Abigail Savitch-Lew

Tamika Mapp (left) and Robert Rodriguez (right) at a candidate forum on Thursday September 7.

A City Council candidate forum for District 8, encompassing East Harlem and the South Bronx, brought some specificity to controversial housing and civil rights issues on Thursday night.

The forum was organized by several community groups that are the most concerned with rezoning initiatives underway in the neighborhood—East Harlem Preservation, the Justice Center in El Barrio and the East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust. Two of the four candidates running in the September 12 primary were present: Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, who has raised the most money, and business owner and community activist Tamika Mapp. (Diana Ayala, Melissa Mark-Viverito’s Deputy Chief of Staff, could not attend, and Israel Martinez could not be reached.)

In general, Mapp offered responses that, as she herself described them, were “bold,” “simple” and in line with the agenda of many of the groups present. She expressed total opposition to any kind of rezoning of the neighborhood, repeatedly emphasized her support for the community land trust movement, and outright opposed the development of new housing on NYCHA parking lots and playgrounds (commonly nicknamed “infill”).

Rodriguez repeatedly described his own responses as “more nuanced.” He wasn’t willing to condemn “any” rezoning, said infill needed to be discussed on a case by case basis, and emphasized his experience in government and his work in the Assembly to secure millions of dollars to preserve Mitchell Lama developments and shore up NYCHA.

Housing and displacement

One of the main concerns of the forum organizers is that housing created by the private market through a rezoning will not create units for the 38 percent of families making less than 30 percent AMI or $25,770 for a family of three. Candidates were asked in several ways what they would do to help those residents stay in East Harlem.

Mapp said she’d fight to require that when HPD subsidizes private landlords to provide affordable housing there is no expiration date to the subsidy program, that she’d change the way affordability is calculated to be based on the local Area Median Income (a policy that could come with unintended fair housing problems, some advocates say), and that she’d reinvest in NYCHA buildings. She said she’d finance these things by cutting other things in the budget, especially money dedicated to building homeless shelters. And she also said she’d negotiate with developers and encourage them to build 50 percent market-rate, 50 percent affordable housing.

Rodriguez said he’d build on his work in the Assembly, which has delivered $75 million for Mitchell Lama developments and $300 million for NYCHA; he’d continue to push the state and city governments to collaborate and provide more funds to subsidizing and repairing housing. He also mentioned the importance of fighting loopholes in rent regulation law, though that’s a state-level issue, and trying to push for longer-term and permanent affordability. He said the city could do better at using its powers of providing tax relief to landlords in order to create and preserve more units of housing affordable to the lowest income brackets. He emphasized building on public land, ensuring his constituents did not face obstacles to obtaining apartments through the affordable housing lottery, and monitoring how well developers succeed in giving back to the community.

Mapp also emphasized that she’d work with community land trusts, pass the Housing Not Warehousing Act—a bill spearheaded by the East Harlem CLT and local group Picture the Homeless to create an inventory of vacant land and buildings—and ensure community land trusts and nonprofits have access to vacant land to build new housing.

Though he didn’t bring it up on his own time, during the lightening round of yes-or-no questions at the end of the forum, Rodriguez also expressed support for expanding community land trusts and passing the Housing Not Warehousing Act.

Asked if they supported the Movement for Justice in El Barrio’s 10-point plan, which focuses on making the Department of Housing Preservation and Development more accountable to tenants, Rodriguez said he supported some of their points, but emphasized an issue not included in the plan—the importance of tenants having legal services to combat harassment. Mapp said she agreed with all the Movement’s plan, especially that tenants should have repairs done in a timely manner and that the city should do a better job providing translation services.

Rodriguez had criticisms of the de Blasio administration’s housing plan, but altogether was more positive than Mapp—giving it a B- rating—as opposed to Mapp’s F. He opposes the mayor’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem because it lacks sufficient units of housing for families making below $25,770, protections for small businesses and investments in cultural initiatives, but told City Limits after the forum that he’d be more supportive of a rezoning that addressed his concerns and was more in line with the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan put forth by current councilmember Speaker Melissa Mark-VIverito and a team of stakeholders.

On NYCHA, Mapp said NYCHA’s insurers should pay to put NYCHA residents up in other places while their whole buildings were repaired, and expressed her total distain for infill. Rodriguez thought Mapp’s idea about moving residents out of NYCHA a bad and expensive one, and said his support for infill would depend on the exact benefits that development would incur for the community. He cited the 100 percent senior housing at the Mill Brooks Houses campus as a promising example, and the half-market rate development proposed for Holmes Towers as problematic.

During the lightening round of questions, the candidates were asked whether it was good that higher-income people were moving to East Harlem, and both laughed with discomfort. They answered that impossibly difficult question differently: Rodriguez said yes, and Mapp no.

Rodriguez also acknowledged he had received some campaign donations from the real estate industry, while Mapp had not. Rodriguez has also been the subject of rumors that he stands to benefit from the recently approved Education Construction Fund/AvalonBay Communities tower on East 96th Street because his firm, PMF Financial Advisors LLC, provides financing to the city’s Education Construction Fund.

Rodriguez confirmed to City Limits that his firm does work with the Education Construction Fund, but said that because the project is in his district, he will not derive any compensation from the firm’s work with ECF, though he still abstained from voting on matters related to it to avoid the appearance of a conflict. He does support the project because of the new school facilities and income-targeted housing it will bring to East Harlem.

Listen to an audio excerpt in which they address how they would strengthen the tenants movement…

…And here for how they would create new, real, sustainable housing that existing residents can afford.

Policing the Vulnerable

Another set of questions focused on addressing overaggressive policing, especially against East Harlem’s most vulnerable residents.

Asked how the candidates would hold police accountable, Mapp said she’d pass the Right to Know Act (Rodriguez said during the lightening round that he’d support it, too), encourage dialogue between local community organizations and the police, require the city to regularly check officers’ mental health, and launch a new independent body that investigates precincts on a monthly basis.

Rodriguez called for community policing, where police officers form positive, holistic relationships with community. He said addressing the power imbalance that privileges the police and leads to abuses requires multiple level of change—legislative solutions to decriminalize marijuana, body cameras, ensuring police officers are held accountable for bad actions, Know-Your-Rights trainings in communities and cultural change within the police department.

Mapp also said she was “really sad” that NYPD and ICE were “working together” while Rodriguez stood by the mayor and NYPD’s official policy, which is to protect the undocumented unless they might be guilty of a serious felony. “I’m not saying that everybody who’s undocumented is doing the right thing, and if there’s a dangerous felony, homicide, I think that should be looked at on a case by case basis,” he said.

Asked to describe, in 30 seconds, their response to the NYPD’s “sweeping” up of homeless people on 125th Street, Rodriguez said he’d provide additional social services like peer counseling, and he cited a homicide outside the 125th Street McDonalds as an example of the necessity of creating a safe environment for those getting treatment or living in shelters nearby.

Mapp said if she saw the police harassing homeless people, she’d stay to surveil the police officer and make sure they didn’t break any laws. Rodriguez was clearly frustrated that they didn’t have more time to discuss the question, adding, “Can we talk about this a little more? This is a really complex issue.”

Listen here to their discussion on policing and other civil rights issues.

Asked to describe their participation in recent social movements, Rodriguez—who is a male candidate running at a time when many are concerned about a lack of female leadership in the council—emphasized not only the importance of defending immigrants, but also his attendance at New York City’s women’s march. “Feminism must be adopted by everybody, including the men in our community,” he said, while Mapp mentioned her attendance at an event for the Housing Not Warehousing Act and said, “95 percent [of my job] is shutting my mouth and actually listening.”

There were also multiple areas in which the candidates agreed: They condemned police actions targeting a broad swath of youth for gang affiliations, said they’d fight for more funding for youth services, called for reforms to make it easier for venders to obtain licenses, want to see the use of marijuana decriminalized, and would support the removal of a statue.

Listen here to the lightening round of questions and, about seven minutes in, their closing statements.