State Senator Marisol Alcántara, who represents Inwood, Washington Heights and parts of the West Side, is wrapping up her first term in office, and it’s promising to be a demanding year. Her district is facing a rezoning, the state is facing a budget crunch, and as a member of the embattled Independent Democratic Conference, she’s facing a challenger in the 2018 elections.
Alcántara, a former labor organizer, is a self-described progressive, but during her 2016 campaign for the 31st district she announced her intention to join the IDC, a breakaway group that shares power with the Republicans in the State Senate. That power-sharing coalition, which leaves Democrats in the Senate minority, allows IDC members more say on the budget, what bills get to the floor, and perks like higher-paying committee leadership positions. The IDC describes itself as a coalition that passes progressive bills by working in a bipartisan fashion with Republicans, but critics say that the IDC empowers Republicans, preventing other progressive legislation and budget proposals from being considered.
In 2016, Alcantara won 33 percent of the vote in a contested primary in which former councilmember Robert Jackson, her current challenger, came in third with about 500 fewer votes. Some progressives hailed her victory, which made her the only Latina member of the Senate at the time. But Alcántara has also become the target of anti-IDC protests by her constituents, as well as the target of a campaign by the Real Rent Reform Coalition, which has used postcards, Christmas caroling and door-to-door canvassing to pressure the senator to make the passage of three key rent regulations an IDC priority.
Foremost on many constituents’ minds is the proposed Inwood rezoning, which in January entered the seven-month public review process through which a rezoning is ultimately approved or disproved. The initiative, invited by local councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez and crafted by the de Blasio administration’s Economic Development Corporation, would spur commercial and housing development in Inwood, including a portion of income-targeted housing, but faces a great deal of local controversy.
We send her a detailed list of questions on the rezoning, the budget, the IDC and her upcoming election, then sat down with her on Thursday to hear her answers to those questions and others. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the recording, along with some context for her remarks.
City Limits: Tell me what you’re thinking right now about the Inwood rezoning proposal that’s just been certified?
Alcántara: Well, the proposals have some serious issues. The [Area Median Income] that they took into consideration—the EDC—it includes the New York metropolitan area which includes Bergen County, Westchester, it includes very wealthy suburbs of Connecticut like Fairfield County. So if you take that into account, the people of Inwood, especially this side of Broadway, don’t make not even nearly that amount of money. So we had hoped that the EDC was going to do a neighborhood analysis and see what the average income of folks living in Inwood is, and that they would develop housing based on that.
Context: EDC is well aware that the median income in Inwood is only $41,687 (as compared to the NYC metropolitan Area Median Income, which is $85,900). The real issue, which Alcántara alludes to, is that under the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, a rezoning will create housing that is mostly market rate with a portion for families making between 40 to 80 percent of Area Median Income, or $34,360 to $68,720 for a family of three. While the city says it can provide subsidies to landlords who are willing to provide more units for low-income families, there are no guarantees this will be the case on private sites.
City Limits: …In East Harlem, … there were instances where the city put money into public land to reach deeper [low incomes], and then they said that they would work with private developers to try to get some to sponsor more low-income housing, but it wasn’t totally clear when the rezoning passed how much would end up being for low-income. …What do you think the city could do specifically before you would feel more comfortable with [an Inwood rezoning]?
Alcántara: They didn’t do a complete study of Inwood. For example, the document is about 400-something pages. And in that, it doesn’t address the issue of transportation. Our train stations are old and this part of Inwood is elevated, so if you are disabled or pregnant or a senior citizen, there was no study done on how that is going to affect [you]. Because these trains, you have to take the stairs that are sometimes like the equivalent of going up [to] a fifth floor apartment.
They are planning to develop near the river. A lot of that area was flooded during Sandy. There was not an environmental impact [analysis] on what happens if we have another Sandy, how many folks would be displaced.
According to the city, only 500 people will directly be impacted by the rezoning, because they said that only 500 people live in that little space where the rezoning would take place by St. Jude’s church … in the entire 10th Avenue area. So the city did not take into account the domino effect development in that area could have in the rest of Inwood and Washington Heights. What would it do? Would it increase rent prices, for example?
They allege that they provided legal assistance to some community groups … one of those groups is Manhattan Legal Services. They could only provide services to one ZIP code. What happens to the rest of Inwood and the rest of Washington Heights?
Context: The city’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement does include an analysis of the rezoning’s potential transportation impacts, which found that the rezoning would have negative impacts on traffic, subway stations, buses, and pedestrian travel. Mitigation strategies are currently being explored, but there is no legal guarantee they will be fully adopted. The EIS also acknowledges that the rezoning area is within a flood zone, but says that the city’s building codes will ensure new buildings are not flood-risk. It further says there won’t be any “direct displacement” due to redevelopment because the sites most likely to be redeveloped do not contain apartments, and predicts insignificant amounts of indirect displacement that is the result of rising rents. Many advocates, however, are critical of the city’s methods for assessing flood and displacement risk. It’s true the city does not study the impact of rezonings on disabled people. It’s also true that the city’s anti-harassment legal service contract only covers zip code 10034. 10034 is everything north and east of Dyckman Street, the majority of the rezoning area.**
Alcántara says the city estimates there will be 500 people directly impacted by the rezoning. In fact, the Environmental Impact Statement states that if a rezoning directly displaces less than 500 people there is no “significant adverse impact,” and furthermore that the city predicts no direct displacement in this case of this rezoning.***
City Limits:… Some people have said that they would like to see some development of housing and commercial establishments east of 10th avenue but are especially concerned about rezoning Dyckman and Broadway and 207th Street. I know there are people concerned about rezoning east of 10th Avenue as well … What do you think? Are there particular areas of the neighborhood that are more vulnerable than others?
Alcántara: No, I think the whole neighborhood is vulnerable. This is supposed to be an immigrant neighborhood. For some people, this is the only place they have lived since they arrived in the United States so you have people that have lived in their apartment 30, 40 years that don’t know any other part of the city besides Inwood and Washington Heights. And what would rezoning mean for those folks?
City Limits: What did you think of Rodriguez’s vision of some kind of tech hub and healthcare hub in the neighborhood? …
Alcántara: Yes, I love the idea of a tech hub … Whether you’re going to be a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker, you’re going to need to have a knowledge of some kind of technology … We just need more details on how it is going to be implemented, and what are the benefits for the Black and Brown kids that live in northern Manhattan. There are kids that we have that are barely graduating from high school and if they are graduating, they are not going to college. … There are people who just sell things in the street, like a food vendor, there are people who just have a car-washing business. What does it mean for those folks and … can they transition to be in a tech hub like the councilman wants? I think it’s a great idea but I think we need to find more details about it.
City Limits: … There was some discussion about racial issues at some of the earlier hearings. It sounded like you were expressing some concerns that critics of the rezoning, who you in some ways agree with or share concerns with, … you feared [were] writing you off …
Alcántara: We saw a letter, an e-mail that was circulated among a group of folks that live here. They said, all the elected officials, all of them are the same. They’re just playing good cop bad cop … I don’t know if it’s hard for people to believe that elected officials of color can disagree on policy issues and that’s what I was referring to. The fact that you’re referring to a bunch of people of color as “these people” and the fact that the people that were doing this doesn’t think that this is a problem.
Context: As earlier reported, in September, Alcántara’s office provided City Limits with a copy of an e-mail sent to the listserv of Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, a group that has been critical of the rezoning. It accuses Alcántara of participating in a “good cop bad cop” routine. It does not contain the phrase “these people” but does include “We know where they are ALL coming from, THE SAME PLACE!” The recipient of the e-mail told City Limits she was speaking on behalf of herself, not Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, that she is a woman of color and that she was referring to the fact that Alcántara, Rodriguez and other elected officials were all members of the local Democratic Club Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change.
Following this question, the Senator confirmed that she did have a long relationship with Rodriguez and was formerly his campaign manager, but said that doesn’t mean she has to agree with him on everything.
City Limits:: Do you have a position on the Inwood library?
Alcántara: … I feel like the city doesn’t provide folks with enough details of anything. I’d like to know where’s the [temporary] library and how big is it going to be? Because I have a small son, and we have visited the Inwood library here and I went there with Literacy, Ink to do a book reading, and we’ve been there a couple times. It’s one of the highest used libraries in this community, so what is the plan? …
So if I meet a parent that was at the library with Literacy Ink and they asked me, “Senator, what is my library going to be at, and what is it going to look like” … I would like to have an answer, I don’t want to say, “it’s going to be a trailer” or maybe I don’t know … And people have a right to know where is the library going to be, what is that library going to look like, and is it going to have some of the same services, and I just don’t think we are getting any of those answers.
Context: The city has proposed redeveloping the Inwood library with 100 percent income-targeted housing, a new state of the art library and a pre-K program, and they’ve said they’ll provide a temporary library with “all existing core services.” Still, Alcántara is not alone in her concerns about the lack of details concerning the temporary library.
City Limits: … Talking about the upcoming state budget and legislative session … what would you say are some of your priorities? … I’m curious about all your priorities, [and your housing priorities].
Alcántara: I’m sure you are aware that New York State is in a $4.1 billion [actually $4.4 billion] dollar deficit and with that it’s going to affect some of our education, some of our social services.
My priority on a statewide level is to push the New York State Card check bill. … We have the highest union density in the country and my Card Check bill will make it easier for state workers to be part of a union and for them to pay their dues to the union.
Also Carlos’ Law— … About 84 construction workers have died in the last six years, all of them immigrant workers, some of them are undocumented, building some very pricy real estate in the city and I’m sure that if it had been 80 police officers or 80 firefighters that had died, the state and the city would have taken measures to address those issues. But these are undocumented Latino workers. So we hope we can pass Carlos’ Law that would establish higher fines for construction companies that don’t comply with safety protocol.
I also have the Diversity and TV tax credit. Last year it was passed by both the Senate and the Assembly, that would give a $5 million tax credit for TV production companies to hire more minority and women writers, producers and directors.
And my last … bill is the surplus food donations act, which would incentivize supermarkets to donate their surplus food to charitable organizations, because you know the food that is not used ends up in landfills and it just adds to more waste and it can have an effect on climate change. And … one out of every six New Yorkers, if I’m not mistaken, suffers from food insecurity. … We hope that this is something that can address both problems, our climate issue and the issue of food insecurity.
City Limits: And tell me about some of your housing-related priorities?
Alcántara: Last year … we gave funding to Community Voices Heard, which mostly deals with organizing NYCHA residents … Most folks in NYCHA live under conditions that you would probably find in a developing country … So we will continue working with Community Voices Heard.
We provided funding to Manhattan Legal Services to provide additional legal support to residents of our district and we hope to expand on that. We also provided funding to Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation for housing work and we hope to continue providing that. Because like I said, the funding that the city provided them only covers one ZIP code.
And we hope that after the budget, we can introduce legislation that deals with tenant harassment. For example, one of my bills that I … acquired from [Congressman Adriano Espaillat] is to increase the penalties that landlords get when they harass tenants. We hope to have all housing documents translated into the seven most commonly used languages which will make it easier for New York State residents when they go to housing court, and we hope this year we can deal with the issue of preferential rent and vacancy decontrol.
City Limits: … Some of these pieces of legislation, like preferential rent legislation, vacancy decontrol, are things that you have clearly sponsored … but haven’t gotten to the floor, some would argue because of Republican control of the Senate. What would you say to that criticism that basically the IDC has allowed the Republicans to control the floor?
Alcántara: I just love the way that everything is singled out to the IDC but nobody ever mentions [State Senator Simcha Felder]. It would be interesting with the reunification plan that the governor has put out, if the same groups that complain about the IDC will have any complaints about Simcha if he doesn’t go back…
A lot of these bills only have six Democratic co-sponsors; one of them has six, the other one has five. It would be nice if we can get my colleagues to co-sponsor these bills that are already there, so we can begin to bring these issues to the conversation. If my colleagues are so interested in these bills, then they need to sign and be co-sponsors on these bills. And it takes 32 votes to pass everything in the senate … Once we get everybody to sign onto these bills, then we can have a conversation about how to move these bills forward.
Context: Simcha Felder is not part of the IDC, but also conferences with the Republicans. Democrats will only be able to clinch a majority and win back control of the State Senate if Felder agrees to caucus with them. Also, according to a bill search conducted Friday, there are currently 7 mainline Dem and 4 IDC sponsors of the bill to end preferential rent as well as the bill to end the vacancy bonus, and 12 mainland Dem and 4 IDC sponsors on a bill to end vacancy decontrol.*
City Limits: Do you think it will be difficult to get 32 people to sign? [For example] … The vacancy decontrol bill? … If it had gone to the floor, maybe people would have voted for it anyway, or do you think there’s not enough support for the bill? …
Alcántara: I can’t tell you because I’ve only been in the senate for, this is my second year, but I can tell you that my Card Check bill has how many sponsors? Like over 20 … So obviously people have an interest in that bill. Is it because of the power that the labor unions hold? I’m not sure. Right now there is only six cosponsors for the preferential loophole and five for the vacancy bonus. I’m not surprised if some of these issues are going to probably make it to the floor in April or after April …
City Limits: But they would need a Democratic majority to get to the floor, right?
City Limits: So tell me about the reunification deal. Do you feel like that’s something that’s going to work out?
Alcántara: … It’s something that the state body has put out. I think everyone involved is really excited. Senator Klein and all of us in the IDC and all the mainline Dems are committed to making sure the Democrats are elected to those two seats, the one in the Bronx and the one in Westchester county.
City Limits: … Why did you join the IDC to begin with?
Alcántara: I didn’t join the IDC. I ran openly as an IDC member. It was in all my literature … I had a close relationship with Diane Savino because she comes out of the labor movement, it’s something I’ve repeated like 5900 times. I was running for office, Diane Savino and I had a relationship. I was running as the only Latina to be in the State Senate in a city that is 29.5 percent Latina [29 in the 2016 census survey]. Nobody in the mainline Democrats would meet with me. Even though I’m a trade unionist, I was a labor organizer, I had no institutional support whatsoever, and people who were in the mainline Dems would not even sit down and meet with me to discuss my candidacy because I could imagine they already had a plan of who the candidate was going to be …
Context: Alcantara was not public about the fact that she would be an IDC member until she was confident she had the conference’s endorsement in the August prior to the September 2016 primary, but according to her office, she had already been clear with advocates that she would caucus with the IDC. Her campaign literature, in fine print, indicated it was funded by the Committee of the Independence Party, which had established a funding agreement with the IDC earlier that summer.***
City Limits: Are there really any differences between the mainline dems and the IDC?
City Limits: You’re facing Robert Jackson as a challenger. What’s your best argument to constituents about why you should be reelected?
Alcántara: I believe I have done a good job in the Senate. I have brought in millions of dollars in resources to this neighborhood. I have managed to bring resources and services to the upper Manhattan community that we didn’t have before. My opponent has been campaigning for this position I believe like [since] two days after I got elected.
We have brought over $5 million of resources to this neighborhood. We address the issue of Latino suicide, which is the second leading cause of death in this country [among teenagers] … We managed to bring additional resources to the schools in our area. We opened up a community school in West Harlem, very huge immigrant population that didn’t get much services. We created an LGBTQ center, the first bi-lingual LGBTQ center in Northern Manhattan providing services. Now our folks don’t have to go to midtown Manhattan to do that. We provided the first of its kind in the nation, a $10 million immigration legal defense fund to provide immigration services to folks in Northern Manhattan that didn’t have before. We opened up a teenage suicide prevention program in ten of the middle schools in our area …
I have 100% rating from the New York League of Conservation Voters while my opponent was working for the Styrofoam industry. And I have brought the issue of environmental justice to communities of color, something that is not very popular amongst us. I am a big advocate of congestion pricing, I think we need to do more stuff around the environment.
… I used to be on CB9 when my opponent voted for the Manhattanville expansion which wiped businesses away and basically gave a stamp for Columbia University to use eminent domain and wipe [out] many businesses that had been in that community for ages, most of them immigrant owners … We fought very hard against the Manhattanville expansion because we felt that that was the entry door for gentrification and wiping out Black and Brown communities from northern Manhattan.
(See the response from Jackson’s campaign below.)
City Limits:… Can I ask you another question about the Inwood rezoning? Of course you don’t get to vote on it. If you had advice for Councilmember Rodriguez going forward, what advice would you give him?
Alcántara: … If the city and the state of New York is really committed to diversity and really living up to the reputation of being the progressive city that we are, then we could use the Inwood rezoning as a model community where we can build 100 percent affordable.
And when I mean affordable, it’s a place where a police officer can raise his family. It’s a place where a teacher can raise his family. It’s a place where a nurse can raise her family … I highly advise our councilmember that we could use the Inwood rezoning as a model for the rest of the country. Like look, this is our great city of New York, an immigrant city, the city is so committed to building affordable housing that they build 4,000 and something units in Inwood.
These are desperate charges from a failing candidate trying to cover-up a record of joining a rogue group of Democrats—the IDC—who’ve made an alliance with the Trump- supporting Republican minority and real estate developers to keep the Republicans in power.
The fact is that while Senator Alcantara and the IDC have blocked all rent reforms and resisted closing landlord loopholes, and she has already taken more money than the Primary legal limit from the Real Estate Board of NY, Robert Jackson sponsored the Small Business Survival Act, has long been involved in Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale and has been endorsed by Tenants PAC, New York’s leading tenants’ advocate. And Robert Jackson was a leader in initiating a community-based rezoning of the area around Columbia to protect its neighbors from being displaced and achieving a legally enforceable agreement with community residents and stakeholders resulting in a community driven not for profit having access to millions of dollars to promote and protect Harlem community interests, including the creation of two schools.
And on the environment, while Senator Alcantara and her IDC cohorts have blocked the important Assembly-passed Climate and Community Protection Act, Robert Jackson was the lead sponsor of a City Council Resolution to ban fracking, earned a 100% environmental rating from the New York League of Conservation Voters in his most recent term on the City Council and when opposed by Alcantara in 2016, Robert was endorsed by the Sierra Club, which said, “Among all the candidates, Robert Jackson will be the strongest, most effective environmentalist as State Senator and the one we can trust to fight for a cleaner, brighter environment.”
*Correction: Originally said there were 15 sponsors of the preferential bill, 12 sponsors of the vacancy bonus bill and 17 of the vacancy decontrol bill. In fact, that was an overcount and the number of mainline Dem sponsors is closer to what Alcantara surmised, though slightly higher. We regret the error.
**Correction: Originally said 10029 instead of the correct zipcode, 10034.
***These paragraphs were added for clarity.