Almost Half-Way Through First Term, de Blasio Holds First Town Hall

The Bill de Blasio of the 2013 campaign trail returned when the mayor held an unscripted question and answer event in Washington Heights.

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, right, introduces Mayor Bill de Blasio, left (Photo: Councilman Mark Levine).
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, right, introduces Mayor Bill de Blasio, left (Photo: Councilman Mark Levine). (Photo: Councilman Mark Levine)

Twenty-two months into his administration, Mayor Bill de Blasio did something totally new—he met with struggling New Yorkers.

Having long insisted he talked to enough people visiting the gym in his old neighborhood in Brooklyn and didn’t need to hold town halls like his predecessors, the mayor held a community forum with several hundred residents of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. A lower-income community that is home to many recent immigrants, particularly from the Dominican Republic, and is rapidly undergoing gentrification, it seemed to be the target audience for policies like universal pre-kindergarten, IDNYC municipal identification cards and most of all affordable housing—the designated topic of the event. Mr. de Blasio got a standing ovation when local Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez introduced him.

Relaxed, sleeves rolled up and trading occasional quips with the audience, Mr. de Blasio seemed more like the easy-going outer borough populist of his 2013 campaign than the often defensive progressive evangelist who has dominated city politics since January last year.

“Un poquito ingles? Gracias,” he told the heavily Hispanic crowd, after starting his introduction in Spanish. “I speak a little bit sometimes.”

The first resident got their question in about 30 minutes into the two-hour event, demanding to know what constituted affordable housing under the plan, as much of the middle-class housing under construction seemed beyond the financial reach of Washington Heights residents. Mr. de Blasio promised that much of the new construction underway would create apartments for people earning $40,000 a year or less.

“Look, there are people of all walks of life that are going to get affordable housing in this city,” he said. “You’re exactly right. There are a lot of people in this city who are struggling to make ends meet.”

“That’s going to be a big chunk of our affordable housing plan,” he continued.

The mayor asked many people complaining about landlords their addresses and pointed them to one of the huge retinue of city agency commissioners and aides he brought with him—”you don’t need to call 311″—usually Department of Housing Preservation head Vicki Been and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, who seemed less at ease with the microphone than their boss.

Mr. de Blasio stressed the “all kinds of pressure on landlords” his administration was bringing, and wasn’t shy about emphasizing the taxpayer-funded resources his administration offered to struggling parents and tenants.

“We’re telling you about things that can change people’s lives, and there is a common connection between all of these things: they’re all free. Pre-K is free. After-school is free. Municipal ID card is free. The legal services for people who are being evicted—free,” he said.

On a few occasions, the mayor took heat over his politics, policy and employees. One man criticized Mr. de Blasio’s opposition to the Dominican Republic’s controversial initiative to deport people of Haitian descent—only for Mr. Rodriguez to shut him down before the mayor could answer.

When a woman angrily related how she had sought assistance from HRA with a landlord issue, only to have a city employee make a derogatory remark about Latinos coming to America, the mayor turned solemn.

“Any person who calls themselves a public servant, and says people should go back to the country they came from, does not belong in public service in this city,” he said, gaining applause as he related how his Italian-American ancestors once faced discrimination. “There would be no America without all of us.”

Another woman worried that the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary zoning program, which obligates market-rate developers to create lower-cost units but permits them to build taller, would flood the area with high income tenants and lead to the loss of apartments and businesses for poorer people. The mayor argued that luxury construction made large-scale below-market building feasible.

“You can say ‘can’t you just build affordable housing?’ Economically, the answer is ‘no.’ And I don’t want to lie to people,” he said.

But he said putting up new towers was just one part of a plan that included preventing people from getting evicted from their rent-regulated apartments.

“That’s the best response we can mount to what is a bigger organic challenge,” he said. “To keep neighborhoods the way they are, this is what we’re fighting for.”

Almost Half-Way Through First Term, de Blasio Holds First Town Hall