Here’s a prediction that I might come to regret: There’s no way that 2017 could possibly be as soul-shattering as 2016 was.
From Aleppo to Orlando to Dallas, there was incredible tragedy. In Charleston and the Philippines and places in between, official acts flew in the face of basic standards of justice. The political right surged. Terrorists found new ways to kill people. The earth got warmer. Closer to home, homelessness surged, leaders faced legal scrutiny and kids died preventable deaths. We even lost Prince and Princess Leia.
Sure, there was some good news this past year. The death penalty died a little more and rates of dementia fell. Those who stood at Standing Rock notched at least a partial victory. U.S. wages saw a little bump and incarceration rates dropped.
But more so than in recent years we can remember, dismal stuff dominated our mental diary of the past 362 days.
The change of calendars come Saturday night is the most arbitrary of milestones. The stories that were important on Friday will still be what matters most come Monday morning.
But to the extent that the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” prompt us to take stock of what has passed and what lies ahead, here are the 10 stories we’re most interested in next year from our very particular perch of covering policy and politics in New York City:
1. The Trump presidency: Well, duh. But as fascinating as the 45th president is likely to be, it’s going to be important not to get distracted by the inevitable Twitter blowups and foreign-policy collisions. One must focus on the stuff that is likely to occur below the radar and affect the city directly. For instance, there’s how the new president treats public housing in his first budget (presuming he produces one) or what the ballyhooed infrastructure plan looks like for cities and workers. We also wonder whether ongoing efforts to improve defenses against climate change might be sacrificed to state-sanctioned climate skepticism and, of course, what the anti-immigrant rhetoric will look like when translated into policy.
2. The rezonings: The most significant local story will be the fate of Mayor de Blasio’s vision to revamp a dozen or so neighborhoods to boost density and create income-targeted apartments under his 200,000-unit affordable-housing plan. We fired up a special web tool called ZoneIn because we expect during 2017 that the ULURP process will get underway in several of those areas while rezoning plans take shape in others—all accompanied by a passionate debate about whether the affordability promises go far enough to justify the potential impact of new density on the communities that exist today. The rest of the mayor’s housing plan, the annual Rent Guidelines Board vote and the question of whether 421-a returns (or is even missed if it doesn’t) will also be on the radar screen.
3. The shelters: De Blasio has taken ownership of a problem that pre-existed him but has grown significantly more serious during his tenure despite earnest efforts to find a way out. The human scale of the problem, especially its impact on children, multiplies with every uptick in the daily census. So too does the political predicament for the mayor, whose critics—the earnest, the opportunistic and the downright hateful—have critiqued virtually every means for helping people in need of temporary housing, from the creation of new shelters to the use of hotels to the continued operation of the cluster-site program.
4. Neighborhood policing: De Blasio’s signature effort to improve police-community relations was expanded to 51 percent of NYPD commands in October, and by next year there should be some indication of whether the approach is paying off. Falling crime, arrest and incarceration numbers aside, the mayor faces critics on the left who believe he hasn’t gone far enough to reform the culture of policing in New York City and foes on the right who argue that he has handcuffed the cops. The ongoing contract talks with the main police union, and the limbo surrounding the Daniel Pantaleo case, could complicate this issue for the mayor as he fights for re-election.
5. The 2017 races: Oh yeah, the election. As much as it pains this political junkie to admit it, next year’s race could be the dullest since the advent of term limits. None of the three citywide officeholders nor any of the borough presidents will be forced out by term limits, and only eight of the 51 members of the City Council have to give up their seats. Given the advantages of incumbency, that means we’re likely to see few competitive races, if we see races at all. The one exception is the mayoralty, where de Blasio appears vulnerable except for the fact that no viable candidate seems prepared to challenge him. That could change if one of the grand juries indicts a close aide or ally. If the mayor’s race turns out to be a snoozer like the rest, the question might be not who wins, but whether the election can be framed as a referendum on an issue (like, say, transit)—if only to tee things up for state races in 2018.*
6. City hospitals: The Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates 11 hospitals, has faced financial peril for some time, and last spring the city announced a five-year plan to save the hospitals, which otherwise would run $1.8 billion in the red by fiscal year 2020. The plan relies on substantial increases in city aid as well as $700 million of cost savings and $1.1 billion of new revenue. As a recent report by the state’s Financial Control Board put it, “It is unclear if the cost savings program will be successful since prior attempts have failed. There will be pressure on the city to again increase assistance in FY 2017 and beyond.”
7. Work, wealth and wages: For all the tension and controversy of 2016, the city’s economy was not a source of worry. In the second quarter of the year, the number of jobs and average wages rose in every borough, and the city comptroller found that growth accelerated in the next three-month period. But Scott Stringer detected signs of weakness—like a concentration of job growth in the low-wage bands—and the likelihood the Federal Reserve will boost interest rates adds to the possibility that a city economy that still excludes a lot of workers (the Bronx has the second highest unemployment rate of any county in the state) could lose steam.
8. CUNY: The recent report by an inspector general about management lapses at the city’s university system emboldened Gov. Cuomo to assert more control over the schools, which he had targeted for a massive funding cut last budget season. If a potential turf battle between Albany and City Hall weren’t enough, CUNY also faces pressure to diversify its top four-year schools, as well as worries about what a Trump administration will mean for the many undocumented immigrants.
9. NYCHA: The city’s public housing system’s bid to develop housing–some 100 percent affordable and some mixed-income–on its territory enters a new phase with the expected announcement of the winners of bids on three projects. NextGen NYCHA, the strategy for improving the authority’s management and finances, will enter its third year in 2017. Stabilizing NYCHA, which recently won an award for its performance running the Section 8 program, is a key part of the mayor’s promise to address the housing needs of the lowest-income New Yorkers, and no part of the city’s infrastructure is more at risk from the incoming Republican administration than public housing. All of that makes this a critical year.
10. Sandy +5: Next October will mark the fifth anniversary of the superstorm, and one question will be whether lingering reconstruction projects—whether private homes or NYCHA boilers—are completed by then. Another issue will be the state of larger efforts to make the waterfront more resilient, and how those initiatives interact with planned development on the Rockaway peninsula.
* Correction: Only seven current members of the City Council face term limits, though eight seats will be open this year. Harlem’s Inez Dickens, who would have been term-limited in 2017, will be replaced by special election (likely in February) after she won an Assembly seat in November.