Gotham Gazette

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‘When we line up behind issues they’re going to get over the finish line’: City Council Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs on Priorities and Positioning

Lincoln Restler & Shahana Hanif (photos: John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit)

The newly-seated 51-member New York City Council has a particularly large progressive wing, with a whopping 34 members, including Speaker Adrienne Adams, signing up for the Progressive Caucus. That caucus, which seeks to pull the Council leftward and is already acting as a counterweight to a more moderate mayor, especially on policing issues, is led by co-chairs Shahana Hanif and Lincoln Restler, two Brooklyn Democrats selected by their fellow caucus members.

Last month, the two joined Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max to discuss the role of the Progressive Caucus, its membership and priorities and relationship with Mayor Eric Adams, as well as their individual perspectives on several key issues facing the city.

Appearing on the Max Politics podcast, Hanif and Restler explained how they are thinking about their roles as co-chairs of the caucus, discussed what it means to the have the powerful Council speaker as a caucus member, touched on housing policy, and much more.

“I want to uplift the campaign I ran to get here,” said Hanif, who represents the 39th District in Brooklyn, of being co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. Her district covers the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Borough Park, Kensington, Windsor Terrace, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill. It’s important, she said, to make reality the anti-racist, feminist New York City she spoke of on the campaign trail, and to build power as a collective for working families. 

Restler, who represents the neighboring 33rd District in Brooklyn covering ​​Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Downtown Brooklyn, Dumbo, Fulton Ferry, Greenpoint, Vinegar Hill, and Williamsburg, said it’s an exciting opportunity to use progressive momentum in order to enact real change. “There’s real energy on the left,” he said, “I’m hoping that the Progressive Caucus can be a place to really take that energy and convert it into effective policy wins.”

Hanif and Restler said that the caucus is still establishing its policy agenda, but that housing and homelessness are clearly at the top of the agenda. The caucus will be making more noise as city budget negotiations intensify before the mayor and Council must pass a new budget before the July 1 start of next fiscal year.

The Progressive Caucus, including vice chairs Jennifer Gutierrez and Carmen De La Rosa, is exceptionally large, but Hanif and Restler do not see this as a challenge. “The size of the caucus is our strength, it is our power,” Hanif said, mentioning it had already united to oppose Mayor Adams’ homeless encampment sweeps.

Restler noted that the size of the Progressive Caucus and speaker’s membership are not new dynamics given the make-up under both Speaker Corey Johnson and Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker Adrienne Adams’ two most recent predecessors. The real opportunity, he said, was to have such a vibrant and diverse caucus to effectively synthesize an agenda and set priorities. “When we line up behind issues they’re going to get over the finish line,” he said, reiterating that there’s power in numbers.  

When asked, neither Restler nor Hanif expressed concern about the size of the caucus diluting its platform and approach, saying instead they plan to release a “sharply and stridently progressive agenda,” and hope caucus members will enthusiastically line up to support it. 

So what might that agenda include? Hanif said Gutierrez, another Brooklyn Democrat, is heading up the caucus’s policy working group. Atop the priorities, though, is addressing homelessness and affordable housing – particularly amid the mayor’s encampment sweeps, but also given the city’s longstanding housing and homelessness crisis. [Listen to the podcast here.]

Funding for the Department of Sanitation is also a priority in order to ensure there are equitable and adequate services across the city on a top quality of life issue, Restler and Hanif noted, highlighting an issue that has galvanized much of the Council in the early months of this new class. There are also plans to target maternal mortality, Hanif said, sharing excitement to work with Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, a former City Council Progressive Caucus member, who has made the issue a top priority. Reynoso has already made announcements related to making maternal care, especially for Black mothers who have much higher rates of maternal mortality, much more accessible.

“We’ve got a critical list of items that we’re going to put out to the speaker and very publicly,” Hanif said, “One of the things that we want to do differently is make the caucus much more transparent, not just for our membership but also to those watching New York City in this moment.” 

Restler doubled down on the need to make housing a priority and said that all caucus members when surveyed agreed this needed to remain at the top of the list. “The affordability crisis that we’ve all been struggling with in New York City for decades is getting worse every year and especially for those who are most vulnerable,” he said.  

Asked about legislation introduced in the last Council class but that never made it over the finish line and may be a priority for either of them or the Progressive Caucus writ large, Restler said he hopes to put real backing behind universal access to counsel in housing court.

“We believe deeply in universal access to counsel and the best way to prevent evictions is to ensure that a New Yorker has a lawyer representing them in housing court,” he said, pointing to an income threshold that he and others believe leaves too many unable to access a city-funded attorney when facing eviction.

Hanif stressed the importance of securing funding for outreach in implementing the new “Our City Our Vote” law that now allows hundreds of thousands of non-citizen legal residents to vote in municipal elections. Hanif, who chairs the Council’s immigration committee, and others are calling for $25 million in funding in the next city budget to ensure New Yorkers are aware of their right to participate and encouraged to register to vote under the law. 

Assessing the mayor’s preliminary budget (he has since released his executive budget update) and the full City Council’s response, Hanif and Restler said they applaud the push to open more safe havens, stabilization beds, and drop-in centers for people experiencing homelessness.

Restler also noted the $4 billion the Council and advocates want to see added to the city’s capital budget for affordable housing. “It’s mind-boggling that we saw such dramatic cuts to the Department of Homeless Services and to HPD, our housing agency, at a time when the affordability crisis is at the forefront of all of our minds,” Restler said, in reference to Mayor Adams’ preliminary budget, later adding, “I really do hope that mayor Adams is going to see that supportive housing is the priority that he should focus on. He says he’s all about making government work. Our supportive housing system is not working well.” 

Housing is often a particularly complicated and fraught area for New York City Council members, even those who claim to be boldly progressive, given tensions around development, affordability, gentrification, displacement, NIMBYism, and other forces, to differing degrees, across the city’s various neighborhoods and Council districts.

Hanif said the tensions between those forces is a real concern, and that she keeps it in mind during meetings with developers. The real estate industry-driven system is not working though, she said, explaining that her office is attempting to be thoughtful about outlining a vision for deeper affordability, greener infrastructure, preservation and retention of manufacturing zones, and more housing for homeless populations and domestic violence survivors. “We want dignified housing for every single New Yorker,” she said, while sounding cautious notes about development. 

Restler discussed the need for more housing in the city and said his district has outpaced every other in New York in growth in the past decade. Through the city’s upzonings, however, he said he feels the district effectively handed over “gobs of money to developers to build large amounts of dense market-rate housing and didn’t get much in return." It’s not that a lot of growth is a bad thing, he said, referencing the transportation hubs in his district that make it make sense for more housing. But, he said, development should come with infrastructure – parks and schools, etc — and truly affordable housing.

“We need to ensure that when development is happening we’re actually getting the affordable housing we so badly need,” Restler said. “We cannot be NIMBY elected officials. We need to stand up and lead and welcome the most vulnerable among us into our community as neighbors.” 

Hanif agreed, and said she has been a long-time proponent of “good cause” eviction, and the need to protect tenants not only from predatory management practices, but also from fires and other risks that make housing unsafe. 

Toward the end of the conversation, the Progressive Caucus co-chairs were asked about the Rikers Island jail complex and whether they believe the caucus will remain behind the plan to close the Rikers jails and open four new borough-based jails.

“Rikers is a dumpster fire, it’s a hell-hole, the conditions there are totally inhumane,” said Restler, who doubled down on the need to close the Rikers jails and shrink the jail population, especially those being held before trial. He also referenced the Brooklyn Detention Center, which is in his district and slated to be torn down and replaced by one of the new more modern jails.

Restler said he’s invested in more therapeutic capacity in the hospital system for people being held pretrial who need psychiatric services, as well as supervised release, more supportive housing, and an increase in case processing speed. “Going back to 1991 we have almost 30 years leading up to the pandemic of reductions in the number of crimes that were committed in New York City and reductions in the number of people who were incarcerated,” he said, arguing that a post-pandemic return to those patterns is possible and essential.

Hanif, who visited Rikers with a number of other City Council members and called the conditions “traumatizing,” also reaffirmed her commitment, which she said she campaigned on, to push for the closing of the jails.

As for another campaign promise to push for divestment from the police, Hanif said right now, “The appetite of the caucus is on mental health services, and robust mental health services.” 

And while the City Council is one of, if not the, most progressive to date, the office of mayor took a different turn, with a more moderate chief executive. Though as Max noted and Restler agreed, Mayor Adams is a complicated political figure who doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into an ideological box, he certainly appears overall as more of a centrist, particularly on policing. Asked if the Progressive Caucus will see its role as a counterweight to Adams, Restler said, “I’m hoping that we can identify areas of common ground.” Those areas? Food justice and transportation issues to start, he said.

“The caucus’ role is to be an accountability machine to the mayor,” Hanif said. “That’s what I signed up for.”

[LISTEN to the full conversation: Max Politics Podcast: City Council Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Shahana Hanif & Lincoln Restler]

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