Community activist Christopher Marte, who lost the September 12 primary by 222 votes to incumbent Margaret Chin, is challenging her again on the Independent Party line in the November 7 general election. While it’s rare that a non-Democratic candidate ousts an incumbent in the general, Marte is certainly putting up a fight. He’s got $89,000 of campaign funds remaining to her $57,000. He’s got Chinese for Marte 2017 at his back—though two weeks ago a Latino coalition rallied for Chin’s re-election at City Hall. He’s got the Villager’s endorsement, though Chin has the backing of the borough president, public advocate, and many of her female colleagues.
A few weeks ago, we reported that a group called Lower East Siders for Christopher Marte, which described itself as an alliance of tenant leaders, local residents, small business owners and residents, was hosting a march to support their candidate. Lower East Siders for Christopher Marte was also present at a community board meeting on October 18 handing out fliers that included a list of nine actions it described as “Margaret Chin’s crimes against our community.” All nine focus on Chin’s record on issues of housing and development.
City Limits corresponded with the group to clarify the meaning of a few of the statements. When City Limits reached out to Marte himself, he wrote to us that the flier “was not written, or distributed by my campaign,” but said “I agree with their stance that Margaret Chin did not do enough to pass the Chinatown Working Group Plan, and has a weak track record on standing up to development.”
Marte did not endorse the specifics of the flyer. Many of the charges appear overstated or include falsehoods, while the accuracy of others are subject to interpretation. See below for their claims and our analysis.
1. Margaret Chin worked with de Blasio to reject the Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan, a plan that puts PEOPLE FIRST and protects all of Chinatown & the Lower East Side.
You can argue that Chin should have fought harder for the original plan, but saying she “worked with de Blasio to reject” the plan is a bit much.
The Chinatown Working Group plan was a rezoning proposal that would have limited the heights of new buildings in many areas of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, while also requiring developers to provide greater percentages of affordable housing. Margaret Chin participated in conversations about the Chinatown Working Group plan during its creation. When the de Blasio administration rejected the proposal as too comprehensive and anti-growth, it’s true Chin declined to take a position on the plan when asked by City Limits in 2016, and she did not, it appears, make an effort to sway the de Blasio administration in favor of the plan. She then evidenced support for the administration’s offer to study a smaller area for a rezoning. In April, a Chin representative explained to City Limits that “the Councilmember’s goals align with many of the Chinatown Working Group’s plan” and that, given the administration’s opposition, she desires “to move forward with a plan that creates realistic and actionable solutions to the most pressing challenges faced by Chinatown, and indeed her entire district.”
2. She helped create Bloomberg’s racist East Village rezoning plan in 2008, which protected a wealthier white neighborhood while excluding the Latino, African American and Chinese communities of the LES.
In 2008, Chin was not yet a councilmember and she was no longer on community board 3 then, so there’s no evidence that she “helped create” the plan.
Community Board 3 worked with Mayor Bloomberg to pass a downzoning of the East Village in 2008. The downzoning was controversial. While it aimed to protect the East Village from overdevelopment and limit tenant displacement, it did allow upzonings on Avenue D, Houston and Delancey Street, and left southern parts of the district—where a much higher percentage of residents of color live—vulnerable to more development. Frustration with the limits of the East Village rezoning lead to the launch of the Chinatown Working Group effort.
Chin was deputy executive director at Asian Americans for Equality, an organization that she helped found and which came out in full support of the downzoning. Chin resigned to run for Council in the middle of the public review process that lead to the approval of the rezoning.
3. She rejected LESON’s invitation to stand with the people to stop the waterfront megatowers. Instead green-lighting the towers and negotiating meaningless crumbs for the community.
Chin has not greenlighted the proposed waterfront towers in Two Bridges and does not currently have the power to do so—the de Blasio administration has said that the proposed towers only require approval by the City Planning Commission. She is trying a variety of means to push the administration to make the projects go through the process known as ULURP, which would allow her to have a vote up or down on the projects. She also recently lent her support to an effort by community groups to downzone the waterfront and prevent the towers.
The group LESON (Lower East Side Organizing Neighbors) doesn’t trust Chin to vote no on the project if given the chance, and has instead asked her to focus her energy on proving to the City Planning Commission that the projects cannot be approved because they do not legally pass muster under existing zoning and environmental regulations. LESON says Chin has been dismissive of their arguments. While Chin’s staff says she doesn’t disagree with LESON’s approach, they argue it will be difficult to convince the City Planning Commission not to approve the projects and that the best strategy is to focus on getting the projects to go through ULURP.
4. She supported the privatization of NYCHA, like the “infill” on La Guardia Housing’s parking lot, while NYCHA residents get eviction notices and no repairs.
Chin has not yet taken a stance on “infill” at La Guardia Houses.
The De Blasio administration and NYCHA seek to create more income-targeted housing and boost revenues for NYCHA by working with private developers to build up some NYCHA land, a program some refer to as “infill.” Some of the housing will be 100 percent below-market and some will be 50 percent market-rate and 50 percent below-market. Critics deride the program as an example of the “privatization” of NYCHA, though NYCHA insists that the land will remain owned by the city and is rented to the developer through a long-term ground lease.
Chin was critical of an earlier rendition of the program under Bloomberg that would have required only 20 percent below-market rate housing on all sites. As for De Blasio’s plan, Paul Leonard, Chin’s chief of staff, says that she’s approaching it on a “case by case basis.” On infill at LaGuardia Houses specifically, Leonard says Chin feels “NYCHA needs to make the case for why these infill developments are necessary to ensure the long-term viability of LaGuardia houses specifically. Though it’s early in the process, Councilmember Chin does not believe the case has been made.” He adds that Chin wants to know whether the below-market housing will actually be affordable to residents in the community and wants details on the impacts that construction might have on nearby playgrounds and the surrounding community.
5. She encouraged Extell and other developers to build luxury high rises with our tax money through the 421-a program.
Extell’s tower—the one nearing completion next to the Manhattan Bridge—is ‘as-of-right’ under the current zoning; the private developer did not require Chin’s approval to build. Even if Chin had pushed harder for the entire Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan, it seems unlikely it would have passed in time to stop the Extell tower. (The plan was released in January 2014, and Extell had already made significant progress on its foundation by the summer of 2015.)
The essence of the complaint is that Chin is cozier with developers than she should be. It’s true that in 2013 she was one of the top 10 recipients of donations from Jobs for New York, the PAC associated with the Real Estate Board of New York, receiving over $230,000.
6. She refused to halt the sale of Rivington House, displacing AIDS patients in favor of luxury condos.
It was the De Blasio administration that permitted the sale of Rivington House to a condo developer, not Chin.
Rivington House was long the site of a non-profit nursing home that served patients with AIDS, but in 2015 it was sold to a for-profit company called the Allure Group that said it would open a new nursing home. In actuality, the company was busy lobbying the city to remove deed restrictions on the building so it could flip the building to a condo developer.
The Lo-Down reports that during that year—when Allure was duping the public—Chin played a large role “in efforts to keep the facility open under the ownership of a new nursing home operator.” Lower East Siders for Christopher Marte argues Chin should have used her influence to prevent the nonprofit from selling to Allure to begin with—but no one knew, at the time, that Allure would completely betray its word, and it was a private transaction, so she would have had limited control to begin with.
Chin has said that when the Department of Citywide Administrative Services signed off on the removal of deed restrictions on the site in November of 2015, she was not aware the deed was being removed. The Lo-Down finds this believable, given the lack of notice provided to the public about the transaction. An investigation by Comptroller Scott Stringer found many people to blame for this scandal, including DCAS and City Hall, but Chin was not mentioned. Lower East Siders for Christopher Marte argue that given this debacle, however, Chin should have been less quick to endorse Mayor de Blasio for reelection.
7. Chin, by saying nothing, supports wage theft & sweatshop abuses of home care workers who work for agencies like the Chinese-American Planning Council and United Jewish Council, backers of Chin.
Homecare attendants have brought a series of class-action lawsuits against homecare health agencies, including the Chinese-American Planning Council and the United Jewish Council, among others, for practicing what is a state-sanctioned, industry-wide policy called the “13-hour” rule, according to Crain’s New York. Under the policy, if a home care attendant works a 24-hour shift, they are paid for only 13 hours of their time, with the assumption that the worker also takes breaks for eating and sleeping. Workers argue that it’s near impossible to take meaningful breaks and say the policy violates the minimum wage law, but healthcare agencies, for their part, say that paying more than 13 hours will upend the industry and make it extremely difficult to provide care.
It’s true that Chin, who frequently partners with CPC and UJC, has not spoken up about the issue, but given that it’s an issue affecting the state’s entire healthcare industry, it seems unfair to label her a supporter of “wage theft & sweatshop abuse.”
Leonard noted she’d received the endorsement of the healthcare workers union 1199 SEIU for her progressive leadership on economic justice and healthcare issues. Homecare workers in their suit against CPC, however, have also been frustrated with the role of the union in the fight against the 13-hour rule.
8. She ignored 10,000 residents who demanded 100% low-income housing on SPURA (now Essex Crossing). Chin insulted petition signers, implying that they were too stupid to understand the petitions they signed.
When Chin took office in 2009, it was after decades of discussion regarding how to develop the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area and after many stakeholders had already expressed a willingness to accept some market-rate housing if it could help support affordable units. It’s true that Chin did not adopt the position of a group that advocated for 100 percent low-income housing in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, expressing concerns that this would be viewed as unrealistic. Instead she supported a plan in which 50 percent of the housing would be rent-restricted. She was also responsible for negotiating to ensure that the rent-restricted housing would be kept affordable in perpetuity.
It’s worth mentioning that the idea that public land should always be used for 100 percent affordable housing has gained increasing support in the public as the affordability crisis has worsened, and a variety of councilmembers, from Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in East Harlem to Laurie Cumbo in Crown Heights, face pressure to fight for the inclusion of 100 percent income-targeted units on public sites. Some, such as the de Blasio administration, argue that sometimes market-rate housing should be permitted to help a developer offset the costs of providing other public amenities.
As for the claim that Chin said people were stupid, Lower East Siders for Chris Marte says that at a meeting with her she said people probably didn’t know what they were signing and that at another meeting, she said, “You are being manipulated to sign something you do not understand.” It was unclear by press time which meetings they were referring to. Chief of staff Leonard, noting that Lower East Siders for Christopher Marte had only existed for a month, called the claims falsehoods.
9. Chin and de Blasio backed a senior housing plan that would destroy Elizabeth Street Garden, despite a viable alternative site for the housing, pitting senior housing against gardens, Chinatown against the LES.
It’s true that Chin is backing a senior housing plan that would uproot the Elizabeth Street Garden. As for the alternative site suggested by gardeners—a vacant lot at 388 Hudson Street—Chin says both should be developed with senior housing given the dire need for such housing, but that the Hudson Street lot is not in her district.
“With nearly 200,000 seniors languishing on a waitlist for affordable housing across our city, Councilmember Chin has pledged to fight to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to age with dignity in the communities that they helped build,” Chin’s office said in a statement to the Commercial Observer in July, adding that the developers would be required to include a public open space (though a quarter of the original garden’s size) on the site. Asian Americans for Equality, the organization Chin helped co-found, is reportedly one of the groups bidding for the project.