Like old acquaintances who don’t come to mind, news outlets’ end-of-year lists are as obligatory a late December tradition as Auld Lang Syne. This particular year, in New York City at least, the turning of the calendar is not an entirely arbitrary moment for taking stock of what lies ahead—because under the city charter, the next term of office for city officials begins at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day. A few of our nominees for Stories to Watch are linked to that municipal clock.
On the other hand, many of the other stories we think will make big headlines in 2018 are the same ones that got a lot of ink in 2017. That they are still on our radar screen might be an indication of their importance—or of our utter lack of originality.
1.) Election 2018: Elections are always important, but the upcoming contests are interesting in a few dimensions. On the federal level, congressional races in and around the city could be part of the national story about Democrats’ hopes to retake the house. Statewide, the outcome of state Senate elections in several districts—and the ongoing dynamics between mainline Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference—will help determine whether Democrats control that body or not, which will in turn affect the prospects for key city policy priorities like rent regulations, which come up for renewal in 2019. And of course, how Gov. Cuomo fares in his bid for a third term (amid a potential challenge from the left and as a close former aide faces a corruption trial) will affect whether or not the presidential chatter increases or peters out for the governor.
2.) The transit crisis: The year will likely see debate over a congestion pricing plan, continued wrestling over whether and how the city should pay for the MTA’s emergency repair wish-list, preparations for the 2019 shutdown of the L-train and—hopefully—some discussion of the provocative transit ideas within the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Regional Plan.
3.) Closing Rikers: The announcement this week that the city’s average daily jail population had dipped below 9,000 is a reminder that progress toward the de Blasio administration’s adopted goal of closing the island jails will always have in incremental element, since it depends in part on the day-to-day churn of the criminal justice system. But there is the potential for bigger milestones in 2018, starting with selection of a firm to evaluate potential new locations for jails and the possibility that the state will take some action to move the process more swiftly.
4.) De Blasio’s jobs pledge: One of the few major new proposals to emerge from the mayor’s 2017 reelection campaign was a vow to create 100,000 good paying jobs within the next decade. The mayor made the pledge in his state of the city address in February and put out a plan—roundly criticized for lacking detail—in June. Observers will be looking to see whether the mayor fills in any of the gaps. Larger forces will also be at play: The Independent Budget Office forecasts that job growth, which has been robust in recent years, is likely to slow in the city starting this year, which could make it harder for the city to post net gains in “good” jobs – especially since average wages are also likely to slip.
5.) Public hospitals: Health +Hospitals operates 11 acute-care hospitals and a sprawling network of other facilities with a 38,000-person workforce and it has faced severe fiscal pressure in recent years, prompting a city rescue plan that might not be enough: As IBO has pointed out, H+H “stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars of operating funds under President Trump’s budget proposals. Already struggling to stay economically viable, a loss of such magnitude could permanently cripple the city’s public hospitals” which are “the only critical care option for many low-income New Yorkers.”
6.) The mayor and the schools: Given that education took a back seat to housing and criminal justice among top issues in his first term, De Blasio surprised many by saying in his first post-election press conference that he wanted to make the schools a priority in his second four years. The recent announcement of Chancellor Carmen Farina’s retirement and of changes to the mayor’s flagship Renewal Schools program create room for change, but the need to find money to flesh out de Blasio’s 3-k program could compete with other big ideas.
7.) The next round of neighborhood rezonings: Four years in, only three neighborhood rezonongs are in the books (East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway and East Harlem) but this year will see movement on Jerome Avenue and possibly on Bay Street, Inwood and others—all as the mayor guns for his revised and very ambitious 300,000-unit housing goal.
8.) Homelessness: The growing numbers of people in the shelters and on the streets was the largest policy challenge of the first de Blasio term and, given that the numbers aren’t significantly dropping, will be a major task for the next four years. In 2018, expect to see more discussion about the mayor’s plan to open 90 or more new shelters, and his recent move to convert some cluster-site buildings to permanent affordable housing.
9.) NYCHA: The lead-paint controversy is not going away quickly, because it has tapped into a feeling that the progressive mayor, which devoting more resources to public housing than his predecessor, has not given the massive network the attention its fiscal and capital crises deserve. Amid weakened public trust, NYCHA will continue with its plans to develop land for new, mixed-income and 100-percent-affordable housing, unveiling RFPs or announcing developers for sites already in the pipeline and potentially identifying new sites.
10.) The city budget process: Relative comity has governed the city budget process under de Blasio but that could change in 2018, as a new Council speaker takes the seat opposite the mayor and as federal tax and spending changes potentially force tougher choices on the city.
11.) Opioids, fentanyl and more: Rising numbers of overdose deaths have begun to focus public attention on the drug crisis, which the city has already taken some action to address. As the first major drug scare of the post-Drug War era, it will be important to see how officials balance the public-health response with any increased law-enforcement effort.
12.) Immigration crackdown:The reality of President Trump’s approach to immigration is nearly a year old but its impact on city ethnic communities is still settling in. Will there be confrontations between federal officials and their Sanctuary City counterparts over ICE access to city facilities and information?
13.) The city’s waterways: Major plans for cleaning up pollution that has harmed Jamaica Bay and the East River are due as debate continues over whether the de Blasio administration’s blueprints for places like the Bronx River and Flushing Creek are adequate and workable.
14.) Terrorism and the city: Neither the Halloween bloodshed on the bike path nor the more recent failed suicide bombing near Times Square seem to have altered public attitudes or policing policy in a visible way. That partly reflects the fact that the city already has multiple defenses against terrorist violence (like subway searches and heavily armed cops) and the reality that low-tech terrorist acts can be harder to defend against. Should more attacks occur, that conversation could change: Already, some observers have suggested (with little evidence) that the city erred in reducing its surveillance of Muslim and Arab communities.
15.) Census 2020: It’s early, but policy decisions are already being made about the crucial count of U.S. population. Given the political atmosphere around undocumented immigrants, and the traditional perceived problems counting the undocumented and the poor, New York City’s political representation and access to federal resources could be eroded by some of those decisions.
16.) 2020 on the radar screen: De Blasio goes to Iowa. Cuomo goes to Puerto Rico. Kirsten Gillibrand goes viral. And everyone is talking about all the New Yorkers who want to be president, even though none of them has said s/he wants to. Even though we’re two years away from the 2020 Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, expect this storyline to continue popping up, rejuvenating the media buzz around the de Blasio-Cuomo feud and generally exhausting everyone before anyone actually tosses a hat into the ring.
17.) 2021 on the radar screen, too: It’s a year further out but whether as perception or as reality expect the next municipal election to figure into local political and policy stories starting this year. With Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, all the borough presidents and the majority of the City Council facing term limits in 2021, the incentives are there for ambitious pols to begin staking out territory vis a vis de Blasio, who cannot run again, and their potential rivals. The test for reporters will be when to interpret policy disagreements as proxy skirmishes for the next municipal election battle, legitimate differences of approach or some combination of the two.
18.) Local media: : Speaking of the media, the demise of DNAinfo and Gothamist this year—along with the sale of the Daily News—triggered a lot of concern in media circles about whether local news coverage was collapsing, and what impact that would have on the ability for the public to be informed and officials to be held accountable. In response, there’s been talk about creating new entities to plug the gap, and discussions of a possible government role in sustaining local journalism. There’ll be more to think about on this topic in 2018, and while it might not be kitchen-table news for most New Yorkers, the outcome of the media conversation will ultimately shape which stories get into the mainstream—and in turn, what topics are still on our minds when the time comes to predict what 2019 will hold for our fair city.