What the Other Half Thinks

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If lower-income New Yorkers could afford to take out large notices in major newspapers about the possibility of a third term for Mayor Bloomberg, the ads likely would urge the mayor to find another productive way to spend a few years.

Some observers may find that ironic, given that Bloomberg’s mayoralty has been festooned with high-profile initiatives to ease the lives of those with less: the New Housing Marketplace Plan, aimed at building or preserving 165,000 units of affordable housing; “United for Solutions Beyond Shelter,” a blueprint to greatly reduce the numbers of the homeless; and the creation of the Center for Economic Opportunity, which issued a clutch of poverty-fighting recommendations, many of which have been implemented.

And yet, a brief survey around the world of the city’s poor and those who serve them yields little support for extending the Bloomberg era beyond its present end date of Dec. 2009. In a nation that extols those who “work hard and play by the rules,” many are offended by the idea that the rules can be changed mid-game. Moreover – in parallel to business chiefs who put their trust in a leader who once worked at Salomon Brothers on Wall Street, then became a billionaire through the success of his own business information company, Bloomberg LP – the poor and their advocates don’t trust a mayor whose performance, they say, hasn’t matched the promise of his programs.

“I feel like we live in a caste system right now,” said Rosemarie Santiago, 51, who is two months behind on the rent for her apartment in the Parkchester area of the Bronx. She’s thrilled to have her own apartment, after being homeless for four years and residing in the Aladdin Hotel shelter in Times Square. “He really failed miserably with his five-year plan” to cut homelessness, Santiago said, noting that the number of homeless has fallen little since the plan began.

A program run by the city Department of Homeless Services got Santiago, who has muscular dystrophy, her current apartment, but she’s fighting for federal Section 8 and Social Security Disability benefits to keep up with the $1,100 per month rent. “I think he has on rose-colored glasses,” she said of the mayor. “He hasn’t walked in my shoes, because he hasn’t had to.”

Santiago is politically active through the grassroots group Picture the Homeless, and reads five newspapers (borrowed from friends or the library) every day. She was inspired by reports in the papers last week about the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, who became a Congressman from Massachusetts after losing his second-term bid to Andrew Jackson. If Bloomberg wants to serve the people further, he should run for City Council, she said.

Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, calls Bloomberg’s achievements “a mixed bag,” and personally favors term limits for Councilmembers more than the executive. If the mayor did stay on, says Greenberg, “There’s a kind of poetic justice to him having to follow through on his own objectives. … This will be a good chance to hold him accountable.”

Although his organization is not satisfied with the administration’s progress on homelessness – today’s census has more than 34,000 New Yorkers in shelters – he gives Bloomberg credit for something less tangible, but still meaningful. “I think a lot of people, rich and poor, like Bloomberg’s style,” he said. “A lot of my colleagues agree with me that we don’t like his policies in regard to the poor … but I think Bloomberg sets a somewhat decent, respectful, fair tone. It’s had a civilizing effect on discourse in the city.”

“My sense is he doesn’t have a lot of poor friends, so he doesn’t hear that side of the story,” Greenberg added.

From his position as an urban planner, Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, is critical of many of Bloomberg’s stances on housing, development and jobs – and identifies problems as coming from foreseeable outcomes of administration policies. He’s also personally affected by the current upheaval, as he’s been planning to run for the City Council seat of Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio, who is term-limited out and has been planning a run for Brooklyn borough president.

“I see why the real estate and Wall Street community believe that Mike Bloomberg is good for them,” Lander said, “but we’re at a moment when it’s not clear that real estate and Wall Street interests are in everybody’s interests. …I don’t remember Mayor Bloomberg raising questions about subprime lending. I don’t remember the mayor asking whether overpaying for Stuy Town was good for middle-class New Yorkers or the New York City economy. It turns out it was bad for both.” Stuyvesant Town was bought by Tishman Speyer – whose chairman, Jerry Speyer, is one of the Open Letter’s signers – and is one of the more-affordable housing properties recently acquired as investments that may be going south, according to a new report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.

Moreover, says Lander, Bloomberg’s initiatives for lower-income residents constitute more of an around-the-edges approach than striving for structural change. “The core economic strategies have never been about broadly shared prosperity, equality, or poverty alleviation. They’ve been about condos and offices and Wall Street and real estate growth. And the consequences of those policies, I think on balance have done more harm for low-income and working-class people,” he said, pointing to the replacement of manufacturing jobs with lower-paying service industry jobs, or the rising real estate costs that dampen much of the positive effect of new affordable housing units.

Less-well-off New Yorkers and their advocates alike cite the precarious state of public housing as one black mark on the Bloomberg administration – even though much of the needed, and missing, funding would come from the federal government.

“The mayor’s supposed to be our advocate. He should be in Washington and in Albany asking for more money for public housing,” said Theo Moore, lead organizer for FUREE, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

“I think the Council and the mayor are abusing their powers. If we voted and said something, there’s no need to revisit it,” says Moore. “Every City Council person who votes for this will have a target on their back. When you go against the will of the people, you don’t deserve to keep your job.”

Yvonne Shields, 62, is a resident of public housing – Highbridge Gardens in the Bronx – and a board member of the grassroots antipoverty group Community Voices Heard. “The things that affect me most have not been a high priority on his list,” Shields says.

As to whether he found anything to praise in the Bloomberg administration, Moore said, “I think 311 is great! But other than that, no.”

– Karen Loew

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