De Blasio focuses on housing, business problems in State of City address

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered a smorgasbord of new initiatives as he gave his State of the City address on Thursday.

In a town-hall stylemeeting at the American Museum of Natural History, the mayor outlined plans to expand housing affordability, help small businesses survive, improve education, keep down crime and fight the effects of climate change.

With two years left in his second term, the mayor is looking to rev up his progressive agenda before he leaves office. His "Save Our City" speech touched on several initiatives he wants to get through this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his seventh State of the City address.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his seventh State of the City address.

“New York City is the greatest city in the world, but many New Yorkers have real fears that the city they love is slipping away,” de Blasio said. “From making Pre-K universal, to creating the safest big city in America, we have accomplished so much together, but we need to go much farther. We must make New York City easier to afford, protect the mom-and-pop businesses that make New York, New York, and hand this city back to the people who make it so great.”

The Citizens Budget Commission said the mayor’s plans for the future relied on many of the same strategies that were used in the past.

“After making the case that despite some successes his strategies for the past six years have not solved fundamental problems, Mayor de Blasio outlined a plan to ‘Save Our City’ that largely doubled and tripled down on those same strategies,” said Andrew Rein, President of the CBC. “The key to New York's future will be the same as the past — cultural, economic and neighborhood dynamism. In the desire to improve neighborhood stability, some of the proposals risk promoting stagnation.”

De Blasio said the city aims to help 28,000 businesses in need and will invest city pension funds in local firms.

“We will work to commit $500 million of New York City pension funds to invest in our local businesses, with a focus on small businesses,” he said.

The mayor also is creating a commercial rent control commission to find ways to support small businesses and protect them from big rent hikes. This commission will deliver its recommendations to the city by the end of this year.

“I've been hearing now more and more those concerns about small business, obviously the concern about affordability. I feel urgency,” de Blasio said later in an interview on NY1. “I feel like I didn't choose the phrase, ‘Save Our City,’ lightly. I chose it because it reflects exactly what I'm hearing from the people I represent, but also the sense that we must be even more aggressive, and do things that used to be off the table. I talked about the potential of commercial rent control. It's an idea that for a long time has been questioned in terms of its legality. I want to get to the bottom of that once and for all. If we can make it legal, it's the kind of thing we should put on the table.”

Other initiatives include working to pass a landlord vacancy tax on empty storefronts; cut small business fines in half; expand small business navigators; provide free lawyers and fair loans for low-income businesses.

Andrew Rein, President of the Citizens Budget Commission.
Andrew Rein, President of the Citizens Budget Commission.

“Regarding vacant storefronts, the de Blasio Administration’s Department of City Planning concluded that ‘high vacancy rates (were) not universal,’ and ‘retail corridors (are) subject to multiple cross-currents (including) the rise of ecommerce, demographic shifts, real estate market trends, (and) local building stock,’ and ‘(P)ublic interventions to address vacancy should be carefully considered and nuanced,’ ” Rein said. “This great advice suggests further study and targeted nuanced policy responses, rather than blunt, broad policies like a landlord vacancy tax and commercial rent control. We need to target the response to the problem and minimize potential negative side effects; these proposals do not appear do that.”

Turning his attention to housing affordability, the mayor’s proposals included a plan called “Your Home NYC,” which aims to strengthen city efforts to build and preserve affordable housing, protect renters and create neighborhood wealth.

The city plans to build new low-income housing, with half of all city-financed new homes for families making less than $50,000 per year, and at least half of those will be for families making less than $30,000 per year. Also on the housing agenda: push for renting without a security deposit; advocate for universal renter protection; and expand community land trusts to build neighborhood wealth.

Additionally, the city will take the first steps toward legalizing basement apartments and accessory units by updating its zoning laws and introduce legislation to cut through red tape.

"Our city is battling a full-blown affordability crisis, and the city’s housing plan has left tens of thousands of New Yorkers behind with housing that is not truly affordable. I have long called for the city to refocus our resources on building housing for the New Yorkers with the greatest need — families in shelters or who are one paycheck away from homelessness,” NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer said. “I commend this step in the right direction, but the massive scale of our housing crisis demands we do more."

"Our city is battling a full-blown affordability crisis," says NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.
"Our city is battling a full-blown affordability crisis," says NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The CBC said the mayor’s housing proposals were a mixed bag.

“Legalizing safe basement apartments and accessory units and reforming property taxes can increase housing supply and diversity, which are crucial to affordability,” Rein said. “Conversely, universal renter protection — depending on the form — can discourage investment, which would hurt tenant quality of life and our housing stock, especially when it is on top of last year’s state law changes that disincentivized investment in maintenance.”

Other areas the mayor spoke about included crime, education and climate change.

He said the city will send 300 youth coordination officers to every precinct; expand, reopen and build new recreation and community centers; make streets safer near schools; create a new NYPD Vision Zero unit.

The mayor aims to bring 3-K to more families across the city; surpass the nation in graduation rate; deepen the work of EduStat; recruite diverse and gifted teachers; and begin family home visits to all first-time parents.

The city plans to raise its investment in wind generation; double the use of solar power; bring more zero-emission hydropower to the city by 2025; end the purchase of single-use plastic bottles by the city restrict their sale on city property by 2021; make all city vehicles electric by 2040; end the use of fossil fuels, including natural gas in large building systems by 2040; and stop new fossil fuel infrastructure such as power plant expansions, pipelines, or terminals that expands the supply of fossil fuels.

“Climate change is real. And if we don’t act now, our kids will grow up in a world that’s less livable and more dangerous," de Blasio said.

The City Council will be working with the mayor on his initiatives and holding budget hearings over the next several weeks. The mayor unveiled a preliminary $95.3 billion fiscal 2021 budget plan last month.

The mayor said he was confident that the details could be worked out with the council over the course of the negotiations.

"There's always going to be a process. There always should be a process. It doesn't happen in Washington anymore, but here in New York City, we have hearings, we have a legislative process, and we work it out together,” de Blasio said on NY1. “But if you've noticed over the last six years, there's a very high level of philosophical alignment between me and the Council. I'm confident that they'll — there'll be a lot of support for the things I'm talking about.”

The city is one of the largest issuers of municipal debt in the United States. As of the end of the second quarter of fiscal 2020, the city had about $37.7 billion of general obligation debt outstanding. That's not counting the various city authorities that issue debt.

Moody’s Investors Service rates the city's GOs Aa1 and S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings rate it AA. All three rating agencies assign stable outlooks to the GOs.

The NYC Transitional Finance Authority has $38.9 billion of debt outstanding while the NYC Municipal Water Finance Authority has $30.8 billion of debt outstanding. The TFA’s debt consists of future tax-secured senior bonds (Aaa/AAA/AAA), future tax-secured subordinate bonds (Aa1/AAA/AAA) and building aid revenue bonds (Aa2/AA/AA). The MWFA’s debt consists of general resolution bonds (A1/AAA/AA+) and second general resolution bonds (Aa1/AA+/AA+).

For fiscal 2020, the city has estimated total bond issuance of $8.61 billion, with sales of $9.9 billion in fiscal 2021, $11.3 billion in fiscal 2022, $12.7 billion in fiscal 2023 and $13.3 billion in fiscal 2024.

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City of New York, NY New York City Housing Authority New York City Pension Funds New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority New York City Transitional Finance Authority New York City Housing Development Corporation New York City Independent Budget Office