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Report — From the April 2017 issue

Defender of the Community

Bill de Blasio gambles on doing the right thing

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I was thinking of the mystery of the mayor’s popularity when he appeared at a December 15 town hall meeting in a high-school gym on West 102nd Street. It was, as it happened, the deer’s last night alive. The gathering was one of several similar events that de Blasio has held in the past year to reconnect with his base, but it quickly turned into a quarrelsome debate about the most difficult part of his agenda: his desire to make New York more affordable for those of us who aren’t Russian oligarchs or employees of Goldman Sachs. On a street outside the school, local TV stations were interviewing angry residents; inside, de Blasio was being chased across a basketball court by their endless, anxious questions. Although the mayor’s housing plan is the most robust attempt in decades to scale back gentrification, it has also caused enormous apprehension, not least because its operating mechanism is a public-private partnership in which the city is seeking to build or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments by working with developers and harnessing the power of the real-estate market.

Taking turns with a microphone, the school-gym questioners besieged de Blasio with concerns about his model. Luxury buildings were popping up everywhere, they said, chasing out the poor, increasing crowds on the sidewalks, and bringing in amenities like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Public-housing residents were living without heat; some had to pee into umbrellas because of shoddy plumbing. These were the mayor’s people, his natural constituents — blacks, Latinos, white liberals — but they didn’t want to hear about “affordable” apartments when many in the neighborhood could not in fact afford them. “This is your moment of truth,” one woman told the mayor. “You’re going to have to demonstrate who is your constituency. Is your constituency the people who put you into the office you now hold? Or is your loyalty to the developers?”

De Blasio tends to do well in real-folks situations like this. Unlike his press conferences, which are famously contentious, the town hall forum lets him chew through complicated issues without appearing testy or overly pedantic. By now, he has his housing speech down pat. The city, he likes to say, is facing an unprecedented crisis: it has become such an attractive place in which to live, both a rich man’s aerie and a mecca for millennials, that its success has led to a catastrophic rise in rents. “For the twenty years before I came in,” he told the crowd that night, “City Hall had a very pro-development, pro-free-enterprise worldview. They saw gentrification as an unmitigated good.” Although he acknowledged that his approach, too, was pro-development, he said that it took care of the little guy by forcing developers to couple their most profitable projects with a subsidized percentage of less expensive units.

Casting himself as a kind of urban Robin Hood, the mayor gave his listeners a choice. He could, of course, sit back and do nothing as the market did to them what it had already done to hyper-gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg, in Brooklyn: bury them in glass condominiums and artisanal pizzerias. Or he could use his right hand to welcome builders to the area while employing his left to pick their pockets of apartments people could afford. “I have a huge critique of the free-enterprise system, but it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “There’s plenty of places in the city where someone can build a building in any way they want. That’s the reality of a capitalist system. My vision is that the government intervenes to the maximum extent possible to create balance.”

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is a staff writer at the New York Times and the author of Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad (Counterpoint).

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