recycled and post-consumer materials. Garcia’s recovery plan says that she would incentivize growth within the biotech sector, which could have implications for healthcare, food, and the environment.
She would also bring back and mandate curbside organics collection, which was cut this year amid the city’s fiscal challenges brought on by COVID-19, and open compost facilities in all five boroughs. Garcia also proposes setting up a system for converting food scraps into home electricity.
“We still are no better prepared for Hurricane Sandy than we were the day that happened,” she said in the Open New York interview. In order to protect the city against climate-related weather events, Garcia’s plan says she’d work with the Department of Transportation and Con Edison to bring the “most vulnerable utilities” underground. As for storm surge, she’d produce “a real framework” for the city’s coastline. In some neighborhoods, her plan says, additional planning is unnecessary — the city only needs to execute plans that already exist.
Garcia’s plan says that environmental justice is an important part of climate action. “Every action we take will be measured and held to the only standard that makes sense,” the plan says: “are we protecting our most vulnerable communities?” Garcia’s recovery plan says that environmental projects would be funded using money from the federal government.
“We know that housing equals healing, and that health and housing are linked,” Garcia said at a December housing forum with other mayoral contenders. “Safe, secure, affordable housing is a basic human right,” her website says.
As mayor, Garcia would create 50,000 units of “deeply” affordable housing for those who make less than 30% of the area median income — she has been among those critical of de Blasio’s housing plan for not focusing enough on the lowest-income New Yorkers.
“We will comprehensively zone for more affordable housing citywide, focusing on neighborhoods rich in transit, jobs, and schools,” her housing plan says. In the Open New York interview, Garcia expressed support for a proposed SoHo/NoHo rezoning and the Gowanus rezoning to increase housing supply, including affordable housing, in two whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. All of de Blasio’s neighborhood rezonings for more housing, and other community development, have been in lower-income communities that are predominantly communities of color.
At the December housing forum, Garcia also expressed support for new housing development on NYCHA land, often referred to as “infill development” and a controversial issue among Democratic candidates, NYCHA residents, and others.
She would also make it easier for private partners to build more housing in general by accelerating approvals for housing construction and streamlining the city’s land use change review process (ULURP) and the environmental review process. She’d also legalize basement apartments, accessory dwelling units, and single-room occupancy apartments, she says. “We cannot reduce the housing prices without increasing supply,” her plan says. In the Open New York interview, she expressed frustration with height requirements for basement apartments.
Garcia said in the same interview that she supports increasing the CityFHEPS rental assistance voucher amount, “as long as we’re not saying we’re giving them a $5,000 voucher,” which are provided to people experiencing homelessness so they can afford stable housing. A proposal in the City Council would increase the voucher amounts so that homeless people and families could better afford apartments throughout the city. Garcia said she supports building mixed-income housing, where a certain portion of new housing must be affordable, but thinks it must be implemented differently in neighborhoods where “the market doesn’t support it.”
Garcia also said that she thinks the pandemic is a good time for the government to finance more housing development. “You can’t deficit-spend for operating money. You can absolutely deficit-spend for construction,” she said. “We should be maximizing a 0% interest rate environment, one because it’ll be cheaper for the city, but two: you want to be countercyclical. You want to be building when the private sector isn’t to get people back to work.”
She said in the same interview that if she had her way on the matter she would reform the city’s outdated and unequal property tax system, something de Blasio has dragged his feet on for his entire seven-year tenure. Garcia said she would make it so that property taxes are determined by a property’s market value, and she’d provide credits or circuit breakers (tax refunds) to people who have lived places for very long times and then had big jumps to their property tax bills that they could not afford. “We need to make it so that it’s transparent,” she said. “One of the things that’s insane is that nobody can figure out what their property taxes are.”
She said that the 421a property tax exemption program meant to spur some affordable housing in the most expensive parts of the city should only apply in rare cases, and that the city doesn’t need to give big tax breaks for new construction.
“NYCHA doesn’t need another plan,” Garcia’s housing plan says. “Residents have seen plan after plan after plan, including 3 plans under the de Blasio administration.” Instead, Garcia says the current plan needs to be pushed ahead aggressively, utilizing a variety of tools while better managing public housing in the city and also securing more funding from the federal government. Garcia would focus on installing new boilers, hiring more plumbers, fixing broken elevators, and eliminating mold, she says, while also pursuing expanded use of current federal voucher programs, creating the proposed public housing trust, selling NYCHA air rights, advancing infill development, and other key planks of the current NYCHA Blueprint for Change plan.
“We will leverage substantial federal money available in Section 8” — a federal rental housing assistance program — “and other programs to fix units so NYCHA residents can be proud of their homes,” her plan says. While she, Eric Adams, and Shaun Donovan (the former Bloomberg housing commissioner and Obama housing secretary) have expressed support for the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, program that allows NYCHA units to be managed privately in part by leveraging those federal vouchers, other candidates disagreed about RAD at the housing forum, with some arguing that the program removes agency for NYCHA residents and is on the path to privatizing public housing, which Garcia, Adams, and Donovan disagreed with.
Garcia’s plan says that she’d also address homelessness in part by building 10,000 units of “supportive housing” where social services are provided, though she does not say over how many years or how this relates to the city’s current plans to build thousands of such units. To do so, the city would buy and convert empty or underused private properties, like hotels and office buildings, Garcia says. At the forum, she also proposed “changing our laws around hotels to ensure that there are services for people who are homeless” and living in hotels temporarily, a source of controversy and a practice de Blasio has put the city on a path toward ending but that has been reinvigorated during the pandemic to provide more isolation.
As mayor, Garcia would also ensure that “families, women and children” receive comprehensive services in shelters, including education, health services, and job preparation. She’d open 10 24-hour drop-in centers in “key neighborhoods” to provide bathrooms and critical services and begin the process for getting homeless people to shelters. She would also “ensure that homeless services and economic development and housing all report into the same deputy mayor, who will be held accountable to treating housing issues with one comprehensive approach.”
Transit, Education, and Police Reform
Garcia’s initial sketches of proposals for transit, education, and police reform emphasize safety.
Garcia does not support “defunding the NYPD,” she said in a December candidate forum, though she has said that there are responsibilities currently performed by police officers that she wants to reduce or hand off to other professionals, among other reform measures. She said she would have “the guts” to hold police officers and commanders accountable for their actions. That’s what she did as city sanitation commissioner when workers “crossed the line,” her website says.
The NYPD recruitment age should go from 21 to 25, Garcia’s platform says, and there should be a New York City residence requirement for new recruits, increased training for mid-level management, expanded implicit bias training, and, as proponents of defunding the police have recommended, professionals qualified to address mental health and domestic violence embedded in police responses to those calls.
“We need to make sure that we are changing the culture from a warrior culture to more of a guardian culture,” Garcia says in a campaign video.
Her transit plan emphasizes expanding public space and improving bus and bike transportation. She says that she’ll work with the MTA to create a one-swipe in-city transportation network that includes the LIRR and MetroNorth so that people don’t need to buy separate tickets.
She would make permanent the city’s Open Streets program and create Complete Streets in all five boroughs to improve safety, access, and mobility. She’d also regulate deliveries, from companies like Amazon and elsewhere, to reduce congestion and protect workers. She would pilot residential parking permits so that not everybody can park in the city for free. In the Open New York interview, she said she does not support ending parking minimums that accompany new housing development in places where there’s no viable mass transit options.
Garcia’s plan says she would expand the protected bike lane network by 250 miles and improve bike lane maintenance. To improve bus service, she’d create new dedicated busways and bus lanes, give city buses priority at intersections, expand all-door boarding and offboard payment, and grow the network of express buses. Her initial outline does not offer many specifics or targets on most of these and other transit goals, but for the 250 miles of bike lanes.
The initial outline also says Garcia would work with the state and federal governments to fully fund the Fast Forward program to modernize the subways and buses and make them more accessible. In addition, Garcia says she would plan for more public transit: expanding transportation along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn where a subway-expansion has been eyed for many years, expanding the Second Avenue subway, and creating new ferry terminals in East Harlem, Inwood, Hunts Point, and northern Queens. This, she says, will also help create housing and job growth opportunities.
“One of the real challenges we have is not enough seats in high-performing high schools,” Garcia says in a video on her website. As mayor, she would create new high schools in all five boroughs so that the top 10% of middle school students are able to attend a high-performing high school. Specifically, she’d create new high schools in South Brooklyn, Central Queens, and the South Bronx, she says.
Garcia proposes that the city’s “best teachers” create online content for students all around the city to access in a “Virtual Excellence” center. This, she says, will improve access to Advanced Placement courses even beyond the current mayor’s ongoing “AP for All” plan. Garcia would also accelerate the city’s goal of reaching universal literacy, moving up the goal to have all students reading at grade level by the end of second grade from 2026 to 2023. She would reach this goal by “equipping teachers with science-backed curricula based in phonics” and by focusing on reading in 3K and childcare, which she hopes to offer for free for families making less than $70,000.
Garcia’s education plan also includes expanding support for schools where more than 20% of students are homeless and providing them with practical necessities such as washers and dryers, which is akin to some of the city’s “community schools” where family services like laundry are provided. She would also work to end the school-to-prison pipeline by reforming school safety and discipline policies “so that students are not arrested for behavior that is best addressed by school officials.” “Black children can’t experience school as a hostile environment focused on control and regulation,” the platform says, though it offers few details about how -- details likely to come when Garcia releases a more detailed education plan.
by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette
Ben Max contributed to this story.