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Council Speaker Adams Outlines State of the City Agenda Focused on Housing and Economic Mobility

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (photo: John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit)

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, a Queens Democrat, on Wednesday dedicated her second State of the City speech to the essential workers of New York City who “kept going and kept us going” during the pandemic. In her speech Adams announced an agenda for the year ahead focused on “economic mobility, housing, and healthier and safer neighborhoods.”

“Workers run this city. They put the people of this city over everything, and so should we,” Adams said, speaking at the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center in Soundview in the Bronx. The speech was attended by dozens of elected officials including Mayor Eric Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane WIlliams, Comptroller Brad Lander, Council members, borough presidents, and district attorneys.

Speaker Adams announced a series of measures covering workforce development, higher education, early childhood education, affordable housing and homeownership, homelessness prevention, economic and industrial development, small business incentives, healthcare, public safety, and more. Those proposals were included in a detailed agenda she released Wednesday, titled “People Over Everything.”

Among the items on her agenda are a proposal to build new public housing developments; modernizing the city’s manufacturing zoning regulations; tweaks to the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy; expanding eligibility for the Fair Fares discounted MetroCard program; a mobile health care hub for food delivery workers; and more. Some of her proposals require legislative action and support from the mayoral administration, and even the state in some cases, while others are a matter of increased funding in the upcoming city budget.

Though the speaker extended a friendly welcome to her fellow Democrat, Mayor Adams (no relation), her speech took direct aim at his proposed $102.7 billion preliminary budget for the next fiscal year. Speaker Adams and many of her colleagues have been severely critical of cuts the mayor has already made and additional ones he’s proposed across city agencies. They’ve focused many questions, including at the Council’s first preliminary budget hearings this week, on the mayor’s handling of city government personnel, including failures to adapt recruitment and retention policies as the city faces a major staffing crisis and his proposed reduction in budgeted vacancies.

“Proposals in a speech are meaningless if they are not consistent with budget decisions,” she said, pointing specifically to cuts to 3-K, libraries, and CUNY. And she stressed a particular urgency in addressing agency personnel shortages. “It has created a domino effect, and now New Yorkers who rely on essential services are feeling those impacts in real time,” she said, alluding to the city’s reduced performance on things like distributing food stamps to closing affordable housing financing deals.

The mayor’s budget scraps a previously planned expansion of pre-kindergarten for three-year-olds, another area where the administration and the Council find themselves at loggerheads. The administration has insisted that there are thousands of vacant 3-K seats that should be filled before the program grows any further, but the Council has pushed back.

“We must work to correct the course that has weakened our 3-K system,” Speaker Adams said in her speech. She pointed to the “hollowed out” Early Childhood Education division at the Department of Education, another victim of the staffing shortage. She also said that the 3-K program should be “revamped and expanded with a newly designed contract,” along with salary parity for early childhood workers.

Adams also recommitted to the effort to close the scandal-ridden and violence-plagued Rikers Island jail complex. Rikers is set by law to close by the start of 2027 and be replaced by four borough-based jails everywhere but Staten Island, a plan that is contingent on reducing the jail population to below 3,300. But the jail population has increased in the last two years, exceeding 5,800 as of the latest count, and there were more detainee deaths last year than in a quarter century. Mayor Adams and his administration have been openly skeptical that the closure plan will be achievable on the current timeline.

“The conditions at Rikers are only creating harm for everyone there,” Speaker Adams said Wednesday, stressing the need to invest in pre-trial and alternative-to-incarceration programs, and supportive housing with re-entry programs for people leaving the jail system. “Advancing the closure of Rikers is more urgent now than ever before – for both public safety and human rights,” she said.

The speaker did not otherwise delve too deeply into public safety, though she did call for greater investments in street safety infrastructure, expanded community safety solutions to violent crime, and increased support for the city’s two Overdose Prevention Centers, which the mayor just pledged last week when he released a plan focused on mental health and drug addiction.

Adams, the first Black City Council speaker, took the speech as an opportunity to tout the Council’s achievements in her first year in the role, leading the first woman-majority Council. Those included the passage of abortion protections, measures to tackle racial disparities in maternal health, legislation to curb racial and gender wage disparities, creation of the state’s first community-based trauma recovery centers, and the approval of 40 land use projects that will create 12,000 units of housing, to name a few.

“We will continue to advance solutions for New Yorkers whose needs have too often been marginalized, because when we respond through this lens of equity, all New Yorkers win,” she said. “This means focusing on the needs of women, who make up 60% of our city’s frontline workforce, and people of color, who are three out of every four frontline workers.”

Adams also celebrated the success of the CUNY Reconnect program, which she proposed and launched last year for CUNY students that left without earning their degrees. Since its launch, the program has helped 16,000 students return to college, exceeding the original goal of 10,000. “The overwhelming success of this program makes clear: we need to fully fund CUNY, and expand programs like CUNY Reconnect,” she said.

Housing was among the main areas that Adams addressed on Wednesday, with a particular focus on the New York City Housing Authority, the public housing agency which houses roughly half-a-million New Yorkers. NYCHA has suffered from years of underinvestment at every level of government, leading to dilapidated apartments and egregious living conditions that have harmed the health and safety of its residents.

Speaker Adams made an ambitious proposal to ameliorate those conditions by building new public housing developments for existing NYCHA residents on un- or under-used NYCHA-owned land. The new higher-density developments would require city, state, and federal funding and would also include other affordable and mixed-income housing, she said.

“I’m under no illusion that this is an easy or straightforward idea,” she acknowledged. “In fact, this ambitious task would require resources and close coordination from DC, Albany, and Gracie Mansion. But I present it even with its complexities, because we can’t keep tinkering around the edges of the status quo and expect to deliver transformative change that residents deserve.”

Adams also further teased the impending introduction of a Fair Housing Framework bill, which she first announced in December, to set local affordable housing production goals, and expressed her support for proposals in Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget plan that will help build more housing in the city including through mandatory local growth targets, converting office space to housing, and eliminating the floor-area-ratio cap in the city. And she said the city should update its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, approved under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, to require more deeply affordable housing.

The speaker also pledged to strengthen programs to help preserve existing rent-regulated apartments and to expand affordable homeownership, and new legislation to make it easier for low-income families to receive rental assistance vouchers that prevent evictions.

In keeping with the theme of the speech, Adams announced several workforce development  proposals. She said the Council would work to reduce barriers to entry for civil service jobs and announced a new Social Work Fellows program that would cover tuition for college graduates and create a pipeline for them to join the city’s mental health workforce. She also said the Council will make a “multi-million-dollar” investment to create three more workforce development centers at NYCHA developments. And she promised legislation to ban non-compete agreements for workers.

The speaker is also proposing several economic development measures to boost small businesses, revive industrial manufacturing, and create programs for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

She proposed updates to the city’s manufacturing zoning to incentivize businesses to set up shop in abandoned industrial zones. “We are sitting on industrial goldmines that have been neglected,” she said. That proposal would be accompanied by legislation mandating citywide industrial planning, she said, “so we can transition away from fossil fuels towards green energy, support job growth and citywide needs.”

She said the Council would partner with Community Development Financial Institutions to build programs that will provide capital to under-represented entrepreneurs, Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs), and small businesses. And she announced support for NYCHA residents that own their own small businesses.

Benefits for low-income New Yorkers were also on Speaker Adams’ agenda as she announced expanded guaranteed income programs and an expansion of the Fair Fares half-priced MetroCard program to New Yorkers with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, effectively doubling the number of low-income New Yorkers who are eligible (the cutoff is currently at or below 100% of the poverty level, meaning an annual income of $14,580 for an individual).

Adams also announced that the Council would push to expand year-round public access to swimming pools, invest in free swimming and lifeguard training programs, and pass legislation requiring the city to find locations for new public pools.

On healthcare, Adams announced a new mobile healthcare hub for deliveristas, the food delivery workers that were essential during the pandemic and whose number has skyrocketed as New Yorkers order more and more delivery. She also said the Council would expand funding for healthy food markets for NYCHA developments and would push the city to expand farmer’s markets year-round.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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