Bill de Blasio Says ‘It’s Breathtaking How Little’ His Top Democratic Rival Knows

Mayor Bill de Blasio with Comptroller Scott Stringer at a press conference.

Mayor Bill de Blasio with Comptroller Scott Stringer at a press conference.

Mayor Bill de Blasio slapped back at city Comptroller Scott Stringer—the man discontented business interests hope to recruit to challenge him in next year’s Democratic primary—for his critiques yesterday of the mayor’s key initiatives to combat income inequality, including of his signature affordable housing plan.

Speaking to radio host Brian Lehrer during his weekly “Ask the Mayor” segment on WNYC, de Blasio simultaneously accused his rival of political posturing and of outright ignorance. The comptroller claimed at a Thursday morning meeting of the Association for a Better New York, a group of the city’s financial leaders, that the administration had missed out on funding and opportunities by failing to start a public land bank to manage and develop the 1,175 vacant city-owned properties across the five boroughs.

But today, the mayor insisted his administration was either currently building affordable housing on many of those properties or would do so soon—but that many others just aren’t suited for residential construction.

“I think it’s breathtaking the how little the comptroller understands about this issue,” said de Blasio. “There are a very substantial number of publicly owned lots that are being developed for affordable housing, there’s others that physically can’t be because of health and safety issues, because of logistical issues.”

The mayor insisted again on the staggering scale and significance of his plan to build 80,000 new units of below-market housing and preserve 120,000 such apartments already in existence. The de Blasio program has tripped up over local resistance to new construction and the expiration of the 421a tax credit for developers, an abatement experts agree was crucial to making the mayor’s plan workable.

“Of course we have the largest affordable housing plan in the history of New York City, and the fastest and most ambitious one. Of course all of our affordable housing leaders in this administration have been looking for every conceivable piece of land that New York City, public or otherwise,” de Blasio said. “And the comptroller’s being disingenuous. If he read any of the reports, and wasn’t grandstanding, it would be quite clear this is something we’re already addressing.”

De Blasio indicated he was more open to another of Stringer’s suggestions: bolstering the city’s contribution to earned income tax credit programs to lower-income families. But the mayor warned that the city’s budget might not be able to sustain such outlays over time.

“This is something we have to be very, very careful about, because we wouldn’t want to offer it and then take it back,” he said. “Philosophically, yes, a very good idea. Practically, specifically, only if the resources were there.”

The comptroller’s office didn’t rebut de Blasio’s comments, but did attack

“Comptroller Stringer is focused on the urgent need to find new ways to address the city’s affordable housing crisis and real solutions to create economic opportunity in every neighborhood of this city,” said press secretary Tyrone Stevens. “It’s sad and disappointing that the Mayor has chosen to engage in personal attacks instead of focusing on the substance of the issues.”

The mayor himself proposed establishing  a city land bank while running for office in 2013, and Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres and Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander have sponsored legislation to create one. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has allocated large sums wrung from lenders involved in the financial crisis to subsidize such entities across the state.

Stringer has hit de Blasio intermittently through the first three years of his mayoralty, for everything from his handling of the universal prekindergarten program to his response to last summer’s Legionnaire’s disease outbreak. Bradley Tusk, former aide campaign manager for ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an advisor to a number of businesses—including de Blasio foe Uber—has founded the group NYC Deserves Better largely to draft Stringer to defeat de Blasio next year.

But running for mayor would force the comptroller to forsake his current position, as he is up for re-election in 2017 himself.

Eric Phillips, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, sneered at the Observer’s suggestion last night that Stringer might seek to unseat the reigning Democrat.

Other Democrats believed to be weighing a challenge to the mayor in next year’s primary include Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.

Updated to include comment from Stringer, and to reflect that Torres and Lander, not Councilman Donovan Richards, sponsored the land bank legislation. Richards has proposed a bill to encourage the creation of similar but distinct entities called land trusts, which would cover individual communities rather than the entire city.