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Mayor Blue Sky

eye on the news

Mayor Blue Sky

Bill de Blasio’s empathy agenda for New York City February 6, 2015

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his State of the City speech this week after his first full year on the job. The address, along with various media follow-ups, demonstrated that his administration is focused almost exclusively on one thing: making New Yorkers understand how much Bill de Blasio cares. The mayor appears addicted to blurting out preposterous, fantastic proposals, and then backing them up with faux-enthusiastic guff that only the most uncritical progressive could possibly swallow. In de Blasio’s world, the sun is always just about to come out. Everything’s going to work out great.

Though he suffered significant political losses in 2014—notably on education and public safety—Mayor de Blasio did have some successes. In his speech, he touted his Vision Zero traffic-safety program, which has measurably reduced pedestrian deaths. But the bulk of the mayor’s address was devoted to his plans for the coming year—which include turning New York City into a place where housing is plentiful and cheap, salaries are high, and people in the outer boroughs take boats to work.

De Blasio promised to “build, preserve or rehabilitate” 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. Typically, the city makes deals with developers of market-rate buildings. In exchange for zoning variances, developers promise to reserve a percentage of apartments for lower and middle-income residents. The mayor’s new plan is to promote increased density by rezoning outlying areas of the city. As a precondition of building market-rate units, the city will require developers to include a substantial proportion of affordable units. In many areas of the city, though, there is little difference between “market rate” and “affordable” real estate. It isn’t zoning laws that keep developers from building residential towers in Jamaica Estates or East New York. There is just no economic reason for them to want to build in those neighborhoods. The existing market rate doesn’t justify expensive new construction, even without the cost of subsidizing affordable units.

The mayor next proposed to build a massive residential complex atop a rail yard in Queens. The development, to be called “Sunnyside Yards,” will match in size Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village complex, housing some 25,000 middle-income people in more than 11,000 units. One problem with the Sunnyside Yards proposal is that most of the land in question is owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Amtrak, which currently use it as a working rail yard. De Blasio’s plan—or one version of it, anyway—is to construct a platform atop the train tracks, and then build 100 massive apartment buildings on this platform, along with “parks, schools, retail stores, and job opportunities.”

Simply put, the proposal is preposterous. The deck alone would cost billions of dollars to build. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA, and who appears to take sport in stomping on the plans of his former employee in the Clinton-era Department of Housing and Urban Development, immediately announced that he had other plans for the area. The local city councilman, Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer—normally a de Blasio ally—said that he would never approve such dense housing in his community.

De Blasio also proposed increasing the minimum wage in New York City to more than $13, with a built-in index to inflation. Unfortunately for the mayor, such a change would require approval from Albany, where Republicans took control of the state senate in November, making his plan a dead letter for the foreseeable future. The mayor certainly knows this, so we can guess his proposal was merely intended to demonstrate his capacity for empathy.

De Blasio also announced plans to initiate multi-borough ferry service costing no more than a subway or bus ride. “Residents of the Rockaways and Red Hook and Soundview will now be closer to the opportunities they need,” the mayor announced. De Blasio didn’t mention that the Rockaways actually had ferry service—begun in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy disrupted subway lines—until his administration cancelled it in October 2014. Why was it cancelled? Because only a few hundred people per day used the ferry, and it was costing the city approximately $30 per person, per ride in subsidies.

Asked why he was resuscitating the Rockaway ferry so soon after cancelling it, de Blasio said, “we realized it’s only going to work if you have a true, city-wide ferry network, and if the price is reasonable . . . . We found a way! And we believe that’s going to spark the kind of ridership that will make it sustainable economically.” He didn’t explain why someone would be more likely to take a ferry from Queens to Manhattan just because there is a “true, city-wide network” of boats, or how it would work economically.

One telling passage of de Blasio’s speech was directed at the “naysayers” and “doubting Thomases.” He promised to “prove them wrong.” As proof, he pointed to 2014’s political battle over his plan for universal pre-Kindergarten:

But let me remind you of a difficult challenge we overcame just last year. Of all the efforts we made in 2014 to address income inequality, the most prominent was our successful bid to secure universal, full-day pre-K – something bold and meaningful . . . and something that so many pundits said we couldn’t achieve. The naysayers said we would never find the funding . . . or the space . . . to give all our kids a chance.

As usual, de Blasio is remembering this episode somewhat differently than it actually happened. Virtually no one in the city opposed universal pre-K in principle. It was the mayor himself who almost sank the program by insisting that it had to be funded through a special income tax on the city’s wealthiest residents. Even after Cuomo said the state would cover the cost of full-day pre-K without a tax hike, de Blasio was ready to wage war over the issue. This led some to wonder: did de Blasio want the tax to pay for pre-K, or did he want pre-K in order to justify the tax? Sadly, his motivation then was the same as it is now. Rather than implementing effective policies, he merely wants to show New Yorkers how much he cares.

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