Since immigrating to Queens from Bangladesh at age 12, Soma Syed has dedicated her days to helping her neighbors and giving back to Queens residents — save for the three years she spent studying law in Albany.
The practicing attorney and Queens County Women’s Bar Association president thought back on the hours she’s spent fighting evictions during the 2008 recession pro-bono, cleaning the ruins left behind by Hurricane Sandy, protesting the 2017 travel ban and distributing personal protective equipment throughout the pandemic.
“This is what I’ve done all my life and this is what I’m passionate about: helping my community and making sure we’re treated fairly,” Syed said.
Syed is running in the Feb. 2 special election for the 24th District seat, a role she sees as “another transition in my leadership.” The position became vacant after former Councilmember Rory Lancman formally resigned to begin a new post as special counsel for ratepayer protection with the Governor’s Office. The winning candidate will serve in the role until Dec. 31, 2021.
Here is where Syed stands on three key issues.
As a city councilmember, Syed pledges to vote against any legislation that would increase property taxes for city residents.
“Homeowners have paid too much already ... It’s fundamentally unfair,” she said, noting that rising property taxes affect tenants as well, because landlords tend to tack the extra cost onto the rent. “That has a trickling effect.”
Syed pointed to a May Wall Street Journal analysis that found city property owners owed $1.65 billion more in property taxes this year than in 2019. In September, Mayor de Blasio promised not to raise property taxes to offset the fiscal shortfalls caused by the pandemic, but Syed remains wary how long that promise would last.
The District 24 candidate also pointed to competitor Jim Gennaro, who held the seat from 2002 to 2013. She said he voted in favor of increasing property taxes by 18.5 percent in 2002, but Gennaro was absent due to a family death. He said later that year he would have voted against the resolution, which passed the City Council; Syed promises ahead of potential legislation that she’ll vote against it.
“What we have is homeowners who have paid more in millions than they should have,” she said.
Another aspect of housing injustice Syed plans to rectify is affordable housing. Utilizing city initiatives like the 80/20 program could be the key to increasing affordable units, she said — the plan offers tax exemptions to multifamily rental developers who promise that at least 20 percent of their units will be reserved for low-income residents.
The bigger feat to tackle is closing the affordable housing loophole, Syed said, which allows developers to keep affordable units relatively high because they’re based on the median income of the Greater New York City area, including Westchester, Nassau and other suburban counties.
“We take the median and [apply it] to places like my district where income isn’t necessarily high ... What that does is keep people who really need homes out of the area. It’s not fair and we have to close the loophole,” she said.
“Education is a huge issue,” Syed said. “As you can see, it hasn’t been working. The pandemic just proves it.”
The public school system had been suffering from funding issues long before the coronavrius hit, she said. The Department of Education spends a lot of money, but Syed is not confident it is being spent in the best places.
Syed’s campaign said the school system is owed nearly $4.1 billion in annual funding from the state, which could kickstart its much-needed revival — the state had been required to increase funding for city schools beginning in 2004, which Syed said is an action that has not been complied with and could be used to bring much needed resources to students.
“The pandemic showed us how many people don’t have technology, access to Wi-Fi, and this is an issue that is not going to go away,” Syed said, adding that some studies find that minority students have a higher chance of falling behind on their schoolwork — a Brookings Institute study released Sept. 23 found that black, Hispanic and Asian students are, on average, around 15 percent more likely than white students to live in a “remote-only” school district, which researchers believe would only exacerbate the already existing educational disparities by race.
Additionally, Syed seeks to throw more support behind trade schools and vocational programs.
“We have to recognize how we get jobs for people who might not want to go to college and still be able to get the opportunity for high paying jobs,” she said, adding that the way to do so is by providing more opportunities to become trade professionals, such as plumbers or electricians.
The pandemic is reaching its 10-month mark, and many small businesses are only falling deeper into the economic hole, which Syed hopes to reverse.
“Businesses provide jobs for local people. Our focus has to be on it,” she said. “Under my leadership, I will have a community business specialist position to figure out what’s going on in the community, what businesses are up to, what their needs are — to have a relationship with commerce and figure out the best solution.”
To start, she wants to give every small business $1,000 a month to get them through the pandemic. Small businesses are cultural hubs that make communities unique and their closure is a devastating loss, she said. Syed also proposes establishing grants for small businesses that accrue less than $200,000 in annual gross revenue and can present a fleshed-out plan on how to regain their footing and contribute to the city’s recovering economy.
A large focus of small business revitalization would be placed on minority and women-owned business enterprises, which make up a large percentage of District 24’s economy.
“We cannot take them out of the equation and keep them isolated and not part of the broader redevelopment during the pandemic,” she said, adding that she’ll prioritize MWBEs during the procurement of city contracts. “They’re part of the solution.”