“The city is becoming increasingly harsh for the very constituency the mayor claims to care about: the underserved in the forgotten outreaches of the city’s neighborhoods.”

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams at a press conference in January 2022.

Eric Adams has made “get stuff done” his mayoral mantra. And he’s right, there’s so much to do. But it’s not just a matter of getting stuff done—it’s a matter of who it’s getting done for.

In this regard Adams is much like his mayoral predecessors, following a multi-decade legacy of getting stuff done that mostly prioritizes the wants and perspectives of New York’s elites, from finance and real estate to the big, purportedly nonprofit universities and hospital systems and deep-pocketed Manhattan museums. Some of the city’s major philanthropies and municipal unions are culpable too. It’s a legacy that far too often leaves behind the needs of everyday New Yorkers and their neighborhoods.

In the absence of strong mayoral leadership committed to the interests of the many, we have a civic agenda frequently set by campaign cash, political expediency and, oftentimes, bureaucratic inertia. I’ve seen this from the inside, for a decade in city government, including as director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations under David Dinkins. The time to reset the civic balance of power is long overdue. 

To start, we need to re-examine our culture, our city’s governing belief system. The current culture is based on impunity where economic exploitation by the powerful few goes unpunished. Under Mayor Adams, and to a large degree much like his predecessors, the predators and exploiters run rampant while most New Yorkers are left with shredded services. A tattered semblance of regulatory guardrails exists, with a light touch on enforcement. While Mayor Adams has cracked down on street vendors, Starbucks is allowed to flaunt the Fair Workweek law and exploit its modestly paid staff.

The need for structural change can no longer be ignored. This begins with burden sharing and a renewed conversation about who pays what and who subsidizes whom. We know that during the COVID pandemic the financial and other elites amassed even greater wealth, while much of the rest of us gained little economic ground. Data shows that the wealthy pocketed most of the rewards and shouldered none of the burdens. The number of city tax filers with incomes of $10 million or more grew by more than 50 percent from 2019 to 2021.

As the mayor’s record low approval ratings underscore, we need to call out the absence of civic and political leadership at this moment in our city’s history. It’s hard to name executives not only in government, but in our private institutions and in the philanthropic community that would step beyond their current roles and offer solutions to structural issues that have hampered our city for decades.

The list of challenges the city faces is considerable. Topping the list is significant affordable housing. While Adams has made some concrete proposals to help spur housing construction, a key question remains about how much of it will be affordable to New Yorkers of modest means. For decades, the city’s affordable housing programs have largely left the lowest-income New Yorkers behind. And much of the lowest-cost housing that’s been created is studios and one-bedrooms, not suitable for families. The mayor’s refusal to expand the availability of city-funded housing vouchers—as mandated by the City Council—underscores a lack of emphasis on the housing needs of lower income New Yorkers.

Likewise, the mayor’s continued commitment to the long-dominant civic philosophy of austerity budgeting has further frayed the city’s safety net. For the mayor’s first two years, the city processed barely 40 percent of the applicants for the federally funded food stamp program in a timely fashion. While the mayor has recently hired 1,000 people to deal with the backlog, for two years he allowed timely processing to tumble even as the need grew.

And as The City reported in January, the number of apartments sitting vacant in the city’s public housing developments had increased by almost 50 percent over the past year—despite a waiting list of 240,000 households.

Some of the decline in services can be linked to cutbacks in city staffing through attrition and a hiring freeze. But the problems with the mayor’s management of the city’s workforce run deeper than staff shortages—he’s pushed aside some of the very people who have the knowledge and experience that can help meet the challenges the city faces now and in the future. As a result, city agencies have lost institutional knowledge, planning capacity and, to borrow one of the mayor’s favorite phrases, the expertise for getting stuff done.

The city is becoming increasingly harsh for the very constituency the mayor claims to care about: the underserved in the forgotten outreaches of the city’s neighborhoods. Library hours have been cut, pre-K slots dropped and funding for our parks, contrary to the mayor’s campaign pledge, is decreasing to a proposed $584 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

It would not be an overstatement to say that the city has become the intersection between private wealth and public squalor. While hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen makes a play for building a casino on parkland, his baseball team, the Mets, pays no property tax for its stadium—much as the Yankees, Knicks, Nets and Rangers get a free pass on property taxes for their facilities collectively worth more than $300 million a year.

New Yorkers should also be asking why the city continues to put billions of taxpayer dollars in banks that fail to prioritize the interests of our communities. Too many of the banks that hold the city’s deposits maintain lending and other practices that foster racial and economic disparities: namely, redlining neighborhoods of color and investing in predatory landlords. The city doesn’t regulate the banks, but we can decide where we want to put our money if they’re not meeting our needs.

With so much to do, here are some ideas about taking another road forward, one that maps out structural and systemic changes. It’s a call for leadership that sets a new direction for a vastly different set of governing choices:

  • Shift resources to public infrastructure and public space. We need to turn away from the stale practice of awarding sizeable public tax abatements to private sector entities, with questionable benefits to the city. The recent deal to exempt property taxes and charge a reduced rent for Vornado Realty Trust’s Pier 94 project, which the local community board chair called an economic development “giveaway,” is a clear example. So, too, are the tax breaks provided to luxury housing developments like One57, where a penthouse sold for $100 million.
  • These giveaways should be in the city’s rear-view mirror (yet the mayor and governor pushed to recently revive the break that went to One57 and many other buildings). Instead, we need to redirect the use of subsidies from private entities to enhancing public physical space: to our libraries, early childhood and day care centers, our senior centers, New York City Housing Authority community centers and playgrounds, public-school yards and our outer borough cultural institutions. It is also critical that such efforts involve substantial community input, as is finally occurring with the Kingsbridge Armory. “[F]or for nearly 30 years, the Kingsbridge Armory has languished despite grand plans by mega-developers, billionaire investors and celebrities to repurpose the 570,000-square foot landmark,” wrote Stefanos Chen and Winnie Hu in The New York Times, highlighting the unusual redirection of planning for the armory to a community-led approach.
  • Ensure that safety net programs are efficient and effective. As Kim Phillips-Fein wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Mayor Adams’ skepticism about raising taxes and his insistence on belt tightening and the need to cut social service programs reflect a sense of who matters in the city, and who the city is for.”
  • At a time of increased need, accelerated access to basic social services like food stamps and cash advances, as well as other services such as child care, are critically important and cannot be relegated to crimped budget outlays and bureaucratic inertia. The city’s poverty rate has soared to 23 percent, from 18 percent in 2021. According to a February New York Times article by Stefanos Chen, ‘The number of New Yorkers living in poverty, nearly two million in all, included one in four children.” The article continues, “The steep rise in the number of New Yorkers living in poverty which grew by 500,000 residents in 2022, underscores wide and longstanding disparities.” And a December article in Gothamist by Arya Sundaram cited James Parrott, who characterized the city’s prosperity as lopsided. “People in the bottom half are losing ground,” Parrott said, “income inequality in the city is now the greatest among major cities across the country.”
  • Forge a new relationship with municipal labor. For too long, the city’s workforce has functioned under antiquated work rules and bureaucratic inertia. As Dana Rubinstein and Emma G. Fitzsimmons wrote in The New York Times, the Adams administration “…created a work environment where independent thought was discouraged and obedience to directives was valued.” Staff dissatisfaction, coupled with substantial staff cuts, is a recipe for agency dysfunction—and it’s the city’s everyday residents who suffer the consequences. In tandem with the municipal labor unions, the city should craft a partnership that gives a greater voice to frontline employees, reforms rigid work rules that constrain job responsibilities and modernizes work hours—from a four-day workweek to more work from home opportunities. At the same time, the municipal unions need to step back from their parochial focus on the interest of just their members and embrace actions that benefit all workers. 
  • Create—and enforce—robust guardrails that protect working families from predatory abuse. While the Adams administration has vigorously enforced regulations against street vendors, seizing their goods and levying hefty fines, white collar abuses of tenants and workers remain largely unchecked. Property owners who fail to make repairs and violate rent and other regulatory rules can repeatedly wind up on worst landlord lists but rarely face consequences—even as millions of dollars in fines go unpaid. Similarly, too many private sector employers engage in wage theft, particularly among hourly paid workers in the hospitality and construction sectors. Migrants are especially targeted for wage and benefit abuses. And another aspect of wage theft that employers use is to squeeze hourly work week schedules, that result in lost pay and unpredictable work week conditions, and wreaks havoc on individual’s home lives. Lost wages total an estimated $1 billion annually. 
  • Divest from Wall Street banks and create a public bank. Currently, the city deposits billions of dollars in Wall Street banks, entities notorious for exploiting and draining wealth from low-income neighborhoods, perpetuating racial and economic disparities. In fact, the bulk of the city’s funds sit in just three big banks—Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan Chase—which collectively poured over $1 trillion into fossil fuel corporations over the past decade.

    The city should establish a public bank to leverage this dormant potential toward investments in long-ignored public needs. A broad coalition led by New Economy Project has been leading the charge for such a bank to hold city deposits and reinvest in the public good. It would invigorate local economies by providing responsible loans, often in partnership with neighborhood financial institutions, to small businesses and individuals—directly fueling job creation, affordable housing initiatives, and the development of sustainable infrastructure.

    This initiative will require collaboration between the state and key city stakeholders, including the mayor, city comptroller, and City Council. Fierce lobbying by the big banks has all but ensured Wall Street maintains its monopolistic grip on New York’s financial ecosystem. In the meantime, in the spirit of embracing the common good and equitable burden-sharing, wealthy institutions—such as private hospitals, universities, foundations and well-endowed museums—should begin to divest from Wall Street banks and redirect their account holdings to community-based credit unions and other financial institutions that responsibly serve the city’s neighborhoods. Municipal labor also should join in this effort. 

For decades, conversations about the city’s policies and priorities have been framed and directed by the elite. For too long, we have as a city accepted their views, their facts, their preferences. In a series of wrong turns mapped by the leadership of blinkered institutions, they’ve taken us down a path of harsh economic conditions and starved city services, while wealth accumulation for the few has been protected.

It’s time for a reset on the city’s priorities, one that emphasizes the needs and interests of everyday New Yorkers.  It’s time for leadership that listens to all voices.  It’s time to get stuff done, especially when there’s so much to do. 

For over 40 years, Harvey Robins, has worked in various positions in city government, non-profits and foundations, including the NYC Human Resources Administration as first deputy administrator, the Board of Education as deputy chancellor for finance and administration, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, the Children’s Aid Society as director of strategic planning and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation as director of strategic planning and operations.