2016 State of the District
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Thank you to the elected officials and their representatives who have joined us today. Most importantly, thank you to those in the audience who came out here today, this speech is for and about you.
I am your Council Member Ben Kallos. I have had the privilege of representing the Upper East Side, Midtown East, Sutton Area, El Barrio and Roosevelt Island over the past 24 months and 9 days.
Today, I will report on what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short time period and a plan for what we can get done together in the remaining 1 year, 11 months and 21 days, 10 hours, and 20 minutes of my first term.
As a constituent and advocate myself, then candidate, and now Council Member, I have always been frustrated with how government can be opaque, closed, unaccountable and broken. What if we started to change all that -- empowering our community -- what would that look like?
I opened my office as “your office,” a community center, where I invite you to join me, in person, for the First Friday of each month from 8am to 10am, Policy Night at 6pm on the second Tuesday of each month, for you to organize and shape public policy. Free legal clinics provide free housing, family law and domestic violence counseling each month. Monthly mobile office hours at senior centers and NYCHA bring our office to you. Each evening, I or my staff attend Community Board, precinct council, neighborhood association, and tenant association meetings. Over the warmer months, you will find us at street fairs or Cooking with Kallos at greenmarkets. But all of that involves you coming to meet us, so we’ve launched Ben In Your Building, where if you can gather 10 neighbors, I will come to you and meet in your home or lobby to discuss whatever is important to you. Yes, I make house calls
Thank you to Elsbeth Reiman, Daniel Dornbaum, and Danny Kayton, who join me each and every month for First Friday and Policy Night. Their support and regular contributions make my job fulfilling and more effective. We’ve had nearly two dozen First Fridays and Policy Nights.
My Constituent Service team led by Debbie Lightbody with support from Tirso Tavarez and roughly a dozen graduate students in social work have helped more than 4,000 constituents. Our legal clinics have provided individual counsel to nearly 250 of our neighbors, who are trying to stay in their homes or get heat back in their apartments. And I have made dozens of house calls through “Ben In Your Building.”
Ultimately, my goal is to personally meet all 168,413 people who live in my district in order to better serve and work with you to find affordable housing or get that 311 complaint resolved or to work together to draft and pass a law that will make our city better. Please stop by my office and let us know how we can help.
Most of of our most substantial and pressing constituent service is around housing issues. From poor conditions to evictions we are here to help individuals and protect housing in our neighborhood. I grew up here; I want to raise a family and grow old here too. We must protect our affordable and public housing, and combat the forces of overdevelopment. Our affordable housing crisis is forcing people from their homes and on to the streets.
As of Christmas we had 23,416 children, 17,071 parents, and 12,845 single adults in our shelter system and the more than 3,100 people on our streets. When you see someone who is homeless or panhandling on the street, please don’t give them money, but call or use the 311 app to report it so that we can send an outreach team to offer them 3 meals a day and shelter. 311 will let you know the results of their outreach. Even if the person says “no,” if you keep calling, each interaction helps build a relationship that gets them closer to saying “yes” to our help.
The development boom threatens rent-stabilized and affordable housing, we have fought to preserve the affordability and character of our residential neighborhoods.
When the Mayor’s housing plan called for adding height to the contextual height caps that allow for the East Side’s quiet side streets, we opposed the measure with Borough President Gale Brewer and Senator Liz Krueger, so developers wouldn’t tear down rent stabilized buildings to get more height. And the Department of City Planning heard us, and agreed to protect the midblock.
With CIVITAS Chair Felipe Ventegeat and Executive Director Emma Bologna, we’ve continued to address the Mayor’s housing plan, ensuring that historic districts remain protected and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing provides housing to keep our middle class from being squeezed out. This city must be affordable for all New Yorkers.
The Upper East Side has a long history of rent stabilization, and after two years of ardent advocacy alongside tenant leaders we won a rent freeze on rent regulated leases for the first time in New York City’s history.
There is overdevelopment and then there are superscrapers. When residents of the Sutton Area, including Sutton Area Community President Dieter Selig, alerted my office to a proposed 90-story building for billionaires, we worked with local residents to form the East River Fifties Alliance. Under the leadership of President Alan Kersh, the Alliance has worker with our office to organize the community behind an effort to rezone the neighborhood to draw the line on billionaires row at residential neighborhoods. Integral to this community effort are Herndon Werth, the “Sage of Sutton”, and Charles Fernandez, who have rejected buyouts and resisted harassment, and stayed in their apartments, saying the light and air and history of our neighborhood are too important to demolish for a superscraper.
Preserving the history of our city this past year held special significance.
Just as we marked the 50th anniversary of the landmarks law, it came under attack, first with a proposal to remove hundreds of buildings from protection without review, and then with legislation that would have created a five-year moratorium incentivizing historic communities to be razed. Leading a coalition of over seventy preservation groups with Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts’ Chair Franny Eberhart and then Executive Director Tara Kelly, as well as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, we persuaded the Landmarks Preservation Commission to review every proposed landmark that was on the chopping block and we have fought the bad legislation.
Developers have long sought to privatize our public housing, which provides a safety net from homelessness, in a city that is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Now, Mayor de Blasio seeks to build luxury apartments on a playground serving the children of Holmes Towers. Prior to NYCHA’s announcing Holmes as a location, I came out against the plan, unless it had (1) resident support, (2) maximum preference for existing tenants, and (3) 100% affordable housing. Congress Member Maloney, Manhattan Borough President Brewer and I stand united with Holmes Towers Tenant Association President Sandra Perez against building luxury units on NYCHA playgrounds.
All of these campaigns, whether they’re local or citywide, are meant to address the issues that you have brought me and my team.
When Rebecca Sears, who is disabled living in a basement walk-up apartment on the East Side, applied for affordable housing, she was put on a wait list, twice, with no information about how long the wait would be. Rebecca raised awareness of this issue by sharing her story with NBC, and I introduced a bill that would create a single, universal application for all affordable housing and bring transparency to waiting lists. Landlords have received over $1 billion dollars in tax breaks and abatements to build affordable housing, but the City currently has no way to verify the affordable units were built, so my bill would also require them to register with the city. Recent investigations by ProPublica have found that 50,000 to 200,000 units of affordable homes are being hidden from New Yorkers. Our City is in desperate need of affordable housing and we cannot allow landlords to hide even a single unit of it from the public.
Another of the most common issues I hear about from you is transportation.
In my first year, when a series of traffic collisions in our neighborhood reinforced the importance of Vision Zero, I mailed a survey to 60,000 households, asking for your feedback about improving our streets. We compiled your responses into a report on Livable Streets, highlighting our most dangerous intersections and proposing street improvements throughout the neighborhood. The Department of Transportation’s Manhattan Pedestrian Safety Plan prioritized seven of our most dangerous intersections, and we are already starting to see repaving, medians, neckdowns, and other safety improvements on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Avenues. Please continue to report dangerous intersections and corners to my office — so we can all have livable streets.
In addition to making our transportation infrastructure safer, I’ve been focused on improving the behavior of those using our streets to better share them safely.
First we took on commercial cycling. If you order food at home, which all of us do, a commercial cyclist has delivered it. We’ve gone to every restaurant in the neighborhood two years in a row to offer free vests, lights and bells in exchange for participating in a training on safe cycling. We also changed 311 so you can report commercial cyclists without vests, and we secured a commitment from DOT to send an inspector in response to your calls. You should see more vests now and are empowered to be my eyes and ears in the community to report specific restaurants whose cyclists are not obeying the law. I’ve also asked every building that has hosted a Ben In Your Building to ban commercial cyclists from delivering food on electric bikes or without vests, which is the same way we eliminated menus being slid under our doors.
This past summer, we launched a Bike Safety Program to ensure the safety of pedestrians, motorists and cyclists alike. I partnered with the DOT, the NYPD, Citi Bike, Transportation Alternatives and Bike New York’s Sharon Pope to:
- distribute safety materials and safety equipment such as bells, lights, and helmets;
- train cyclists on safe practices and rules of the road in school and when they buy new bikes; and
- increase education and enforcement against unsafe behavior.
And we got results. The 19th precinct stepped up enforcement 52 percent and distributed safety materials to over 8,000 cyclists, resulting in 18 percent fewer bike and vehicle collisions and 15 percent lower bike and pedestrian collisions as of this summer.
This summer also saw CitiBike expand to the Upper East Side. Thank you to the hundreds of people who provided feedback, online and in person at several community forums. Through your hard work, we were able to move multiple locations including at 72nd and 84th streets.
CitiBikes are already the safest vehicles on the road with not a single death and only 10.5 collisions per million trips as compared to 1,121 fatal car crashes in New York in 2013 alone. But, I wanted them to be safer, and CitiBike has agreed to provide a monthly 90-minute bike safety class at my office that provides participants with a free day pass or month on an annual membership.
I also introduced legislation to improve hazardous sidewalk conditions and fix crumbling curb cuts to ensure the 889,219 New Yorkers with disabilities and nearly one million residents 65 or older can navigate the city streets safely.
Safety is first but improving your commute is the purpose of all this work.
I have long advocated for expanded East River ferry service and am proud that the City has approved new stops for Roosevelt Island in 2017 and 62nd and 90th Streets by 2018, utilizing our waterfronts to improve commutes.
Select Bus Service has brought off-board fare payment to the M86, following my advocacy to improve crosstown service. The block-long lines we all know too well should be a thing of the past as the bus gets 20% faster. I continue to advocate for the expansion of select bus service to other crosstown buses including the M79. That time saved translates into revenue for businesses whose taxes help pay for further transit improvements: a virtuous circle.
Being trapped in the subway without a lifeline is now a part of the past, following my advocacy for mobile service and free Wi-Fi in subways, I am happy to announce the service at 86th Street and at stops along Lexington Avenue.
The Second Ave Subway construction last started, nearly a decade ago. Since then, I have joined Congress Member Maloney at regular meetings and press conferences to hold the MTA accountable so that they finish “on time” by December 2016. We remain on track for completion by then and are fighting the MTA’s decision to stall working on Phase 2 construction into East Harlem.
This summer City Hall proposed limiting the number of Ubers, unfairly targeting innovation and making it harder for New Yorkers to get where they are going. I came out against and helped defeat this plan. Government should embrace innovation from the private sector and pass my legislation for an NYC e-hail app that would allow any New Yorker to hail all 19,000 of our trusted yellow and green taxis.
This year I continued to tour our local schools. I have now made it to nearly every public school in the district to meet with principals, teachers, students and parents. I hope to re-visit schools each year as this has been a valuable way to get to know each school in to address its needs.
We’ve opened two new schools in the district this year: the Iken pre-school with the goal of inspiring young children to become scientists and the Trevor Day School, with a new building on 95th Street.
I am especially proud to have worked with allies like Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James to negotiate major gains for public education into this year’s City Budget:
- $12.7 million for renewal schools that offer city services and support for families and children who need it most
- $1.14 million to hire 80 more crossing guards so students can be safer, and
- $17.9 million for “breakfast after the bell” to fight hunger for 339,000 children at 530 elementary schools in the city.
But more has to be done to fight child hunger. I introduced a bill requiring schools to report on their school breakfast use rates and efforts, which would get us one step closer in our fight to get universal breakfast after the bell. Only 35% of students who eat free school lunch also eat school breakfast.
Here in the district, I’ve invested over $5 million in discretionary funding to support STEM education in our local public schools.
My office worked with Eva Bosbach, coordinator of the Roosevelt Island Parents Network and the Department of Education to open additional pre-k seats on Roosevelt Island.
The five and six year olds in Paula Rogovin’s class at PS 290 were only just out of pre-K, but that didn’t stop them from pitching me on legislation. The kids asked me to write a bill banning toxic pesticides in our City’s parks, allowing only natural pesticides, and when the bill was ready to be introduced in the Council, we announced it together for the press in the playground, on the heels of the World Health Organization’s announcement that certain toxic pesticides were carcinogens.
We’ve continued the annual public school art show featuring student work at Sotheby's. Thank you to PS 183 Principal Tara Napoleoni, Art Director Wan Ling Fahrer, and parent Patricia Correge for leading the effort and to the students from PS 183, PS 77, PS 290, PS 151, Vanguard HS, PS 169, PS 6, PS 527, MS 177 who participated. Creativity must be nurtured in schools by promoting the arts.
Each year residents in my district ages 14 older get to vote on how to spend one million dollars in the community. The ballot is decided and the process is run by residents like you who volunteer as Delegates. Last year, our top vote-getters were new green roofs for P.S. 151 and P.S./I.S. 217 on Roosevelt Island. Thank you and congratulations to principals Samantha Kaplan and Mandana Beckman, PTA Presidents Nesli Ciner, Michael Rawlinger and Olga Shchuchinov, and on Roosevelt Island Girl Scout Troops 3244 and 3245 led by Janine Schaefer, and the brownies of Girl Scout Troop 3001 led by Aiesha Eleusizov, all of whom worked together to develop and gain support for their respective projects.
In our first year we had under 600 votes, last year we had 2,140 votes, and this year I am hoping that you can help us reach the more than 130,000 people who live in the district for them to vote.
Our parks will also see significant improvements, starting on the East River Esplanade.
When I took office, our community’s tireless leader, Congress Member Carolyn Maloney, asked me to Co-Chair the East River Esplanade Task Force, as the Esplanade was in desperate need of repair. In my short time in office, I have negotiated $35 Million in city funding and over $9 million from Rockefeller University and $1 million from Hospital for Special Surgery. The Esplanade will see improved landscaping with irrigation to keep it alive, new seating and lighting, designated bike lanes, and a new noise barrier along the FDR Drive for a more peaceful and beautiful park from 64th to 68th and 70th to 72nd Street with maintenance in perpetuity to keep it that way. This is coupled with investment in a “Friends of” conservancy founded by Jennifer Ratner, which just brought on Executive Director Jessica Marcellin. We’ve already broken ground and see the Esplanade becoming a central public space for our community once again.
Carl Schurz Park Playground is in line for a $1.3 million renovation, and I’d like to say thank you to the children, parents, grandparents and community members who attended community meetings to provide guidance for the Parks Department.
This year saw the launch of conservancies for Ruppert and Sutton Parks, thanks to Nancy Ploeger and Jack Barnett, respectively. These new groups join the long-standing and invaluable conservancies we have. The Carl Schurz and St. Catherine’s Parks who protect our all-too-limited park space. Thank you to the neighborhood associations that support our parks including the East Sixties with Judy and Barry Schneider as well as East 79th Street with Betty Cooper Wallerstein along with Marcia Reese who helped bring senior fitness classes and an adult passive recreation space to John Jay Park. I hope in the next year we can found conservancies for John Jay Park and Stanley Isaacs, thereby achieving my goal of having a conservancy for each and every park in my district.
Please also consider adopting a planter on your block or on First Avenue, a program we’ve established in partnership with Sarah Gallagher and the Upper Green Side.
Since before I was elected, I have been a vocal opponent of the building of a marine transfer station in a residential neighborhood. We continue to fight the Marine Transfer Station and, thanks to your support, here is what we've already accomplished:
- We moved the ramp one block north to protect 35,000 children from all over the city who play at Asphalt Green in partnership with Pledge 2 Portect and the local community;
- I introduced air quality monitoring legislation with Council Member Dan Garodnick to protect us from pollution;
- I forced commitments from Sanitation Commissioner Garcia under oath to limit use of the MTS to only 1,800 of the total 5,200 tons per day capacity, keeping more than 300 garbage trucks off our streets;
- I have advocated for and secured funding for guardrails on garbage trucks and other large city vehicles;
- I advocated for and won a citywide goal of zero waste to make Marine Transfer-to-landfill obsolete by 2030;
- We exposed high costs increasing from $93/ton to $278/ton for a total price tag of $632 million;
- We built a three borough coalition against garbage dumps in residential neighborhoods;
With your help we will continue to fight this ill-conceived Marine Transfer Station.
In order to limit trash, I have cosponsored legislation to limit the use of disposable plastic bags and am distributing free reusable bags from Citizens Committee for New York so that we can each save the planet one bag at a time.
Speaking of trash, constituents have complained for years about conditions emanating from 86th Street and Lexington. This is where 20.7 million riders use that subway station each year, which is similar ridership to Penn Station at 7th Avenue. The permanent, sustainable solution to keep 86th Street clean is a Business Improvement District. My office, with the leadership of Susan Gottridge as acting chair of the BID steering committee and Elaine Walsh of the East 86th Street Association, and the support of local property owners, is leading this push to provide funds to supplement city services with sidewalk sweeping, trash pickup, Big Belly solar compactors, public safety and small business support. Thank you to Andrew Fine for his tireless reporting of this problem and his productive outreach to business owners to gather support for this initiative. If you want to clean up 86th Street, the best thing you can do is get every store in the neighborhood to support the BID and fill out the survey at BenKallos.com/BID.
Thousands of quality of life violations are issued to the Environmental Control Board every year for things like leaving trash in the streets, un-shoveled sidewalks, construction companies working outside of hours or not following the safety regulations, and stores violating health regulations.
Unfortunately, many of these fines go unpaid to the tune of $1.6 billion dollars. I co-chaired a hearing on a package of legislation that would allow the city to revoke licenses and permits from property owners who have unpaid debt and are repeat offenders so quality of life will improve.
I have growing concerns that the city has been setting the bar too low in the Mayor’s Management Report, the annual public report card on local government that is critical to management. Unfortunately, according to my analysis the city failed to set performance targets more than half the time and, when it did, 35% of the time targets were set below current performance standards, which if followed would make conditions in our city worse. At an oversight hearing I chaired on the report, we asked the Administration why their report had planned for an increase in homelessness and infant mortality. They agreed to work with us going forward to improve the report and I look forward to working to get our Management reporting and the city back on track.
I have authored legislation and resolutions that have passed the City Council and been signed into law to improve democracy:
- Pro-Voter Law Expansion, Local Law 63
- Online Voter Guide, Local Law 43
Transparency in Government:
- Open Legislation, Resolution 184, co-sponsor
- Law Online, Local Law 37, co-prime sponsor
- City Record Online, Local Law 38
- Open Mapping, Local Law 108
- National Women’s History Museum Resolution 354 supporting Congress Member Maloney’s successful passage.
A lot of my laws use technology and the Internet to upgrade our government, but that isn’t much use for those on the other side of the digital divide. That is why I have advocated with Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer for affordable broadband for low-income New Yorkers as a condition to any merger with Time Warner Cable in New York City.
I am proud to announce that following our advocacy the Public Service Commission has just ordered Charter, which will replace Time Warner Cable, to provide affordable broadband at 30 MBPS for $14.99 a month to 875,601 low-income students receiving free and reduced school lunch, and 174,646 seniors receiving Social Security Supplemental Income in New York City. This will be coupled with subsidized laptops for $199 and free training, which all together will help eliminate the “home work gap” and go a long way towards bridging the digital divide.
But the best is yet to come. As Chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations, you may have already figured out that I have been focused on improving democracy, transparency, and a no wrong door approach to government as a public utility that just works like your faucet.
One of the most significant steps we could take towards fulfilling this vision can be found in “Automatic Benefits” legislation I proposed this summer that would give government benefits to everybody who qualifies automatically, no application or renewal required, using information the government already has to increase efficiency and reduce bureaucracy. My constituents like Ken Craddock, whose nutrition benefit renewal took four appointments and nearly 16 hours of waiting on the phone would get the help they need when they need it, helping us bridge the 550,000 person gap between New Yorkers who qualify for nutrition benefits and those who receive them. And that’s just food. No one should go hungry, lose their home, or go without healthcare in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
As we work towards that ambitious goal of Automatic Benefits, we can help you get the benefits you are entitled to. In 25 minutes we can screen you for more than 25 government benefits at my office, or you can go online to nyc.gov/ACCESSNYC.
It should be obvious by now, that nothing we’ve gotten done, we’ve done alone. If you’re looking for one more way to get involved in the community, please join me in my office, or one of the organizations I’ve mentioned, or apply for your local Community Board.
I know many of our hardworking board members are in the audience today, including Community Board 8 Chair Jim Clynes. I’ve worked to provide support and transparency to the boards, perhaps most excitingly by passing a law to allow 16 and 17 year olds to serve, and I was then excited to appoint high schooler Zoe Markowitz upon the law’s implementation. I am also fighting to add urban planners to the board staffs and have published best practices for appointments. I believe this is a great time to join our most grass-roots level of government and I hope you will pick up a form in the lobby and apply.
Speaking of the lobby, please join us there for “Bagels with Ben” and please fill out your form for your picture with me in our photo receiving line.
Whether or not you have a title, all of us in this room are leaders in some aspect of this neighborhood and city. Whether on the community board, your neighborhood association, your building, your PTA, or in your home, your experience and expertise in our community can bring value to the rest of us. Thank you for your partnership and I hope to see you over the next year as we work to make the Fifth Council District and New York City an even better place to live.