Down to Business

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In its first five months, the new City Council has introduced a raft of legislation–with significant numbers of sponsors–the likes of which has not been seen for years. There’s a bill to prohibit the city from doing business with predatory lenders, a bill mandating a living wage for certain businesses, a bill to stiffen lead paint removal requirements, a bill to hold employment agencies responsible for treatment of domestic workers–even a bill that makes builders seeking work permits conduct rat abatement. Most have significant opposition from business and landlord interests; all came into the City Council on the wave of community- and labor-backed candidates that swept in this January, eager to show their activist credentials.

“Most of these guys are solid, they’re not going to be overturned, and the electorate they depend on is this more radical portion of the Democratic primary voters,” says conservative political consultant Joseph Mercurio. “You add term limits, and campaign financing, and you get a more newbie and radical City Council than you have as a population as a whole.”

By the looks of the legislation that has made it to a public hearing so far–living wage, education and training for people on welfare–that seems to be true. “There certainly is a sense that the City Council is pursuing a variety of causes that could have a negative impact on business and the economy,” says Kathryn Wylde, president of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce. “And the hope is that before passing too much legislation, they will develop a working relationship with some other groups, especially business.”

One piece of legislation, which has languished on the wish lists of public health and housing advocates for years, will be a real test of the new City Council’s intentions: a bill detailing landlords’ responsibility for cleaning up lead paint. If the fate of the lead paint bill thus far is any indication of how long the liberal love-fest will last, then the party is already over.

In the late 1990s, an assortment of progressive, activist, good government and labor union interests, most visible among them the labor-backed Working Families Party (WFP), made the City Council the focus of its local political plans. The strategy was years in the making: While the right pushed for term limits, unions, activists and good-government groups lobbied for campaign matching funds. When term limits finally came into effect, the WFP and its close political ally, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), were both primed to put up a lot of candidates for the council.

In the end, the WFP campaigns had some success, installing two of the 51 council members in office–James Sanders and Hiram Monserrate–helping many others, and building a network of chapters and clubs in some key neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. And while labor lost its highest-profile race, that of union boss Arthur Cheliotes in Queens, it played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the speaker’s race (a key goal was keeping out now-indicted living wage opponent Angel Rodriguez). The party and its supporters quickly took their plan to Stage II: Making their agenda that of many of the newly elected legislators through intensive briefing sessions and issue workshops.

“I’ve been surprised at how much the unions are providing information,” says Upper West Side Councilmember Gale Brewer. “They’re not just lobbying.”

The double whammy of a new council and a union-backed policy blitz meant activists’ causes were finally being taken seriously by the City Council. In addition to Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s unprecedented support for raising taxes, that quickly translated into the introduction of the anti-predatory lending bill, the training and education bill, the living wage bill, and the domestic workers’ bill. Judging by the large number of sponsors each one had, most were well on their way to a vote before the full council.

Except the lead paint bill. For years, advocates for tenants and children, as well as unions, have pushed for stiffer laws regulating the removal of lead paint from apartments. In 1997, then-Councilmember Stanley Michels introduced legislation that would have, among other things, required landlords to use federally certified workers to remove lead paint.

The landlord lobby strongly opposed the Michels bill; in consultation with then-Council Speaker Peter Vallone, landlords came up with a compromise bill, called Local Law 38, that exempted them from having to use federally certified workers. When Vallone tried to tack it on to the budget, passing it quickly with no hearing, activists lobbied the council’s Black and Latino Caucus, whose members then rebelled.

Over the next few weeks, hearings on the Michels bill were scheduled, then cancelled, then scheduled again. Finally, the council passed Local Law 38. The New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning sued to have it invalidated, charging, among other things, that the council had violated the state environmental review process in passing it. (This spring, that argument was rejected by the state Court of Appeals.)

Fast forward to 2002, and the new City Council. Given the machinations in the old council, lead paint activists felt that the Michels bill never really got a fair hearing. So they convinced Councilmember Bill Perkins to introduce a bill based on the old Michels legislation giving the Department of Health primary responsibility for regulating lead paint removal. (The current law gives HPD that authority.)

When the bill was introduced in March, however, Miller sent it to the housing committee, where it is not likely to survive unscathed–chair Madeline Provenzano of the Bronx voted against Michels’ bill in 1999.

The Working Families Party and other groups have asked Miller to reroute the bill to the health committee, headed by the more sympathetic Christine Quinn, but with no luck so far. “It really is a health issue,” says Matthew Chachère, attorney for the Coalition to End Lead Poisoning. “We’re talking about the long-term impact on children’s brains. We’re not talking about leaky faucets.”

Landlords, however, worry about the cost. “If you’re going to spend $4,000 cleaning a surface using the Health Department standard, instead of the HPD standard, which costs $400, then you’re not going to be putting that money into the rest of the building,” says Frank Ricci, spokesman for the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord lobbying group. “And there’s no difference in health standards.”

To the relief of property owners, the bill has remained where it began: in committee. After initially being snowed by the flood of misinformation from advocates, says Ricci, the council is wising up. “I think the advocates have lost a little credibility on the council side,” says Ricci.

Business interests are finally starting to pay attention to the council, say others. “In the past month or so, council committee chairs and the speaker have begun to reach out and indicate that they want to take all constituents, including business, seriously,” says Wylde. “Folks are feeling a lot better about the fact that there’s a dialogue.”

Except the lead paint advocates, who, as of early May, couldn?t even get a hearing for their bill. “We don’t want a repeat of last time, where they scheduled hearings at the last minute and then canceled them at the last minute. That’s the old Council,” says Andrew Goldberg of New York Public Interest Research Group. “And right now, it’s looking an awful lot like the old council.”