Despite spending most of the first six weeks of his tenure digging New York City out of a never ending pile of snow, Mayor Bill de Blasio also had some time to think about the major issues facing the city in his first “State of the City” address yesterday.
Mayor de Blasio is likely the most high profile of the new crop mayors elected around the country in 2014, as Co.Exist has been tracking (see “The Class of 2014: The New Mayors Who Are Building The Future of America’s Cities”). He is among a handful touting a major progressive shift for the future of cities.
De Blasio swept into office as a populist determined to address what is likely the biggest failing on his predecessor’s watch: the rise of “two cities”–a phenomenon marked by soaring income inequality, increasingly unaffordable costs of living and housing, and the largest homeless population since the Great Depression. “There’s a large swath of the population that doesn’t seem to be getting ahead even as the city prospers,” says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the New York-based Center for an Urban Future.
In his speech yesterday, de Blasio called for a “government with a soul” as he invoked these same themes and also delineated more concrete proposals to put them into action. He vowed to act on key issues without the help of federal lawmakers and despite the opposition of some in the state. With a gridlocked U.S. Congress, cities are now becoming the true incubators of policy innovation in this country–a theme echoed in his speech.
From offering universal pre-kindergarten to address the “skills gap” and raising taxes on the wealthy, de Blasio has his work cut out for him in achieving his expansive vision. Already, he’s put in motion the moves to end the city’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing tactics. Today, it’s still the honeymoon phase of his administration and he can talk about his big ideas without much expectation yet.
Here are a couple of interesting proposals he talked about in his speech:
1) Offering ID cards to immigrants, whether or not they are here in the U.S. legally.
This would would bring the city’s almost half-million undocumented residents “out of the shadows,” allowing them to lease an apartment, take out a library book, an open a bank account. Other cities in the country have done this. New York could be the largest.
2) Setting a higher minimum wage in New York City, joining a national debate over the issue.
This would require the blessing of the state government, making it a tough challenge. He did not say what he would like the minimum wage to be. A number of cities are considering raising the bar though: Seattle has proposed $15 an hour. de Blasio also said he would use an executive order to expand the city’s recently passed “living wage laws” that previously applied to projects receiving more than $1 million in subsidies to an additional “tens of thousands of New Yorkers.”
3) Building nearly 200,000 units of affordable housing to house up to half a million New Yorkers
Almost one in three residents pay more than half of their income in rent and utilities. More affordable housing is desperately needed. This will require changes in zoning and land use, and may involve battles with real estate developers. “We must build more to achieve our vision. But the people’s interests will be accounted for in every real estate deal made with the city,” he said.
4) An entrepreneurship fund for low-income New Yorkers.
The idea of an entrepreneurship fund is one the Center for an Urban Future has encouraged for awhile. “Not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur, and there’s clearly risks involved, but I think we can move the needle on the low-income wealth gap if you have more people starting businesses,” says Bowles.
5) Investing in education for a local science, technology, and health workforce
The mayor spoke of higher-education, apprenticeship programs, and job training, especially in the growing sectors of tech, health, and science. One tactic will be to expand “innovative programs” such as the Bronx’s Health Education and Research Occupations High School, opened only in August, that combines the resources of a local university and hospital to be a career pipeline into the health care sector for students in high school.
To be sure, these are ambitious priorities, and it’ll remain to be seen whether he can achieve them and whether they will be effective in achieving the larger goals. We’ll continue to track his progress here as well as new mayors in other city’s, including Boston, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Seattle, Minneapolis, Detroit, and LA.