2017 State of the District
Good afternoon. If we haven’t met yet, I am your Council Member Ben Kallos. I have the privilege of representing the Upper East Side, Sutton, El Barrio and Roosevelt Island.
Thank you to the elected officials and their representatives who have joined us. Most importantly, thank you to those in the audience who came out today. The State of the District is a report on all that we have accomplished together over the past 3 years, 21 days, 13 hours, 35 minutes, and 5 seconds and a chance to look ahead at our future.
If this is your first time, welcome. You don’t have to wait for our annual State of the District.
I want to meet all 168,413 people who I represent in order to better serve you.
You can join me, in person, on the First Friday of every month from 8am to 10am, to have a conversation with neighbors, or for Brainstorm with Ben on the second Tuesday of every month at 6pm for policy discussion and organizing.
We have Mobile Hours at Senior Centers. Free Legal Clinics in our District Office on Housing, Family Law, Domestic Violence, Land Use, Landmarking, and even Life Planning.
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. And don’t forget to stop by our Fresh Food Box with farm-to-table produce for just $12.
But you don’t have to come to us. I will come to you for Ben In Your Building. Just gather 10 neighbors in your home, your lobby, or at a board or annual meeting. Yes, I make house calls.
Each month we hold public meetings from Town Halls to special events focusing on the environment, tenants’ rights, or senior health. These events rely on community partnerships, like our emergency preparedness trainings, which we do with our local Community Emergency Response or CERT teams on Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side. Thank you to CERT leaders Howard Polivy and Christine Donovan.
We are here to help: We can work with you on issues related to seniors, housing, jobs, families, finances, nutrition, and especially getting your 311 complaints resolved.
When you are in need, getting government to work for you should be as easy as turning on the faucet in your kitchen sink. I’ve introduced “Automatic Benefits” legislation to cut through bureaucracy and get you your benefits automatically. We’ve launched a benefits screening tool in partnership with Intuit and the Federal government which we’ve release nationwide, but in the meantime to borrow from GEICO, “25 minutes or less could screen you for 25 or more government benefits.”
My Constituent Service team led by Debbie Lightbody with support from Tirso Tavarez and more than a dozen graduate students in social work, as well as many of our undergraduate interns, has helped more than 5,000 constituents to stay in their homes, renew their SNAP benefits, or get that pothole outside their bedroom window fixed.
This was quite the year. Here on the local level, a lot of it was actually good, so let’s review. Just like Law and Order, we will share stories ripped from the headlines of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and NBC news about the fights we’ve taken on as a community. Where we’ve won and where we continue to fight on.
We’ve fought special interests, greedy landlords, over development and displacement, the Marine Transfer Station. We’ve invested in education, expanded our transportation, opened new parks, and so much more.
When I ran for office, I promised to work for you fulltime without taking money on the side from private employment as a lawyer. I also promised to work for you, not the Speaker of the City Council, foregoing the common practice of receiving tens of thousands in personal income called a “lulu” for being a Committee Chair, which the Daily News long called “legal bribery.” So I kept my pledge and I wrote the law that made outside income and lulus illegal, so that all city elected officials would work exclusively for their constituents.
New York City’s Campaign Finance system matches every dollar you give with $6 dollars from the government up to $175 to empower the small dollars of residents over special interests. But lobbyists were bundling small contributions to help candidates get matching dollars without going through the residents themselves only strengthening special interests. I wrote the law that stopped that match, so public dollars will only amplify your voices.
While we were at it, we closed the Campaign for One New York loophole that allowed elected officials to take tens of thousands of dollars from special interests and spend it on advertisements to support themselves in office. Elected officials that control non-profits will have to disclose their donors who will be limited to “doing business” contribution limits of $400.
In the wake of the unlawful purge of hundreds of thousands of voters at the Board of Elections before the Presidential Primary, I wrote a law to create a voter information portal so voters can track absentee ballots, find poll sites, view ballots, and verify registration status and whether votes were counted.
Following outrage after a deed restriction was lifted allowing a nursing home on Rivington Street to become luxury housing, I reviewed records and held a hearing so that New Yorkers could finally learn what happened on the record and under oath. I then worked with Borough President Brewer and Council Member Chin to pass a law to prevent it from happening again.
Fiscal responsibility requires saving in good times to get us through the bad. Since I was elected I’ve advocated for the City to save more money to get us through the next economic downturn, and in response the City increased its reserves to an estimated $8.76 billion.
Fiscal responsibility also means watching your budget for escalating costs. When I noticed the City’s lawsuit payouts were escalating to over a billion dollars a year, I was able to pressure the Law Department to reduce planned lawsuit payouts by $430 million over the next five years.
With a budget of $82 billion dollars, it can be hard to monitor how our taxpayer dollars are being spent, especially when the budget is only available in print or PDF. So I introduced legislation to put New York City’s budget online and shortly thereafter the Office of Management and Budget did it. Please take a look at the city’s budget and let me know if you notice anywhere we can save money. After all it is your money.
The City can and must do more to fight overdevelopment and the march of Superscrapers across 57th Street and into residential neighborhoods. In April of 2015, Dieter Selig brought a planned 1,000 foot tower to my attention as children were collecting Easter Eggs at the annual Sutton Area Community hunt. We sprang to action bringing hundreds of neighbors to Community Board 6, which passed a resolution within 45 days calling on City Planning to cap heights of the mid-blocks between First Avenue and Sutton, just like in the rest of the neighborhood.
But we didn’t wait for City Planning to do it for us, because we’d still be waiting. So Dieter Selig and I began meeting with buildings throughout Sutton, and we were soon joined by Alan Kersh to raise money for a community-led rezoning. We launched the East River Fifties Alliance, led by Alan Kersh, Robert Shepler, Lisa Mercurio, Jessica Osborne, and the Leadership Committee with elected officials, organizations, over 35 buildings, and more than 400 individual members.
With local heroes we’ve been winning the fight.
When Herndon Werth, the “Sage of Sutton,” who grew up here, was offered a buyout offer, he refused to sell out the community and abandon his home of over 40 years. He stopped the developer from acquiring 434 East 58th Street, a crucial fourth building that the developer was saying he already owned.
Charles Fernandez, a retired security guard who has lived here with his family for decades has also refused numerous buyout offers. He began facing harassment, receiving a letter saying construction workers would be entering his home to cut holes in the ceiling and the walls leaving him exposed to the elements through the cold winter months. He reached out on a weekend and by that Monday the Department of Buildings had blocked the demolition work because of errors, omissions, and their failure to have a legally required plan to protect tenants.
Last month ERFA, Borough President Brewer, Senator Krueger, Council Member Garodnick and I finally filed an application to rezone the neighborhood, capping buildings at 210 feet or 260 feet if they included affordable housing on-site. Join the fight at ERFA.nyc/donate. You can do it now, on your mobile phones. Seriously.
Just as we made progress in Sutton, a skyscraper, the tallest north of Trump Plaza, popped up at 180 East 88th Street, and just as they were pouring the foundation, the Carnegie Hill Neighbors came to the rescue led by President Lo Van Der Valk with expert urban planner George Janes. We worked together and found that they had created a “loophole” in the form of a tiny four-foot lot that would allow them to build much taller than normally allowed. We wrote a letter with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and got a stop work order that was in place for months. Thanks to the vigilance of Senator Liz Krueger we noticed when new plans were filed with a still unbuildable ten-foot lot and together we filed a zoning challenge. Though the city is letting the developer build, the challenge stands and if the city does not do the right thing, we will go to court. Please join the fight at CarnegieHillNeighbors.org.
The zoning law was created to stop tall buildings, like the 40-story, Equitable Building. If we want to stop every building on the Upper East Side from being 400 feet and taller, please support Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, who work every day to protect our neighborhood’s character.
With all this construction, New York City has nearly 9,000 scaffolds that cover nearly 200 miles of city sidewalks. Scaffolding is supposed to temporary, to protect the public from falling bricks or construction. However, when I met residents like Robert Feiner and Warren Yeh at Ben In Your Buildings they complained of scaffolds that went up and never came down, because it was cheaper for neighboring buildings to leave them up then fix the underlying problems. Jane Foss lives in a building where her landlord is trying to use scaffolding that’s been up for years to force her and other tenants out. In response, I’ve introduced legislation with timelines so that when scaffolding goes up, the work gets done and goes back down, or the city steps in and makes bad landlords pay.
When the Mayor proposed a city-wide zoning change “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability” in partnership with Manhattan Borough President Brewer and our Community Boards we fought to make sure it worked for our neighborhoods and won:
- Kept our mid-blocks at 75 feet;
- Reduced height increases to 86th, 79th, 72nd from 50 feet to 25 feet for a maximum of 235 feet;
- Protected the Sliver Law which prevents towers narrower than 40 feet wide;
- Add options for half of New York City residents who earn less than $33,078 a year; and
- Required HPD to track, register, and monitor new affordable housing.
If you are one of the million New Yorkers who lives in rent stabilized housing, you know that the Rent Guidelines Board votes on how much your rent goes up each year. So we have fought for tenants each year, leading the City Council with letters and testimony. After a generation of always seeing the rent go up, even when inflation went down, we won the lowest rent increase ever our first year and the first ever rent freezes for the next two years.
Whether or not you are in rent stabilized housing, if you’ve been to housing court you are on the Tenant Blacklist. Margot Miller ended up in court and won her case, then agreed to move out. But when she tried to rent a new apartment, tenant screening companies reported that she’d been in housing court and no one would rent to her, leaving her out on the street. Nobody should be discriminated against for exercising their right to go to court. In response to what happened to Margot and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers like her, we worked with Senator Liz Krueger and tenant lawyer Jaime Fishman to propose legislation to license tenant screening companies, forcing them to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The City’s homelessness continues to rise to over 60,250. But why can’t they go get a job? Well 23,456 of those homeless are children. 23,456 woke up in a shelter and went to public schools with our children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors. 17,858 are their family members, 3,790 are single women, and 9,858 are single men in our shelters, with more than 2,794 people on the streets.
In 2015, as we saw an increase in the city’s homeless, we began organizing an Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services. Launched in 2016 to bring elected officials, city agencies, nonprofit and faith-based providers to the table to ensure they have support in helping our city’s neediest.
Please take a moment now to download the 311 app. If you see someone in need, take 30 seconds to use the 311 app to dispatch “homeless assistance.” The city will offer 3 meals a day, free medical, mental health or substance abuse care, shelter including rent vouchers, and even free job training. 311 will let you know the results of their outreach. Even if the person refuses, which they likely will, if you keep calling, each interaction helps build a relationship that gets them closer to saying “yes” to our help.
The Mayor continues to build the Marine Transfer Station, a project started with its approval in 2006. We’ve been able to delay its opening for another four years and continue to fight every day. We’ve gained many concessions, including moving the ramp to 92nd Street, limiting use to only one-third of capacity to keep 300 garbage trucks off our streets each day, and as promised during my campaign with my advocacy for zero waste to make this landfill dump obsolete, the city has set a goal of zero waste by 2030.
Along those lines, we can reduce 7,500 garbage truck trips a year through reusable bags. We’ve given away over 500 with another 200 hundred today as we prepare for a single use plastic bag reduction bill that will go into effect on February 15.
We do all this, because we do not inherit the earth from our parents, but borrow it from our children. In whom we must invest and educate.
I believe in a world class public education. That starts with Universal Pre-Kindergarten for all. I was proud to campaign alongside the Mayor for this, but was disappointed when in 2014, my district only had 123 seats to serve an estimated 2,100 four year olds.
When Eva Bosbach and Susana del Campo of the Roosevelt Island Parents Network reached out, we immediately worked with PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman to double the number of pre-kindergarten seats.
With more seats in hand but still not enough, we assessed the need by collecting a list of three year olds on Roosevelt Island to prove to the Department of Education that there was need. We worked with Pamela Stark at the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery through the bureaucratic application process, and when there was one last hoop that we couldn’t clear alone, Susan Rosenthal, President of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation stepped in to secure the space we needed for 54 four year olds.
We’ve built a model and replicated it with Ariel Chesler and Jack Moran at P.S. 183 where Principal Tara Napoleoni opened more seats.
I will continue to pressure the Mayor and Chancellor Farina to make sure every child in my district has a seat in the neighborhood because pre-k for some but not for all. But the best thing we can do is find vacant first and second floor commercial spaces or private providers with whom we can partner to open more seats in the district.
Once in school, children shouldn’t have to worry where their next meal is coming from. Children should be able to focus on learning. That’s why I advocated for and won free school lunch for middle schools and continue to push for free lunch for all 1.1 million public school students.
While some might cut funding to the arts, I believe in supporting them with our annual Art Show at the world-famous Sotheby’s. Thank you to Patricia Correge, the PTA President at P.S. 183 who helped get the Art Show back off the ground, Principal Tara Napaleoni and Art Teacher Wan Ling Fahrer for organizing and seeing the event through, and to hundreds of children whose art we hang at Sotheby’s each year.
Arts are part of, our investment in STE[A]M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). Green Roofs and Technology have been the top vote getters in Participatory Budgeting where residents over 14 vote on how to spend discretionary capital dollars from my office, so together we’ve invested $3.1 million in Green Roofs and $3.8 million in computers, smart boards and science labs. Please become a delegate in order to decide what goes on the ballot and help secure one million dollars for an improvement in the neighborhood.
We must also make sure it is safe for our children and adults to get around our neighborhood. Drivers, riders, bikers, and walkers must all have a space on the street so we may share it safely. With the launch of Vision Zero, we held forums and surveyed 60,000 households to identify dangerous intersections, compiling responses into a Livable Streets report. The Department of Transportation’s Manhattan Pedestrian Safety Plan prioritized seven of our most dangerous intersections for improvement. Please continue to report dangerous intersections and corners to my office — so we can all have livable streets.
Pedestrians are afraid of being hit and hurt or killed by a car or bicycle. But so are bicycle riders. We launched a bike safety program and are expanding it from my district to the entire Upper East Side and Midtown East this year with Council Member Garodnick.
We are using education, equipment and enforcement to make our street safer all the way from East 30th to East 96th Street, training residents at bike shops and monthly classes in my office with a free month on a CitiBike membership for those who attend. We are also training commercial delivery bikes in English, Spanish and Chinese with free safety vests so we can identify who isn’t obeying the laws. Our next training is Thursday, January 26 from 2:30PM to 5PM at RFK, please make sure your favorite restaurant gets the training.
I’ve asked everyone who 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. I want to thank the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association led by Valerie Mason and Liz Patrick for beginning the process by grading restaurants on their use of safety vests and electric bikes.
With the continued help of all of our partners, especially the 17th and 19th precincts, we have seen results, in 2016: 17,615 moving violations issued to motor vehicles, 1,865 summonses issued to bicycle riders (a nine fold increase from last year), and seizure of 70 illegal electric bicycles.
We will continue to do more. But please go to the 19th Precinct on the first Monday of every month to thank Commanding Officer McPherson for all the bike enforcement and express your support for more.
How many of you took a bus to get here this afternoon? In my district we love our buses but we want faster service and more of it. We won Select Bus Service, which increases speeds by as much as 20% for the M86 and now the M79 following my request, and we are studying it for more crosstown routes.
Residents complain about poor service but MTA denies it. Using BusTime, I can tell you where every single bus is in the City of New York at every moment of the day. We found that as many as 17.9 percent of buses in the district were showing up bunched, which is the equivalent of losing one in five buses on a route. I’ve requested that the MTA share information from their fare box so we can see ridership for ourselves and to test our hypothesis that ridership declines with poor service and long delays.
After residents near East 72nd Street, including my mother, complained about the loss of limited bus service, we worked with numerous volunteers from the East 72nd Neighborhood Association to collect over 2,700 signatures of residents who want Select Bus Service reinstated at this stop. You can add your name at BenKallos.com.
In response to the petition, I authored a letter with Senator Krueger signed by our East Side elected officials in October. At the January meeting of CB8 the MTA declined to add the stop as requested and erroneously stated they had advised elected officials. The following week we received the letter they had claimed to send. In the letter they blamed low ridership, but to this day they refuse to share fare box information and so we fight for transparency and the restoration of this stop.
After decades without a franchise agreement to protect the iconic and indispensable Roosevelt Island tram -- especially on weekends when F trains don’t always run -- I am proud to have passed authorization in the City Council through 2068. We also brought Ferry service to Roosevelt Island, starting later this year and to the East Side next year.
Congress Member Carolyn Maloney has been ever vigilant in pushing to get the Second Avenue Subway completed on time and I’ve been proud to join in her fight. Thanks to Governor Cuomo, MTA Chair Prendergast, and Dr. Michael Horodniceanu of MTA Capital Construction, we opened the Second Avenue Subway on New Year’s Eve.
For a more “connected” commute, free Wi-Fi has been expanded from 86th Street and the 4/5/6 where we opened it in 2015 to every subway station in the system.
Improving commutes is one thing, but we still need open space to play or relax. My council district ranks fourth from the bottom for park space per capita according to New Yorkers for Parks and its only getting worse with new construction. So we’ve been focused on finding new spaces and improving the parks we do have.
As Co-Chair of the East River Esplanade Taskforce with Congress Member Maloney, I have secured $47 million in public and private funds for the Esplanade, with more to come.
Working with Jennifer Ratner, founder of the Friends of the East River Esplanade, Senator Serrano, and Assembly Member Rodriguez, we identified several locations along the waterfront to activate for the public. Working with the Department of Transportation, the Parks Department, and Friends, I was proud to add more than 3,000 square feet of park space by opening the 90th Street Pier to the public.
When we figured out that the lease for the 1¼ acre Queensboro Oval under the 59th Street Bridge at York Avenue would finally be up after more than a generation as a private tennis club, Community Board 8 Parks Committee Chairs Peggy Price, Susan Evans and I got together with one goal in mind: “Open the Oval.” We launched a petition, Peggy and Susan organized a rally, and we’ve been working with the Parks Department ever since. Please join us by signing the petition.
Thank you to the leaders in the community, thank you to those who signed petitions, who came out to meeting after meeting, who made your voice heard in government, because a democracy by the people for the people, only works when people are involved.. Thank you to my staff, graduate students in social work, undergraduate fellow and interns, who help residents every day.
As you can see, we’ve come a long way in just three years, but none of it happened through one person, none of it happened on its own, we’ve done so much because of those of you who stood up to the challenge, to get involved and make change. Because together we can do anything.
I have 11 months, 8 days, 8 hours, 56 minutes and 13 seconds left in my first term as your Council Member. Although I have every intention of staying on the job, a second term cannot be taken for granted. Let’s make every second count.