Mayor Bill De Blasio‘s campiagn barnstorming tour of town halls stopped this week at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights where Hizzoner fielded questions for three hours from local residents covering everything from homelessness to education to parking spaces, but for the most part housing dominated the discussion.
The event was the 40th in a string of town hall meetings the Mayor has attended throughout the city with City Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg) playing host at this one. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn, Queens, Lower Manhattan) were also in attendance.
Commissioners from each major city agency were gathered alongside the mayor, frequently joining him to answer relevant questions. De Blasio encouraged the audience to approach them after the formal part of the town hall was over.
“I often am asked by people whether they should feel comfortable going up to these people even when the forum is over,” said De Blasio. “And I say ‘these are really talented public servants, they’re some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, and if you want them to, they will stay here all night to take your questions.’”
In regard to issues surround housing, residents peppered de Blasio specifically about public housing, voicing fears of its privatization, the need for repair and accessibility in certain NYCHA housing facilities. They also showed concern over the process of “rightsizing,” which encourages families with fewer members to transition to smaller apartment units, freeing units up for larger families.
De Blasio responded that the city was committed to investing in public housing, citing a $1.3 billion increase in the June budget to improve certain physical conditions of facilities, such as roof repairs. He also cited new plans to provide the Gowanus Houses Community Center with funds for youth programming.
“We know that there was a lack of investment in every way in public housing for a long long time, most notably the federal government’s abandonment of its earlier commitment to public housing, which has hurt us greatly, has hurt the residents greatly,” said de Blasio. “We’re trying to make up for that in every way that we can.”
The Mayor was vehement that public housing would not be privatized, despite the concerns of residents, over his NextGen NYCHA plan, which would do just that – sell off some NYCHA property for both market rate and affordable housing with the revenue generated from the private development earmarked to go back into NYCHA for repairs and upkeep.
“Public housing is public. Public housing is on public land, it belongs to the city of New York,” he announced, over a roar of applause. “And it will continue to be controlled by the city of New York. We will not allow privatization of public housing.”
De Blasio also announced new investment stemming from the Community Parks Initiative, including over $6 billion to refurbish the northern end of nearby Cadman Plaza Park, $6 billion to upgrade ball fields at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, and $17 billion to develop Bushwick Inlet Park.
Other questions ranged from the contentious Broadway Triangle rezoning plan, which one audience member called “a segregating housing development,” to ending Saturday alternate side parking in communities where the Sabbath is observed.
Many of the concerns were quality of life questions: request for safe and speedy repair of gas lines or the need for allergen notices in public school cafeterias.
Others addressed larger issues, such as the Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) plan, rezoning in Gowanus, and the city’s foster care system.
De Blasio and Levin both emphasized the importance of town hall meetings that brought residents and city officials together.
“A town hall meeting is an affirmation of democracy,” said de Blasio. “We are the busiest place in the world, there are many other things people do on a work night, but hundreds of people are here to make their community better.”