An estimated 400 concerned area residents packed the gymnasium at PS 70 in Astoria on July 19 for some face-to-face time with Mayor de Blasio.
The mayor came bearing gifts, beginning the 2 1/2-hour town hall event with several popular announcements:
• The city’s Department of Transportation, de Blasio said, will be redesigning sections of Steinway Street to make it more pedestrian friendly, with plans scheduled to be brought to the community board next year;
• Ferry service is coming to Astoria next month, including a ride from Astoria to 34th Street in Manhattan that will take only 20 minutes;
• Renovations are set to begin next spring on the Steinway Library, after what the mayor called “too many years of delays.”
And, he added, 23,000 of the borough’s homeowners will each get a $115 credit on their water bill, suggesting, “It’s a little thing but it helps.”
A spokesman for the Mayor’s Office said on Monday that the credit is separate from a $183 credit that the city tried to give last year but that still is subject to litigation.
But all was not rosy for the mayor, as he continued his week-long residency in the borough. Members of the Close Rikers Campaign showed up in force to picket outside the event, while inside, representatives of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union #3 spread around the room, and stood up periodically, handwritten signs aloft, asking the mayor to not forget their ongoing strike against Charter Communications/Spectrum, for whom they have long been working under an expired agreement.
Two of the co-sponsors of the meeting, Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) welcomed the mayor. Other co-sponsors included Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria). Public Advocate Letitia James was also in attendance.
De Blasio fielded questions from nearly four dozen constituents on a variety of topics, with housing frequently at the forefront.
The 421a tax incentive, long used to give tax breaks to developers, was raised several times. The mayor said he has fought hard to change the law to focus on affordable housing.
“There has to be enforcement to make sure that tax breaks are only given if developers do what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
A frequently expressed fear was that people will be priced out of their homes.
“We are trying with a variety of tools to protect people,” de Blasio said. “We’re in the middle of a plan to build and subsidize enough affordable housing for half a million people.”
The mayor warned that “they don’t stop the private market from being the private market. There are private property rights. They can get the price that they can get for their apartments.”
But, the mayor added, “When the city gets involved, we are able to set a lot more ground rules. We think we can create some balance.”
An area resident complained about predatory landlords who harass rent-stabilized tenants, often forcing terrified residents, many of them immigrants, to move out in the middle of the night. De Blasio said such a situation points to “a pattern of harassment that could reach the level of criminality.”
Commissioner Steven Banks of the Department of Social Services said following years of an imbalance of power between tenants and landlords, the mayor has provided the resources to ensure, for the first time, the ability for every tenant in housing court to have a lawyer.
The mayor said if re-elected one of his top priorities would be more fairness within the residential property tax code.
“The system is not consistent across neighborhoods; it’s not transparent enough,” he said.
The trick there, he said, is to make sure that any changes to the tax code do not deprive the city of revenue.
Housing costs, combined with questions about small business costs, prompted de Blasio to look to the future — and the nation’s capital.
“The big X factor is what’s going to happen in Washington, DC in the next six months,” the mayor said. “We’re going to see in the next six months what the results of the Trump presidency are for the City of New York.”
Immigration remained an ongoing topic, with fear and uncertainty running rampant in some immigrant communities.
“I wish it weren’t true, but I see it all the time,” the mayor said. “It’s a difficult time. I refer to it as our national identity crisis because the country is sorting out what our real values are.”
De Blasio suggested that the country is “becoming ultimately more embracing of its immigrant character,” but believes that it may take a few elections for that to be fully realized. And he said the city’s immigrant community should have no doubt that the city has its back.
“We put together a substantial fund for legal services to protect families from being deported,” he said. “We still face an environment of fear, [but] federal policies do not force the city to do things that are against our values.”
On transportation, he said, “We’re not going to grow the way we used to, which was with a very automobile-focused approach. We have to change the models so there’s more and more mass transit available and it’s easier and easier to use.”
One speaker was Mohamed Attia, a member of the Street Vendor Project, who posed questions on issues involving such businesses. The organization fights for the rights of food vendors, street artists and others who make their livings on the city’s public sidewalks.
“There should be fairness all around,” de Blasio said. “There needs to be health and safety rules that are enforced consistently. We want legal vendors.” He also posed a rhetorical question.
“What is the ideal number of vendors in the city?” he asked and suggested that “anyone outside that number understands they would be out of compliance and the risks that come with it.” A bill to raise the limit is in the City Council.
Also of concern, de Blasio said, is the placement of vendors in specific sites.
“What are fair locations for vendors that don’t create unfair competition?” he asked. “The goal is to come out of this with a rational system.”
As the evening began to wind down, the mayor addressed two issues which had reared their heads earlier.
Spectrum, he said, has taken “way too much time” to address the contract issues. “We have run out of patience and we expect action and we’re going to use all tools available to the city of New York to address the situation if Charter/Spectrum does not come to the table immediately.”
And regarding the closing of Rikers, de Blasio said members of the NYPD are being trained very differently, with arrests being taught as the last resort.
“Arrests are going down, crime is going down. That is why we came to the conclusion that we could close Rikers,” he said.