2021 State of the District

2021 State of the District admin Sun, 01/26/2020 - 4:28pm


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Good afternoon! I am Council Member Ben Kallos. I have had the honor of representing over 168,000 New Yorkers on the Upper East Side, Midtown East, El Barrio and Roosevelt Island in the City Council for 7 years, 1 month, 20 days, 12 hours, 31 minutes, and 48 seconds.

If this is your first time joining us, welcome! If not, welcome back. Every year, we gather to hear speeches and performances, and to share our vision for the East Side—but we all know it’s mainly about the bagels.

I wish more than anything that we could be together right now, what I wouldn’t do for Bagel’s with Ben and lukewarm coffee, but I thank you for joining us virtually. Since this pandemic started just under a year ago, I’ve been particularly thankful from first responders to essential workers and those in the community who have really stepped up recently and over my time in office. Now more than ever we are all in this together..

As always, we will open with a benediction from the Reverend Roy Cole and some words from our sponsors—I mean colleagues in government , before I come back to update you on the state of our district. 

Elected officials Speak, Community Presentations

Thank you to Reverend Cole, Saundrea, Dale, and the Main Street Theater. That was wonderful. It is now my distinct honor to introduce our elected representatives, starting with United States Majority Leader Charles Schumer.


Hi. This has been such a wonderful event so far. I’m confident we have some of the best constituents, and a great team of elected officials representing us here on the East Side.

Having grown up on the Upper East Side, I cannot express how much of a dream it has been to represent you for the past seven years. To be honest, at times in my life, my dream was simpler: just to be able to stay here, in the city where I grew up. If you talk to people in so many parts of the country, they’ll tell you that their only dream was to get out of the place they grew up. But here in New York, we struggle to stay. Together we can fix that. 

We’ve spent every one of the past 2,608 days working to make it easier. I hope that the work we’ve done as a community over the past seven years has made it a little bit easier for New Yorkers to stay in the neighborhood they love, to raise a family here, and to grow old here. And as we recover from this pandemic, I believe if we set our priorities right, we can make that a reality for all New Yorkers.

I believe in accountability and an open office. Whether it is doing something that only Leslie Knope would do with our monthly First Friday, Policy Night, offering free legal services, or supporting local agriculture at our fresh food box, we work for you. I’ll even make house calls for Ben in Your Building at your co-op, condo, or tenants association meeting. The pandemic hasn’t stopped us, and you can join us on Zoom.

The truth is it isn’t about me, it is about making this office, your office, and what we can accomplish together. In that spirit and thanks to the miracle of Zoom, to quote LeVarr Burton on Reading Rainbow “you won’t have to take my word for it,” you’ll hear directly from our neighbors and leaders who have helped make life better for all of us.


I grew up right here in Manhattan. I graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and our State University system. I want everyone in New York City to have access to the same word class public education.

The pandemic has turned our lives upside down, and that is especially true for students, parents, and teachers. When the City announced the return of in-person learning there was widespread support followed by apprehension without a real plan to re-open safely.

Remote learning only works if you have Internet, which has only highlighted the Digital Divide in schools that had already created a “homework gap”, something we’ve been working to fix since long before the pandemic. Working with Tish James we secured affordable internet through Spectrum Internet Assist for students on free and reduced school lunch.  

When the pandemic started at the suggestion of Silicon Harlem co-founder Clayton Banks, I asked Spectrum to offer free broadband to students learning remotely and they did.

Over the past 7 years, we’ve invested $6.5 million in technology for public schools so that every student going to school in the district went home with a laptop on the first day of remote learning. But there are still more than 5,000 low-income students of color throughout the city without an Internet device.

We’ve joined with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, to author legislation to guarantee every public school student who needs one a laptop with broadband.

New York City public schools are more segregated today than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education, with schools segregated around neighborhoods created by racist government enforced redlining that continues to this day.

With every student learning remotely, former Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus Co-Chair 

Robert Cornegy and I saw a historic opportunity to desegregate classes and achieve educational equality online. We wrote Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carranza proposing the creation of a new desegregated citywide school district to serve every student enrolled in all remote learning. The New York Post wrote an editorial in support and the Chancellor has been talking about the idea, though it still hasn’t been implemented. Imagine the public education system we can create using technology to overcome systemic racism and segregation that has been physically built into our city.

Universal PRE-K

The worst part of my job is when someone tells me that they are moving out of the neighborhood because they can’t afford it, usually, they mention childcare. 

We only won those seats working with parents like Shannon, parent groups, providers, the Department of Education, and the School Construction Authority, to win these new seats. The pandemic has shown us that the need for Universal Childcare is greater than ever before, starting with winning 3-K for All from the tip of Manhattan to Central Harlem. You can join the fight by signing the petition at BenKallos.com/3K.

When children were being turned away from schools in my district, I authored a law to force the Department of Education to tell us how many kids are applying for every school seat along with how they decide where to build new seats. 

That forced the city to fund 800 more school seats in my district. We are currently working to build the new schools in the neighborhood, but we need to build new desegregated schools all over Manhattan.

I was raised by a single mom. We shared a room, living with my grandparents. I was on free and reduced school lunch, and I was so ashamed for other kids to know I was poor that I didn’t eat. That’s why I fought to win Breakfast After the Bell and to make school lunch free. Now, I am fighting to feed every child dinner, which is already Federally funded, complete with Universal After School, which is already federally funded, we can do right by our public school kids. 

Taken together, I believe that if we meet children’s basic needs for food and positive relationships we can fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to end the schools to prison pipeline, and give an entire generation of children a bright future.

Pandemic Recovery 

When the newspapers declared New York City dead, I was reminded of Mark Twain saying “rumors of my demise are exaggerated” and authored an op-ed on what makes our city great, TLDR, it is you! But as we seek to recover, we should be cautious of settle for a return to an “old normal” that never worked for many of us. We must prioritize and achieve real racial, economic, and criminal justice to rebuild a city that works for all of us.


On my first day as a council member on New Years Day 2014, my first meeting was with Rockefeller University. I can still remember the frosted grass crunching under my feet as I walked across their lush campus. One priority we shared was never losing top talent to another city and growing jobs right here in the neighborhood, which we’re doing with a new Biotech incubator on the Rockefeller University campus.

Retirement Secuirty For All

Not only do we need to build more jobs but we need to make sure people can retire with dignity. Unfortunately more than one million private-sector workers in New York City do not have access to retirement plans through their employers. We can fix that with “Retirement Security for All,” a bill that I introduced in the City Council, but was blocked by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. With a new administration in Washington, we will again push to offer every hardworking New Yorker who doesn’t have one a retirement plan at no cost to employers.


If a year of social distancing taught us nothing else, it’s that we need our parks, especially those of us living in tiny apartments in the densest neighborhood in America. 

Thankfully, we have been investing in our parks to upgrade places like John Jay Park where we got new basketball courts and Carl Schurz Playground where we just unveiled a brand new $2.3 million playground.

When I took office, the East River Esplanade was literally falling into the river. over 7 years co-chairing the East River Esplanade Taskforce with Congresswoman Maloney, working with Jennifer, Community Board 8 and 11, Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez and Council Member Diana Ayala, we have secured 874 million dollars to rebuild and expand the Esplanade as a resilient waterfront.


While parks have offered an oasis from our tiny apartments during the pandemic, we need to build a city for all of us, not just billionaires, a city where anyone can afford to raise a family and grow old. Despite all the obituaries for New York City pointing to vacant apartments as proof of our untimely demise, I can tell you first hand that the affordable housing crisis hasn’t gone away.

I ran for City Council because I saw Billionaire’s row as a failure with no one willing to do anything about out of control “as of right” construction that was tearing down affordable housing to build buildings for billionaires. When Billionaire’s row threatened to displace Herndon Werth and Charles Fernandez from their rent regulated affordable housing in the Sutton area, we kept them in their homes, and founded the East River Fifties Alliance alongside Alan Kersh to win the first of its kind grassroots community-led rezoning to limit height and win affordable housing.

Mechanical Voids

Now we are working with Community Board 8, the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association, and groups like CIVITAS and Friends of the Upper East Side to require new buildings over a certain height to include affordable housing.

We won a huge victory by closing a loophole that developers were using to build housing for billionaires with empty voids in them instead of affordable housing for real New Yorkers.

Our victories upset the status quo, where profit-driven planning often dictates spot rezonings to give developers a windfall at great cost to the community. When the Mayor proposed building new housing on public housing property, I said I would only support this housing if it was 100% affordable, gave a 100% preference to existing residents, and had community support. When NYCHA proposed building a 50-story tower with luxury housing between the two Holmes Towers on a children’s playground seeking to avoid my veto in the Council and over the objections of the community, we mobilized.

The Blood Center has been seeking to build a new tall tower for as long as I’ve been involved in government. Two proposals were defeated at Community Board 8 Manhattan when I first served. Another proposal was rejected by Borough President Brewer, Senator Krueger and me, last term. Not one to take no for an answer, the New York Blood Center is moving forward with a plan to build a 334-foot tall tower that would leave St. Catherine's Park in shadow starting at 2PM many months of the year. Hundreds of residents have come out to First Friday, Ben in Your Building, Community Board 8, and the Department of City Planning to express their opposition and concerns. As the project goes through environmental review, stay tuned for your next opportunity to speak out, and add your voice at BenKallos.com/petitions.

As someone who has been a tenant all my life, we once had a landlord spike our rent and force us out during a difficult high-risk pregnancy. Living through this pandemic in a market rate one-bedroom apartment with my wife, daughter and my cat Pandora,I can tell you firsthand that even with thousands of vacant apartments, Manhattan still has an affordable housing crisis. 

Developers got billions in tax breaks to offer affordable housing that never seemed to materialize, corrupt politicians got thousands in campaign contributions, and tenants like us paid for it all. That’s what we learned from, Stephen Werner, a whistleblower at HPD, and why I authored the law to put hundreds of thousands of affordable homes back on the market and you can apply right now to affordable apartments in our district at HousingConnect.nyc.gov.

The fact that I have always refused big money from real estate developers, corporations, and lobbyists, freed me to author this law along with building and preserving over 1,000 affordable apartments in our district.


A symptom of the affordable housing crisis is homelessness. 

18,000 children who woke up in a homeless shelter this morning with 17,000 family members, they are the face of homelessness in our city.

That’s why I founded the Eastside Taskforce on Homeless Outreach and Services (ETHOS) with Borough President Brewer and Senator Krueger to do our part to help and we’ve built supportive housing all over the district including across the street from where I live.

This past fall, our prayer for more solutions to help the homeless on our streets was answered, with a proposal for a new Safe Haven to be built in the East 90s. I was so proud to work with ETHOS and community board members to secure near unanimous support for the project at Community Board 8, where we heard from everyone from our faith leaders like Reverend Roy Cole to young activists.

Good Government

I ran for office to lead by example, to show residents, and other elected officials they could do things the right way, and win. But that alone didn’t work.

We can’t beat the affordable housing crisis when the majority of elected officials are under the corrupting influence of big money from real estate, corporations, and lobbyists.

That’s why I authored the new full public matching campaign finance system that more than halved the amount anyone can give from $4,000 to $1,500 and matched every small dollar up to  $175 with 8 public dollars, so that a small dollar contribution is actually worth more at $1,575. It is allowing candidates to run the right way and win. In fact, everyone running for City Council in this district is refusing real estate money and I couldn’t be prouder.

You wouldn’t believe this, but when I started, the City Council wasn’t a full time job, so I wrote the law that made it illegal for elected officials to moonlight as representatives for real estate developers. And I wrote the law that made “lulus” illegal. Lulus were literally a slush fund for the Speaker to pay council members directly if they gave up their independence.


Like 80% of New Yorkers, I don’t own a car, which means if I am getting anywhere, it will be relying on public transportation.

That’s why we’ve been focused on improving commutes. We opened the Second Avenue Subway with Congresswoman Maloney, won Select Bus Service to speed buses along with offboard payment, won hundreds of new buses with USB chargers and WiFi, and even won two ferry stops for the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island.

Climate Chnage

Commuters have more options and a faster commute today then they did 7 years ago. But we can do better for our environment and to make it safer to bike or walk where you are going. As an island, Manhattan needs more safe crossings, something we fought for alongside Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and advocates like Bike New York. Just last month, Mayor de Blasio announced the dedicated bike lane on the Queensboro Bridge that we fought for. Public transit is just one part of minimizing our carbon imprint and saving our planet. They say the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging the problem. During the Trump Administration climate change denial was official public policy. We needed to do something about it. Beyond declaring a climate emergency, we as a city also had to lead by example by reducing our biggest sources of carbon emissions, and that’s our buildings. We also need to cut back on other pollution. Banning the sale of plastic water bottles in our national parks reduced litter and waste by tons. Then Trump reversed it and that’s why I introduced legislation to do it here in  New York City parks. In response, last year Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order implementing our law. The new order will reduce the purchase of single-use plastics by city agencies by 95% and cut carbon emissions by about 500 tons a year.

Covid-19 Response

This has been a very difficult year. When the Covid-19 outbreak first began, we did not have the resources we needed from the Trump Administration to keep New Yorkers safe. We set up a clearinghouse to secure N95 masks and PPE for the state, city, and hospitals. We also saw special need on Roosevelt Island, where we’ve worked with RIOC President Shelton Haynes to secure emergency care, PPE, testing, and vaccines.

Roosevelt Island

I’m proud to have worked Health + Hospitals to open 350 beds to add surge capacity and treat Covid-19, and working with Shelton to bring Covid-19 testing and now vaccines to Roosevelt Island. 

If you are eligible and would like to receive the vaccine, reach out to my office and we will help you secure an appointment.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all in this together and everyone needs healthcare as a human right. That’s why I worked with the Obama administration and will work with the Biden administration to achieve barrier-free benefits, where you automatically get what you qualify for, so we can keep New Yorkers healthy and fed.

If it isn’t clear by now, we are able to achieve so much through our partnership with the community. Our office is your office, which is why we’ve been able to accomplish so much. From face mask distribution, to the achievement that got me re-elected in 2017. 

Quality of Life

With every corner covered, we are now working with Wildcat to help people get back on their feet while cleaning up the neighborhood four-days a week, sweeping sidewalks and bike islands, cleaning gutters and drains of blockages, and removing bags caught in branches and litter from tree pits. We’ve even been power washing our sidewalks alongside Congress Member Maloney.


But keeping our streets clean isn’t just about keeping the trash off the ground. As of today, 9,384 scaffolding structures cover 344 miles of sidewalk in New York City to protect us from falling bricks, as the city literally crumbles around us. It’s bad for business and bad for quality of life. 

After hearing stories like Jane’s, I authored legislation to force landlords to quickly make repairs once sidewalk sheds go up so the building is made safe and the scaffolding comes down.

The Department of Buildings adopted many of the reforms I proposed, but we still need to pass my package of legislation so that there are laws in place to follow.

Finally, New York City is the city that never sleeps, but that shouldn’t be because of construction noise. We’ve heard from countless residents like Richard McIntosh who had to endure years of construction from early mornings to late nights and weekends. That’s why I authored the law that just went fully into effect that places much stricter limits on construction noise near homes before 7am and after 6pm on weekdays, as well as any time on weekends, so we can all hear ourselves think and maybe even sleep a little bit better. 


The state of our district is strong, not because of what I’ve done, but because of what we’ve been able to accomplish together. That starts when you pick up the phone and call us, when you email us, respond to a tweet, or when you come to First Friday, and connect with your neighbors about your shared situation with a solution to make things better.

I hope you’ll join us. We’ve already done so much, but in our final year, we have so much more left to do.

I’ve been your Council Member for 7 years, 1 month, 20 days, 12 hours, 53 minutes, and 12 seconds. What can we accomplish together in my remaining time in the Council, 10 months, 7 days, 11 hours, 7 minutes, and 36 seconds?

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