Changing the Guard New Faces on the City Council

Changing the Guard

This is a transitional time for the New York City Council. This year, there is a new City Council Speaker in the person of Christine Quinn, a Democrat from District 3 on Manhattan’s Lower West Side who, since becoming speaker, has announced a series of reforms aimed at making the council more democratic.

In addition to Quinn, however, no fewer than eight new councilmen were elected last November: Manhattan’s Daniel Garodnick, D-4; Jessica Lappin, D-5; Rosie Mendez, D-2; Inez Dickens, D-9; and Melissa Mark Vivierto, D-8; Darlene Mealy, D-41, of Brooklyn; James Vacca, D-13, of the Bronx, and from Queens, Thomas White Jr., D-28. All of them are Democrats—the only three Republicans on the 51-member council are Dennis Gallagher, R-30, of Queens, and Andrew Lanza, R-51, and James Oddo, R-50, of Staten Island.

The Impact of Term Limits

Even though eight new council members out of 51 is quite a turnover, it’s nothing compared to the election of November 2001, when 37 new council members were elected.

The reason? The city’s then-new term limits law, which limits council members to two consecutive four-year terms each (It gets complicated every 10 years, when redistricting results in two-year terms and special elections, but we’ll leave that aside.) The issue of term limits was debated throughout the 1990s and finally came to the forefront in recent elections.

Proponents felt it was time to take government away from professional politicians like Queens’ Peter Vallone and Brooklyn’s Herb Berman, who had been in the council for years. Opponents felt that these very same old-timers were a valuable resource because they knew how to get things done and deliver the goods for their constituents. Although every once in awhile one still hears arguments to modify the law, the term-limit advocates won the battle.

The post-term limits council is younger and far more diverse than any that existed before. Today, council members range from Boro Park’s Simcha Felder, D-44, an Orthodox Jewish accountant who is supported by Republicans as well as Democrats, to Charles Barron, D-42, of East New York, who has referred to himself as a self-proclaimed community activist for social causes. Incidentally, the old council’s influence may not be completely gone—Peter Vallone Jr. represents the same Astoria district (the 22nd) that his father did, and Brooklyn’s Yvette Clarke, D-40, now holds the same council seat that her mother held for a decade.

White previously served in the council but had to step down four years ago because of term limits. He ran again and was re-elected this past fall. While he believes that term limits help rid the system of career politicians, it unfortunately can also prevent lawmakers from having the time to get things done. Evan Thies, chief of staff for Downtown Brooklyn’s Councilman David Yassky, D-33, who was one of the “Class of 2001,” believes that most council members are probably opposed to term limits.

In today’s council, he says, “There are lot more young members who are full of ideas and who are ready to go ahead and try to make some real changes quickly, because they know their time is limited.”

Initiating New Members

Once new council members are elected, there are several ways they are bought up to speed. New members, says Vacca, receive a formal orientation before they get down to the business of governing. In December, new council members gathered at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, met with council staff, learned about the council’s structure, committees, and member services, he explained.

New council members, according to Maria Alvarado, one of the council’s spokesmen, also learn a lot about the governing body’s operations at the Democratic caucus meetings that are held every week (assuming, of course, that they’re part of the overwhelming Democratic majority).

Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents Prospect Heights and Fort Greene in District 35, joined the council in 2003 after a special election when her predecessor, James Davis, was assassinated. Aligned with The Working Families party, she recalls of the newcomers: “There were lots of seminars, and lots of camaraderie. Many of the established council members gave us their pearls of wisdom—like telling me to wear flats [because there’s so much walking from one meeting to another.]”

One must remember that as a rule, most first-term council members—even if they’re new to the council itself—aren’t new to politics and government. For example, Vacca served as district manager for his local community board for 26 years.

How They’re Elected

City council members, as we’ve mentioned, are elected every four years. And once they’re on the council, they’re assigned to committees, of which there are a great number—covering everything from civil service to education, immigration to small business to public safety and veterans affairs.

How has the infusion of new blood on the council changed the direction that it will take during the next couple of years? Most people agree that it is moving in a positive direction. Hopefully, says Thies, the council will evolve to the extent that the city “has a real bicameral government,” with the mayor’s office and the council having an equal say in things.

Housing and the Council

Housing has always been an important issue for the council, and given the ever-changing, highly-charged nature of the real estate landscape in New York City, it’s likely that housing will always be near the top of the council’s agenda in any given year.

One focus for the new group is sure to be “affordable housing,” which in the current market has come to mean both low-income and middle-income housing. For example, the rezoning of the decaying Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, expected to lead to massive residential development—especially condos—was held up last year until, under pressure of local officials, the city administration agreed to put more affordable housing into the mix.

Council spokesman Alvarado and James say that in the coming years, both expect to see increasing calls for the repeal or change of the state law that makes rent stabilization only “temporary.” As it stands now, the law mandates the regularly-occurring spectacle under which the state Legislature has to reconsider rent regulations every two years, rent stabilization advocates have to engage in intense lobbying, and the program is threatened until it is saved at the last minute.

Vacca says that another housing issue is of mounting concern to the thousands of New Yorkers in city housing projects—residents who, contrary to stereotypes, are not all considered low-income. Because the Housing Authority is economically strapped, it has proposed increases in non-rental fees, such as fees for air conditioners, dishwashers, washing machines, parking spaces, and replacement of items due to vandalism.

“On vandalism [clean-up fees] most people would agree,” says Vacca, “but the other items should not be charged across the board. For example, some people have to have air conditioning for medical reasons.”

Councilwoman James agrees, adding that “noise and graffiti are the number-one complaints—though my office gets phone calls every day, across the spectrum.” She cites issues with construction noise in the area she represents, which includes Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. James also speaks with approval of the city’s new noise code, and says her office is working with local police officers for more stringent enforcement.

The mayor’s proposal, which was announced in mid-2004, was the first major overhaul of the city’s noise code in about 30 years. The legislation focused on reducing sound from construction, more regulation of sound from commercial music establishments, creating a uniform standard of 45 decibels for all AC units, simplifying enforcement by using a “plainly audible” standard without having to use a decibel meter.

“[Noise limits] is one of the important issues we have legislated in the last few years,” says Thies, adding that the council has “cheered” the mayor’s new noise code.

Thies also criticizes the 421-a tax exemption for real estate developers, which gives exemptions to new buildings (except for those built between 14th and 96th Streets in Manhattan). Since its creation in 1971, the city estimates that 421-a tax breaks have provided for the construction of more than 110,000 apartments. The majority of the construction has been rental apartments, but about one-third from mid-2002 through mid-2005 related to co-ops and condos, according to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Earlier this year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg set up a task force to study whether the abatement program should be revamped, continued or abolished.

“We are in a building boom,” says Thies, “especially in Brooklyn. It’s unnecessary to give big tax breaks to developers—they’ll build developments with or without them.”

Development vs. the Rights of Tenants

As even the city’s more far-flung neighborhoods come under the eyes of developers eager to capitalize on the current real estate boom, the council and its representatives—both new and veteran—are paying close attention to the impact new development projects are having on neighborhoods and their residents. As property values continue to rise, and developers continue to look for every available parcel of land on which to build, the fear of displacement or being priced out of their neighborhood is a real, looming fear for many New Yorkers. While renters are usually the first to bear the brunt of rising costs, co-op and condo owners feel it too—plenty of shareholders and unit owners are dismayed to see their once-quiet, close-knit neighborhoods overrun with high-rises, big-box stores, and commercial developments. Sometimes, the worry turns into open conflict.

For example, says Thies, “In the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront zoning legislation [of 2005, which allowed high-rise residential development in many previously industrially zoned areas], we instituted an anti-harassment provision to protect homeowners. This is ongoing, and a very important issue as we ride out the housing boom, because many landlords will try to increase rents to get [existing] tenants to move out.” Thies says that last year’s anti-harassment provisions included a $2 million fund for organization, counseling, and legal representation to tenants facing displacement.

In many semi-suburban areas in the boroughs, the issue of overdevelopment is also creating great concern. The term is often used to describe the process whereby a street dominated by one- or two-family houses finds itself overrun with developers tearing down houses and building four- or five-story buildings that cast long shadows over existing homes, or are at architectural odds with the rest of the neighborhood.

In the run-down old bungalow district of western Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, for example, owners of the remaining bungalows have reported getting offers from developers as frequently as once a week. The same phenomenon in many other low-rise neighborhoods from Bensonhurst to Astoria to parts of Riverdale has given rise to calls for “downzoning,” which is government-speak for imposing construction height and density limits.

Of the problem, White says, that “turning one-family homes into three- or four-family homes puts a devastating strain on the infrastructure in the communities. From sanitation, water consumption, sewers and the overcrowding in schools, these are issues that we will have to continue to address—and take very seriously.”

In some areas, of course, “upzoning,” or allowing taller residential buildings, is considered desirable. For example, Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Gowanus area was until recently characterized by gas stations, bodegas, fast food outlets, empty lots and rundown low-rise tenements—but the neighborhood has now been rezoned for taller buildings, and several new condo projects are under way.

New York City vs. Albany

The city council’s relationship with the mayor is similar to the state Legislature’s relationship with the governor, or Congress’ relationship with the White House. The speaker of the council can be compared to the Speaker of the House in Washington or with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in Albany.

The city council makes land-use decisions and proposes legislation, which the mayor then either signs or vetoes. (The mayor himself often proposes legislation, acting through friendly council members.) The budget process is somewhat different—although the mayor is the one who proposes the spending priority, the council holds the power to make the final approval.

Although the council has no direct interaction with the state Senate and Assembly, it can and does pass resolutions urging that the state Legislature take a particular action or stand on an issue. The council has a Committee on State and Federal Legislation that passes “home rule” messages. Council members sometimes go to Albany for lobbying—for example, the city council recently journeyed there to demand that the state provide city schools with more funding, under the terms of the state courts’ recent “Campaign for Fiscal Equity” rulings.

It’s also true, as Thies says, that “each council member makes his or her own relationship with the Mayor’s Office or the Legislature.” For example, one council member may be very close to Mayor Bloomberg, while another may be close to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

With all these issues in the works—especially the housing-related ones—you might feel that it’s time to contact your councilperson. It’s easy—just log onto the council’s website at www.nyccouncil.info. It has the names, phone numbers and districts of all 51 council members. If you’re not sure who your representative is, click on “Constituent Center” and you’ll be able to look up your own council member based on your address. And if you’d rather use the phone, just call the council’s main office at (212) 788-7100.

Raanan Geberer is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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