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Bill de Blasio’s Unfinished Business

Bill de Blasio
Mayor de Blasio held a news conference inside of Trump Tower on May 13, 2019.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is expected to announce his run for the Democratic nomination for president Thursday, is likely to serve up a very local campaign promise: a pledge to New Yorkers he’ll be able to do his day-and-night job while vying for the highest office in the land.

As he gets set to spend time in New Hampshire, Iowa and beyond, de Blasio has yet to fulfill some key promises to New Yorkers and is grappling with some urgent city projects that are either behind schedule or have deadlines approaching.

Here are seven to watch:

New Leadership for NYCHA

On Jan. 30, de Blasio and U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson announced an unprecedented agreement for a federal monitor to oversee the city’s long-troubled housing authority. De Blasio is already behind schedule on the NYCHA to-do list — starting with the crucial selection of a new chairperson for the embattled agency.

Housing Secretary Ben Carson and  Mayor Bill de Blasio sign a deal to have a new federal monitor oversee NYCHA, Jan. 31, 2019.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Mayor Bill de Blasio in January.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Federal housing officials and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney were supposed to come up with a list of qualified candidates, from which de Blasio would make a selection by April 1. That was extended to May 16, but on Monday de Blasio announced a new deadline: June 30. NYCHA remains under interim chairwoman Kathryn Garcia, who is still the city’s Sanitation Department commissioner.

Meanwhile, the monitor, Bart Schwartz, who was appointed Feb. 28, was supposed to pick a third-party consultant to do a thorough examination of NYCHA’s management structure within 60 days. That May 1 deadline came and went, with a spokesperson for the mayor saying a hire would be announced “soon.” It hasn’t happened yet.

Fresh Approach to Mental Health Crisis

De Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, have repeatedly touted their dedication to overhauling how the city responds to people experiencing mental health crises.

In April 2018, responding to the fatal police shooting of Saheed Vassell in Brooklyn, the mayor and McCray announced the formation of a new Task Force on Crisis Prevention & Response — promising “a comprehensive strategy to prevent these situations from escalating and enhance the City’s crisis response system.”

They said this group of appointees would generate a report within six months outlining policies and protocols to improve the city’s response to individuals with mental illness. There’s still no report — or at least, no public report.

The Task Force submitted a draft of recommended reforms back in December. On Wednesday, mayoral spokesperson Marcy Miranda said, “We are reviewing the findings and will have more to say soon.”

Chirlane McCray
First Lady Chirlane McCray spoke about the Thrive NYC program at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in September 2018.
Deidre Schoo/Mayoral Photo Office

Under ThriveNYC, a multi-agency program run by McCray, about one-third of the NYPD has been trained on how to deal with people experiencing acute episodes of mental illness – far fewer than originally promised. Meanwhile, a helpline in effect during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure was greatly expanded, and more than 100,000 volunteers have been given basic training in how to respond to a person in crisis.

But the results have been difficult to quantify. Officials say they’ve spent $565 million on various ThriveNYC programs in its first four years. They also said last month they plan to trim the program’s projected 2020 spending — originally set at $250 million — but have yet to detail which of its services will be impacted.

A Property Tax Fix

Two years ago, a coalition called Tax Equity Now NY filed a class-action lawsuit against the de Blasio administration, arguing the city’s outdated property tax system is racially biased and gives breaks to wealthy property owners over the middle class.

De Blasio promised to reform the system — but only after his re-election five months later.

In May 2018, de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced the formation of an advisory tax commission, co-chaired by former Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been and former Bloomberg Deputy Mayor and current CUNY Interim Chief Operating Officer Marc Shaw.

Been, who has since been named a Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, is no longer a co-chair of the commission.

The tax commission has held five hearings — one in each borough — to get public feedback. It has also convened three hearings where experts testified on specific issues and two gatherings to hear presentations and overviews from administration officials and Council staff.

More hearings are set for the coming weeks, and the commission is supposed to release its recommendations this calendar year.

New Homeless Shelters

In February 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to open 90 new homeless shelters — “about 20 new shelters annually over the next five years,” a press release said. This marked an about-face and an acknowledgment that the record homeless population needed full-service temporary housing.

Homeless Shelter
A shelter in a former hotel near Ferry Point Park in The Bronx.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

So far, the Department of Social Services has opened 23 shelters, and announced sites for 20 more. “We’re confident that we’re on track to hit the goals of our five-year plan — and expect to announce more sites soon, stay tuned,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.

Part of the point of building new shelters was to phase out the city’s cluster program, which provides short-term apartments to people in the shelter system without accompanying services. The administration has reduced the number of cluster units from roughly 3,600 to 1,400 in the past two years.

But to do that, the city has revived and widely expanded a controversial program that places homeless families at commercial hotels — at a cost of $364 million per year. There are currently 11,200 homeless people spread across a total of 86 hotels, in every borough, out of a total shelter count of 58,624 as of Monday.

A Trolley to Link Brooklyn and Queens

A 2016 proposal to link the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront with a streetcar line has been among de Blasio’s signature transportation projects.

But the $2.7 billion BQX — for Brooklyn-Queens Connector — is still a long way from its destination. The project has been delayed, rerouted, gone up in price and run into funding obstacles, though the city’s Economic Development Corporation insists the streetcar is still a go.

Construction had been slated to start in 2019, though that’s now been pushed back to 2024, with the goal of having streetcars run along a shorter route than initially proposed, going from Astoria to Red Hook instead of Sunset Park.

BQX Announcement
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces the BQX light rail line plan in Brooklyn, on February 2016.
Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

Originally tabbed at $2.5 billion, the BQX is now the subject of an environmental impact study and must clear several more hurdles before construction begins. In 2017, de Blasio’s dreamed-of streetcar line did come off the drawing board, if only for the unveiling of a two-car prototype at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

But in April 2018, a significant hurdle emerged. After saying for years that the city could fund the entire project using revenue generated by development spurred by the trolley line, de Blasio announced federal financial support would also be necessary.

In December, the mayor told WNYC radio, “I think that federal funding will be there in the not too distant future and that’s going to allow us to get going.”

TLC for the BQE

De Blasio last year backed a plan to shut the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for up to six years in order to rebuild the stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway beneath it.

But in the face of public pressure, the mayor last month shifted into neutral, opting instead to have a 16-member “expert panel” consider other options on how to replace a 1.5-mile long stretch of the BQE.

“The BQE is a lifeline for Brooklyn and the entire city — which is why we are bringing in a panel of nationally renowned experts from a range of fields to vet all ideas and make sure we get this right,” he said.

Drivers head north on the BQE in Brooklyn Heights, April 15, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

More than 150,000 vehicles daily cross the city-owned stretch of the interstate highway, which was completed in 1954. A 2016 study from consultants hired by the city concluded that the stretch of the BQE must be rebuilt by 2026, or face weight restrictions that could prohibit trucks and divert them onto Brooklyn Heights streets.

Diversifying Specialized High Schools

In June 2018, de Blasio announced a plan to scrap the entrance exams used to determine placement at eight of the city’s top high schools, where black and Hispanic students comprise fewer than 10 percent of the student population.

“We can fix this, and we intend to in New York City,” the mayor said then.

But little has changed since, other than an increased uproar from both supporters and opponents of the plan.

Brooklyn Tech
Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

State law mandates the use of the entrance exam, known as the SHSAT, as the sole entrance criteria at three of the eight schools – but de Blasio is among a minority who contend it applies to the remaining five.

Albany lawmakers didn’t approve legislation introduced at de Blasio’s behest last year that would have phased out the exam over three years, and selected the top 7% of students from every middle school instead.

The legislation has fared no better in 2019 — even with control of the state Senate newly shifted from Republican to Democrat.

The city in April only slightly boosted the number of high-performing black and Hispanic students invited to attend a summer prep academy called the “Discovery Program,” which offers an alternate way into the specialized high schools for students at high-poverty schools. The mayor’s plan is to expand the program so that it fills 20% of seats at each of the eight schools by 2020.

But the wider fix is still at the crux of a heated debate.

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