Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his State of the City address last night at the Apollo Theater, the iconic landmark that is perhaps the most revered and recognizable venue in Harlem. It provided a fitting backdrop for a mayor who was elected with the overwhelming support of the city’s black and brown residents – the very folks he is counting on to support him as he makes his case for re-election in the weeks and months to come.
In 2014, the mayor launched an ambitious housing initiative to build and preserve 200,000 affordable units over the next decade. Three years later, the fears of gentrification and displacement are as acute as they ever were in places such as Central and East Harlem, Crown Heights, Bushwick, Washington Heights, Astoria and Inwood and other communities. As the mayor put it, New York City faces an “affordability crisis that threatens the very soul of the city.” New Yorkers are counting on him to do all he can to address this crisis. Creating and maintaining affordable apartments is just part of the picture.
The mayor knows this. In his speech he also noted that he would focus on creating more well-paid jobs, expand a program to effectively provide right to counsel to low-income New Yorkers facing eviction in Housing Court, and dedicate more housing to families with incomes below $40,000 a year. These are tremendous actions, and if effectuated stand to make a real difference in the lives of people who would otherwise face displacement.
But there is still too much of a disparity ($10 billion versus $1.3 billion) between what the City spends to build and preserve “affordable housing” (much of which is not actually affordable to low-income New Yorkers) and its parallel investment in preserving existing public housing, which is the primary source of housing for the city’s lowest income residents.
The mayor must also acknowledge that the crisis of affordability is by no means limited to housing.
Transit affordability is critical too. Between 2007 and 2015 subway and bus fares rose 45 percent, six times faster than average salaries in New York City. Affordable public transit is key to survival in a city that is already expensive to live and work in. If low-income New Yorkers cannot get to work because the cost of taking the bus or subway is moving beyond their reach, they certainly won’t have the means to pay their rent. One in four low-income New Yorkers find themselves regularly unable to afford the cost of public transit at current prices. And next month, the cost of a monthly MetroCard will rise to $121.
The Mayor and his administration argue that the operation of the buses and subways is a state matter. True. But the Mayor represents all New York City residents, and right now a lot of the poorest ones are waiting for him to take up transit affordability with the same fervor as he did Paid Sick Days and Universal Pre-K.
Adding a provision to his FY2018 executive budget for half-priced bus and subway fares for working-age New Yorkers with incomes at or below the federal poverty level is within the Mayor’s authority. At a cost of $200 million dollars, it will not break the $85 billion municipal budget. And the savings the working poor will derive from this measure will go right back into their pockets helping them pay for rent, food and other necessities.
Reduced price MetroCards for our lowest income residents makes sense economically and pragmatically. Other cities have done it. Before this budget season comes to an end, we ask that the Mayor reconsider his position, and embrace the provision of half-priced fares for those in true need as a policy befitting the progressive city he leads.