I am happy to say that there is some good news to report in the new year. Our district’s City Councilperson, Corey Johnson, according to all reports, will be elected the Speaker of the New York City Council by the time you read this column.
The role that Melissa Mark-Viverito has played as Speaker of the City Council has set a standard of inclusion that the next Speaker can build on. Corey Johnson is 35 years old, has a working-class background, is HIV-positive, and is an out gay man. Closely aligned with Mark-Viverito (and Mayor de Blasio’s political agenda), Johnson is expected to make her issues his issues. These include: low-income affordable housing, the closing of Rikers Island, undocumented workers’ rights, small business protection, slowing the development of luxury housing, and making the New York City Police Department responsive to public security. What Johnson will bring to chamber is an ability to work with others, the capacity to listen, and an understanding grounded in his own experience of workers’ and poor citizens’ problems in surviving the City where the cost of living has skyrocketed out of control.
I expect Johnson to provide leadership on controversial issues like land use and public health. I have been a supporter of the outgoing Speaker since she was elected. Mark-Viverito brought transparency and fairness to the role that had been sorely missing from the leadership of her predecessor, Christine Quinn. It is always nice to be able to say both that I supported her and that I actually like and trust her. That is earned, not bought.
A bizarre spectacle of so-called “debates” took place during the fall among the eight men who had been announced for the leadership position of Speaker of the City Council. The Speaker is the second-most powerful and visible office in City government. The chief responsibility of this role is to build consensus for the Council’s agenda. The Speaker is not elected by the public but by members of the City Council. This reminds me that the members of a community board are also NOT elected by the community they are to represent, but by elected officials.
I attended three of those debates and watched some of the television coverage. I was most impressed by our very own Corey Johnson. He and City Councilperson Mark Levine were the only two councilmen who offered insight into how a Speaker functions and what he would actually do to get things done. Yes, both are white men (there were no women running). Some voices were raised that this job belongs to a person of color, stating that there had been no person of color elected. Melissa Mark-Viverito was in fact both a woman and a person of color.
I found Johnson to be the only candidate who actually spoke of how he would foster change, not just what he would try to accomplish. I believe that Corey Johnson, being a white, working-class, HIV-positive gay man, knows the experience of someone who grows up poor and is an outsider. These qualifications are of particular value today in the City, which has become divided among economic lines and is fast becoming almost impossible to live in unless your income is at a certain level. I also think that Johnson is sensitive to growing up in public housing, being a poor young man in a rich community, attending public school, and being a gay football player. If anyone thinks that he hasn’t suffered and learned from exclusion and difference, then that person needs to think a little harder.
I do have some issues that I hope Johnson will address as both my Councilperson and as the Speaker:
- Hospitals like Mount Sinai and NYU Langone do not accept Medicaid patients unless they pay upfront, meaning that poor people are being excluded from some of the best health institutions we have. I know that there will be lots of excuses made by Mount Sinai and NYU Langone about how that is not true; the reality is that it is true. Yes, there are clinics that Mount Sinai has in Union Square which accept Medicaid, but the Mount Sinai doctors’ offices, such as those at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue, do not. What that means, for example, is that seniors with disabilities now must travel way across town to an appointment that may have taken two or four months to get while living two or three blocks away from the new doctors’ offices on the West Side.
NYU Langone has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds and should make its services available to people who have health insurance coverage issued by the state and federal government. It is not enough to say that if you can pay upfront they will give you a bill to submit to Medicaid. That is because the criterion for Medicaid insurance is economic position; the hospital administration should know that people do not have the discretionary funds to pay upfront for their treatment. That is simply a method of exclusion.
- I know that Governor Cuomo controls the MTA but the City Council under the leadership of the new Speaker, I hope, will take a strong position on REDUCING subway fares by taxing corporations a transportation fee for workers. Also, subway stops need working elevators and escalators for access to public transportation at all subway stations and, in particular, within any plans for future subway stations. Locally, I hope that Speaker Johnson will put pressure on the MTA to open the tunnel pathway between 7th and 8th Avenues for public use and make free transfers possible.
The second piece of good news is that, finally, a decision has been made to get approval for building on public land in Community Board 2 (CB2), which has been designated as low-income senior housing. City Councilperson Margaret Chin had secured a City-owned plot of land on Elizabeth Street between Prince and Spring Streets for low-income senior housing from the Bloomberg Administration. De Blasio and the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) included it as a part of the Mayor’s commitment to affordable housing. Opposition came from a group I call The Rich Moms of SoHo (TRMOS) which organized to demand that the public land be used as a community garden and then squatted on it and built a garden. No swat team was called to remove them.
There is, nearby on Spring Street, a recently renovated community playground and public space. It is located close to public housing. It appears that TRMOS did not want their children mixing with the poor kids from public housing. I know that this is a very unpleasant thing to suggest and there will be loud cries stating, “Not true!” But I suggest very strongly that the issue of race and economics are redlining this debate.
I remember being at a public discussion about the use of a garden versus senior housing, sponsored by the Village Independent Democrats. Two black mothers who lived in public housing got up and said that they did not feel welcomed in the Elizabeth Street Garden. TRMOS, with their check- writing husbands and access to power and decision-makers, have raised a pitch battle against the use of the space for senior housing. I remember testifying about the need for both a garden and senior housing at a land use committee public hearing and being loudly booed. I had forgotten that TRMOS were used to getting their way. I think it’s called class privilege.
Reality check: There is no low-income senior housing available to any resident who lives in CB2 and wishes to stay in the neighborhood in his/her senior years. So, Chin’s announcement that Habitat for Humanity and SAGE have brought forward a plan for low-income senior housing on Elizabeth Street’s public land was most welcome. It has the support of both HPD and the de Blasio Administration. The building design, which is very green, would contain 133 senior apartments. Approximately 30 units would be for homeless seniors and 50% of the remaining units would be for low-income seniors in CB2. Plus there will be a garden surrounding the building on the roof. HDP is moving forward through the usual approval route which involves community approval. (I hope there will be no lawsuits that will postpone the building of this much-needed housing.) I was thrilled to hear this and spoke at the rally at City Hall thanking the Mayor, HPD, and Margaret Chin. I expect that both Comptroller Scott Stringer, on whose senior advisory board I served, and Public Advocate Letitia James will now join the Mayor by adding their support to the plan.