Below is a transcript of a recorded interview with Maya Wiley in conversation with Shaping a Better NYC steering committee members Saundra Thomas representing Open House New York, Andrew Brown representing Van Alen Institute, and Tom Wright representing Regional Plan Association.
Saundra Thomas Welcome. I am Saundra Thomas, board member of Open House New York. Welcome to "Shaping a Better New York City: An Election Primer." In this defining and historic election, New York City's planning and design organizations have organized to convene a series of conversations with candidates vying to become New York City's next mayor. This election will require leaders that can center equitable design, planning, and development in their administration in order to shape a better NYC. Today, on behalf of AIA New York, The Architectural League of New York, the Design Trust for Public Space, Municipal Art Society, Open House New York, Regional Plan Association, known as RPA, the Urban Design Forum, and the Van Alen Institute, I'm so pleased to welcome mayoral candidate Maya Wiley to this forum. Today, I'm joined by co-moderators Andrew Brown, director of programs at Van Alen Institute, and Tom Wright, president and CEO of RPA.
Welcome. It's good to see you. The questions posed today have been developed by the eight organizations in this coalition. So let's begin, Ms. Wiley. Deep and pervasive challenges abound as New York works to build back from the pandemic and to build a more just and equitable city. The physical environment of New York plays a very important role in determining whether the people of the city can live productive and pleasurable lives. What is your vision for the physical city? Its streets and buildings and parks and waterfronts? How have you arrived at it and how will you shape it going forward? Who will you talk to? Whose voices will dominate? What sources will you draw on for ideas? Good to see you neighbor, too. We're neighbors.
Maya Wiley We are neighbors. I was going to say it's wonderful to see you. It's actually wonderful to be with all of you, and deeply, deeply appreciate the work you do. It is critically important that we think about our physical space. Let me start. There were lots of questions in there, all of which are important. But let me start by saying, you know, fundamentally I'm running for mayor, not as a politician, because I am not a politician. I'm someone who's always been a civil rights activist, a civil rights lawyer, racial justice activist, and critical and central to that has been a life's mission to dismantle structural racism. And if we understand what structural racism is, it's actually how we have made decisions and investments in this country, and in this city, in ways that have also shaped the physical space and the experience we have in the city. And I just want to give one practical example, because it does get to my vision, but I want to frame it because you asked me who and how to get to this vision. So I want to frame it the way only a racial justice advocate would, which is with the real lived experiences of people who live in this city.
And so Audie Williams is a home health aide. Now, she shows up for a man in a wheelchair, Covid or no Covid, sunshine or snowfall, and gets up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to get from central Brooklyn, which is also where I live, to Queens. It takes her two hours each way to get from Brooklyn to Queens and she's one of the lucky ones in the sense that she has a union job. She earns minimum wage and has benefits. And in the context of how she crosses the city is both where she can afford to live, what our transportation system looks like, and the fact that she has to come out of pocket on a minimum wage income, means for all of what that costs her, means that she stands in a food pantry line twice a week, despite how hard she works. And that can't be understood, separate and apart from how we make decisions, whom we make them with, and how we think about what makes this city livable and for whom. And so for me, a vision of New York City is fundamentally about livability. But livability is also about the conditions and the how people are actually able to live their lives doing the things we all do in our lives, which is everything from go to school, to work, to shop, to recreation.
And so my vision is really about whole communities, and whole communities means we have what we need in community, but we can also get to where we need to go, and we can do it without creating more problems like asthma. Right. Like contributing to asthma rates. So when we think about the physical space, I've got a very specific plan for how we start to achieve livability, which is focused on creating an Office for Open Space Management, because in a city with our density, space is a critical component to how we create livability, but also how we create justice and fairness and things like environmental health and solving transit deserts, which we must solve. All of those are open space questions and how we utilize our precious open space.
So, one, I've already committed to doubling the amount of open space we have. But using a mayoral office called an Office for Open Space Management that both de-silos government, so that we're pulling the multiple agencies together that make decisions around space, from Parks Department to Small Business Services, which people don't think about as dealing with open space. But as we've seen in the context of restaurants spilling out onto the streets, a lot of that's been SBS, Department of Transportation, and others. But so that we're actually de-siloing the way in which we're thinking about all these different functions of space.
But we're also going to center it around communities too long denied the thinking around livability and whole community and deeply impacted by Covid, which does mean communities of color, where 80 percent of the folks who have died in the city from Covid live. And where also the places where you have women like Audie Williams going two hours in each direction to get to and from work, not even able to keep food on her table through the month, despite working 40 hours, despite having a paycheck at minimum wage and benefits. So those are all components of the metrics around how we utilize and design space and the vision. And so, as you can hear in that, in addition of de-siloing government, it's also going to be heavily partnered with communities as being central to stating what they need and how they need it, because as we also know, we don't design for livability and whole community if we don't recognize it's not a one-size-fits-all, because every community already has different assets to build from, different priorities and needs. So it is going to be a partnered approach that gets city government partnering with itself as well as city partnering outside of government in order to make sure we're actually creating livability for all our people.
Saundra Thomas Thank you very much. So you brought up the community and Covid and that leads to — you've answered some of my next questions. But let me just put a little more into it. 20 percent of health outcomes depends on access to quality health care. Instead of socioeconomic factors and physical environment have the largest 80 percent impact on health. So what is your vision specifically around social systems and neighborhood infrastructure to provide equitable health outcomes for all New Yorkers?
Maya Wiley I come out of — because I come out of a framework that looks at structural racism, we look at structure, and structure means everything, right? We don't live single issue lives. And so the decisions we make have impacts, just like we made a decision as a country to invest in roads and highways, which is also what is ensured that we have cut through the economic centers and communities of color when they were thriving, bifurcating them, and then created our asthma — our little asthma islands. Right. In our climate justice plan, we've actually made center thinking about a couple of things that relates to health, particularly thinking about health as environmental health, which is, one, obviously we need renewable energy, we need to go to carbon neutral, we need all these really critical things that take on climate, the climate justice we need in a climate crisis. But recognizing that environmental justice is a central part of that means looking at things like creating an asthma plan. So we've actually said explicitly in our climate platform that we will create an asthma plan so that when you think about things like that Office of Open Space Management, we have we create the mechanism and organisms of government to actually think differently. We also talk about including a racial justice impact statement into the ULURP process as one of the ways we revise how government makes decisions around planning, around zoning, and around transit and transportation. And so that asthma plan, the Asthma Action Plan, kind of located and embedded in a climate platform, is about capturing the structural ways in which we need to think about health in conjunction with climate, in conjunction with physical space, in conjunction with climate neutrality and buildings. So all of those things come together and we create both the mechanisms and government partners, as I said, both with government and outside, but also with an explicitness to where we have the burdens overwhelmingly placed on certain communities for the problems we have not sufficiently solved. And so that we center solving the problems where the impacts and burdens have been the hardest and worst.
Saundra Thomas Thank you very much. Andrew?
Andrew Brown That's great. I'm really intrigued by this idea of the Office of Open Space Management. I want to follow up with a couple of questions related to that. So I want to ask a question about commercial vacancy specifically. And I think it gets into this issue of open space that's available for neighborhoods and communities. We all know there's an increase in commercial vacancy around the city. We also know that nonprofits could really use that space to deliver services like Covid vaccines, tax assistance, food distribution, you name it. Would you explore the idea of making some of the spaces available for community uses? And if so, getting to your ideas about these de-siloing, how do you think you would have to structure the agencies to be able to make it easier for communities to take advantage of that sort of opportunity?
Maya Wiley So this is such a — I love that question and I love it because, you know, we have to start — when we're in a crisis and especially an historic crisis like the one we are in, which is frankly just laid bare all the other crises we already face: an affordability crisis, a racial justice crisis, all the things that actually were deep issues for the city before Covid that have been deepened and fast tracked. You know, one of the opportunities we have is be transformational. The crisis actually gives us more opportunity to fix what's truly broken for people in their daily lives and experiences of the city, and open space and vacancy, specifically vacancy, obviously, it's been a huge problem for the economy. It's a huge opportunity for transformation, including not just bringing us back, but bringing us back fairer and stronger and more just. And I think Andrew, you already laid out, like some of the ideas that we have to be deploying in the context of thinking of vacancy as an opportunity now, as an opportunity. And so one of the things that we're doing is thinking about vacnacy in the context both of deeply affordable housing, classroom over crowding. You know, we have 618 schools out of our 1800 schools that are grossly overcrowded. We have to think about vacancies as interesting alternatives to create different kinds of spaces, including schools and classroom space. Right. And thinking differently about how we do schools, but also how we bring back businesses and solve problems that communities have.
So in my New Deal New York plan — now, this is a plan that is focused on both creating jobs, 100,000 new jobs, but focused on using capital construction in ways that build things we need built, and fix things we need fixed. And in that context of fixing things we need to fix is an opportunity for capital construction budget to help us utilize vacant space to do new and different things that communities need done. I've been talking to folks who have been doing cooperatives, because one of the things we built into our small business plan was more support for cooperative models. So that's everything from packaging food, food distribution, cooperative spaces for things like child care. So when we put on the lens that you just put on Andrew, which is thinking about what do communities need. Right. So taking that whole community's framework, recognizing it's not one-size-fits-all, but starting with the question of what do we need, and then what are the assets and communities that we can utilize our public resources to to help bring into fruition? It becomes: Do you need a food package? Is there a cooperative opportunity to create a community cooperative to do something the community does that it needs space for? That's something that we can do with New Deal New York.
We've talked about it in the context of creating community care centers as Drop-Off centers for children and for elderly parents who need care for family members struggling around one of the top three costs of living in the city and a considerable livability issue. But vacancy gives us the opportunity to repurpose that space. Or we can build new space if that's what a community needs. But I think the point is we see vacancy as an asset in the way that you just framed. And we have both the way we're thinking about it, as I said, in terms of open streets, but also with a New Deal New York czar, who's going to be a direct report to me to think about this $10 billion in capital construction spend and how we're creating a metrics that says what are the assets and opportunities not just for creating the jobs and doing local targeted hiring, which will do, but for using that to build, and renovate, and rehabilitate in ways that solve and solve larger problems that have been systemic, and that haven't had investment. So that really is the transformative opportunity in this crisis. And it does include vacancy.
Andrew Brown Thank you. Tom?
Tom Wright Thanks so much. I want to follow up on infrastructure. You're talking about that $10 billion capital investment. Obviously, with the American jobs program, the Biden administration is now talking about significant federal funding for infrastructure in New York City. And they've defined infrastructure, obviously, in very expansive terms, not just transportation in those transit deserts that you talked about, but housing, broadband, water, other essential services. Could you give us a sense of how you would approach these issues? How would you define the city's most important infrastructure needs? How would you work with the State and federal partners you would need? And what would you be looking to achieve over four years as mayor on these issues?
Maya Wiley Well, first of all, let me say, RPA and all of your tremendous resources — we've been reading the reports. I have for years. I think, as you know, as we've talked over the years about broadband access in particular. And I think that there is a very large body of very important work that's already been done on some of the opportunities that we have to solve some of the problems we have, including with things like the concept of what do we do about the BQE and how do we think about more bike lanes and create more bus rapid transit.
So there are all those kinds of things that are clearly front and center because, as we know, one of the histories of disinvestment, particularly in communities of color, has been access to more public transportation and transportation alternatives, because we have the slowest bus lines and longest commutes, multiple fare zones. So that obviously is something that is very near and dear to my heart, as is broadband infrastructure. Because, again, if we're going to solve some of the disinvestments that create more opportunities for livability and whole community and opportunity, broadband is as important now, as infrastructure and including creating social and economic infrastructure. So broadband is a very big one, obviously, for a Maya Wiley administration, for reasons I think some of you know. But for those of you who don't, digital divide issues have been something I've worked on as a racial justice advocate for years before City Hall; [audio unclear] showed city government how to get free broadband into every single apartment in Queensbridge Houses, paid for by the city as a public safety net. And we were working actually on a much bigger strategy.
The Biden administration is a critically important one. But let me just — I realize you asked me so many good questions and I get excited — the reality is we start with what we've learned, which there's a lot of body of work on, but also with communities that are deeply impacted around what the priorities need to be for them, right. We never just disconnect these decisions from what actually changes people's livability and experience of the city. But that does mean transportation, broadband, school class size, all of these, and then obviously climate, and renewable energy and opportunities to become a carbon neutral city. All of those are critically important infrastructure opportunities.
In terms of how to work them is really a partnership. As someone who's been a policy advocate and activist my whole career, I've actually lobbied even back in the Clinton administration on access to health care. Running the Center for Social Inclusion, we were lobbying on, you know, after the Great Recession, on the stimulus package out of the Obama administration, because, shovel ready, was going to so disinvest in so many communities of color, not intentionally, but that was the reality. But there was also the broadband opportunity. So I've got a lot of experience doing that at the federal level as well as at the local level. And when I was in the Mayor's Office, one of the critically important opportunities we had — and I actually created a staffing around this for government — was broadband lobbying at the federal level. But we did it by partnering with other cities around what we could collectively ask for in the development of what the strategies were. So that's public housing investment. So right now, that's obviously public transit, green jobs, the social infrastructure of the care economy that the Biden administration has built in, and broadband, are all things that they've already identified.
And where there's huge opportunities for us as a city to take those priorities to other cities and partner in shaping the way this develops out of the federal government, not just in terms of Congress and what it passes, which is important, but people often lose how important it is, how agencies of federal government administer it, because there's going to be lots of room. That's what I was working on with the FCC around broadband subsidy. And how they could enable the city to pool broadband subsidies for telephone use in ways that would give us resources to expand Internet access at home. So I'm saying all that because huge opportunities that we should be very excited about, both to partner with other cities, but in order to build upon these primary infrastructure needs, we have as a city.
Tom Wright Thank you. If I can follow up on that and, of course, your work on broadband is well known to us. How about though on the public housing side. And NYCHA is clearly a crisis for close to half a million New Yorkers, it's been plagued by both capital and operating challenges. The city does have a new blueprint to address the capital backlog and bring development up to a state of good repair. Are there other solutions, though, that we should be looking at to help tenants and preserve our vital public housing in New York?
Maya Wiley Short answer is yes, and the primary reason is because public housing has to stay public. But it's very hard to do that when — so, first of all, the city has to put more skin in the game. And in my New Deal New York plan, I've said I'm going to put $2 billion of that $10 billion capital spend on renovation and rehabilitation of NYCHA. That's day one. That doesn't require agreement from Albany or dollars from D.C. That's just skin in the game that says this is a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. It is a serious public health crisis and it produces the opposite of livability and dignity for our residents. But it also helps us keep it public.
But I will say, one of the biggest challenges we have, and we face as a city, is trust in government, because, as we know, NYCHA tenants, frankly, don't trust anything that is being proposed on their behalf. So a critically important part of it, and this is why I'm starting with the skin in the game the city can just put on the table, is also a governance process that says, and recreates, the transparency for residents and voice at the table around prioritizing the spend, around prioritizing the spend, because when we disconnect that from the experiences of residents, we not only deepen distrust, it makes it harder to find the other solutions in a way that can be effectively implemented. So that is my starting point — skin in the game, but real skin with $2 billion and starting to use that to create trust in governance structure around priorities on renovation and rehabilitation.
That doesn't answer the whole problem to your point. But here's the other thing that people have been missing, I think, in the opportunity we have — that is a political opportunity and a power opportunity, which is Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who I am very proud has endorsed me, but is also a firebrand and has never forgotten why she ran for public office or who she represents, and has a huge amount of public housing in her district. She is actually moving legislation that's already even been introduced into the Senate by Elizabeth Warren, by Senator Gillibrand, who has co-sponsored by Blumenthal, by Cory Booker. A whole region has already supported this plan in the Senate, but it would alone, alone, bring $32 billion to NYCHA. That's not the national number. That's the New York City number of what it would bring. The Biden administration, fortunately, and I'm excited to have seen it, did include NYCHA and did include public housing in its infrastructure package, but to a significantly lower tune. So there's a real opportunity to get billions and billions of more dollars from the federal government for NYCHA, which actually starts to change the picture on what the other solutions become for the rest of the dollars we need to get. But in a way that has already started to engage residents so that they can feel more trust and ownership in what that is. I don't think we should short shrift that.
I think when we talk about design, I think we can't forget, and this is true of democracy, that we have to design democracy too, that we have to design the engagement that actually produces the outcomes we want. And that starts also with bringing our people to the table who are impacted.
Saundra Thomas I really appreciate the thought you have put into this. It's really wonderful to hear your thoughts. So as we close today, any final words or ideas you'd like to convey regarding the future of New York City?
Maya Wiley Well, first of all, it really is a pleasure. I have benefited greatly from all of your work. So I want to both acknowledge and share my gratitude for that. This is one of the reasons why New York can do more than recover, can do more than recover, because our task is not just to recover from Covid. That is not our task. New York always recovers from crisis. The question is, do we go back to the problems we had before the crisis hit, or are we using this opportunity to reimagine the city so that we're holding on to what we love about it, which means using the opportunity to transform what was broken that most crises just lay more bare, deepen, and fasttrack. And the opportunity that we have is the assets and the assets of the city. In addition to the fact that we do have resources is that we have people, we have you, and so many others, and our residents who have done so much with so little for so long. And so I think this moment for us should be a moment of reimagining, and a recognition that that doesn't mean having all the answers because I don't have them all. I will tell you that I am running as a person who will say up front and proudly and excitedly that I don't have them all because the magic of the reimagination, of design, of rethinking the city is that we actually reimagine it together with a firm grounding on what we have to build from. And we have so very much to build from. And you all represent so much of what that is. So I'm excited. I am hopeful. And I know that this is a moment where we can finally make a different kind of history because we do more than recover.
Saundra Thomas Alright, thank you Ms. Maya Wiley for your time today and for joining this mayoral forum. Please make sure you check out all the candidate interviews and more information on Shaping NYC where you can also learn more about our organizations' work to build a better New York. Thank you so much for making the time to meet with us. It's really enlightening and illuminating.
Maya Wiley Thank you so much for all you do and be safe.
Saundra Thomas Yes. And all have a wonderful day. Take care and thank you.