February 7, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – “We see the Tale of Two Cities transforming,” Mayor Bill de Blasio declared in his State of the City speech Feb. 4. “Our vision is one New York, working for our neighborhoods.”
Speaking at Lehman College in the Bronx, the mayor touted his administration’s accomplishments: both crime and police stop-and-frisks down, 500,000 people who have gained paid sick leave, 50,000 city and contract workers guaranteed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and 20,000 eligible for six weeks of paid parental leave, adding that “working with our municipal unions, we look forward to the day when we can extend a similar benefit to many more.”
He took several minutes to praise police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and correction officers for feats like capturing a hatchet-wielding terrorist and delivering babies on the Long Island Expressway and the FDR Drive. He concluded with a host of new initiatives: neighborhood health clinics on the South Bronx; a “single shepherd” mentor/guidance counselor for every middle-school and high-school student in Brownsville, “dedicated youth shelters” for homeless youth, often lesbian and gay kids who have been thrown out by their parents; being able to pay parking meters with smartphones; expanded cleaning of highway ramps; and a $2.5 billion streetcar line along the waterfront from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens, to stimulate the “five-borough economy.
City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), said the speech was an “impressive presentation,” calling de Blasio “a leader who is committed to put the money where his vision is.” He was particularly impressed by the mayor’s focus on education and transportation, he added.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) called it a “decent speech,” but said he hoped to hear more details on the mayor’s affordable-housing plan. His mind heavy with the news that two police officers had been shot and wounded in a South Bronx housing project during the speech, he said he also hoped to hear more about youth jobs and gun-violence prevention.
One Bronx woman in the audience was less impressed. She called the speech “a 60-minute infomercial.”
While the speech was long on statistics and visions of the city “as a 21st century global capital of fairness, opportunity, and innovation,” it was less long on deeper plans for reducing the entrenched economic inequality de Blasio campaigned against in 2013. One idea he offered was developing a city-run retirement-savings system for private-sector employees, sort of like a public 401(k) plan. Workers at firms with 10 or more employees who don’t already have a retirement plan would be able to have their contributions deducted from their paychecks and invested by the city. They would be able to transfer the savings if they moved to another job.
“Fewer than half of all working New Yorkers have access to a plan that can help them save for the retirement years,” the mayor said. “Even those who have started to save don’t have much—40% of New Yorkers have less than $10,000 saved for retirement.”
He described his plan to construct 80,000 new units of below-market housing as “the most ambitious municipal affordable housing plan in the history of the nation.” (That may be exaggerated: The state Mitchell-Lama program built 105,000 apartments between 1955 and 1978, and their average rents were lower.) The city has helped over 22,000 New Yorkers move out of homeless shelters and into permanent housing, he added, and “we’ve helped another 91,000 with services to stay IN their homes and OUT of shelter.”
That housing plan, however, provoked two separate demonstrations outside the campus before the speech. A group of about 50 people held signs charging that it would displace Bronx residents by bringing in luxury development, and about 10 members of Laborers Local 79 protested that it does not require that affordable housing to be built with union labor. With more than three-fourths of the 17 construction workers killed in the last year dying on nonunion sites, not requiring union-scale safety and training is “zero vision planning,” flyers they handed out said.
“We live in the city. We spend money here too,” said one man, carrying a “Labor Standards Are a Human Right” sign.