Homelessness, preservation dominate mayoral town hall

| 21 Mar 2017 | 09:55

These days, Mayor Bill de Blasio no longer shoulders concerns that only apply within the borders of New York City. The mayor has been outspoken since President Donald Trump’s inauguration against the travel ban, increasing deportations and protecting women’s health. But on Wednesday, at a town hall on West 17th Street, the issues residents raised with the mayor and their Council member Corey Johnson stayed mostly local.

“One of the things that’s [missing from] Hudson Yards is business from this community, employment for this community, and minority and women-owned businesses,” said Miguel Acevedo, president of the Fulton Houses Tenants Association, who was the first to address the mayor. “Can you please help me in making sure that does get implemented?”

De Blasio assured Acevedo that he was pushing the private sector to “commit more resources” to small businesses and to minority and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs). Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services, then took over to tout the department’s efforts to get private companies to hire smaller companies certified by the agency and to get people jobs at its Workforce1 career centers.

Throughout the nearly three-hour meeting, many other agency leaders were asked to step up and defend various decisions or initiatives. Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, explained to one resident why congestion pricing to reduce traffic isn’t feasible at the moment. “In Los Angeles and Seattle and San Francisco, where they ask the local voters if they’re willing to tax themselves for local projects, there’s been a lot of support for that,” Trottenberg said. “But unfortunately that’s not the political construct we have here.”

Rick Chandler, head of the Department of Buildings, was asked to account for a landmarked building on West 29th Street onto which a supposedly illegal fifth story was added by a developer. “I speak regularly with the commissioner at [the Landmarks Preservation Commission],” he said. “It was not our legal right to tell [the developer] that he couldn’t do it.”

Still, residents raised plenty of concerns about national issues and their effects on New Yorkers. “New York broke my heart the other day,” said a woman who then told the mayor she had seen “about 40 young, Latino men” being led in handcuffs into a bus that she thought belonged to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “I want to know if the city keeps track of what ICE is doing,” she said.

In response, de Blasio told her “the honest truth is we don’t always know” when residents are about to be deported. However, he called ICE’s actions an attempt to send a message and expressed relief that the situation wasn’t worse than it is. “So far what we’ve seen has been much more limited than the hype,” de Blasio said.

Another resident brought up health care, as Trump’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act remained dominant in news coverage. “A lot of us in this room pay an enormous amount for health insurance,” she said. “I would be interested to hear your perspective on the New York Health Act, which proposes to provide universal health insurance to all New Yorkers.” The crowd of about 150 people applauded.

The mayor said he believes in the single-payer model and that the Affordable Care Act can be saved. “I think the indicators are now that what’s happening at the grassroots is having a very big impact,” he said. “I’m certainly going to do all I can to support [the New York Health Act].”

Other issues raised included public school segregation, the closure of the L train and ensuring the protection of sports facilities like those at Pier 40. De Blasio also promised to close the Aladdin, a homeless shelter on West 45th Street, which has long been a central neighborhood complaint. Council Member Johnson reaped plentiful praise from his constituents, who thanked him repeatedly for help with their problems.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at newsreporter@strausnews.com