City Council members feeling the squeeze from high rents at their district offices got help last month from Speaker Adrienne Adams, who said she would pick up part of the tab in the upcoming budget.
The change will allow the 51-member body to direct more money to their staff salaries, addressing longstanding complaints over low wages for employees, according to Council members and the newly-formed union that represents staff.
“All members had the same budget, as you know, but because real estate values across the city differ, costs differ and some members had more funds available after paying rent than others,” Speaker Adams said in March, after her office released the Council’s budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Previously each member was given a flat amount of $521,000 to pay for everything including rent, utilities, supplies and workers. But leases vary widely across the city, and that meant some Council members had fewer funds with which to retain staff, she said.
Going forward, district office rents will be paid out of the Council’s central budget, at a cost of approximately $3.5 million.
“This ensures equity across the board for all of our members,” she said.
For Council members, it’s a chance to pay their staffers more money — with low pay being one of the driving factors that led to a historic unionization of hundreds of City Council aides last summer.
“What we want to do is review this terrific investment and make sure that the gains really are maximized for the staff that need it the most,” Daniel Kroop, the president of the Association of Legislative Employees, told THE CITY.
The change in rental payments “shows the impact of having a union in the City Council,” he added.
Republican Councilmember Joann Ariola, who has two offices in her large district that includes parts of southern Queens and the Rockaway peninsula, said the rent funding change lets her retain good staff by paying them more.
“It will make it more affordable for our staff to be able to provide for our families, and it’s an incentive to stay — we have better longevity with our team,” she said. “I’m very happy to have this money freed up in my budget.”
Levels of Readiness
Supported and competent staffers are a crucial part of Council members’ constituent services role — directly helping the people of their district.
During the pandemic, all elected officials have had to balance those duties with the health and safety concerns posed by in-person gatherings. Adams herself said she tested positive for COVID on Friday.
Currently, the Council still has restrictions on how many people can be inside a constituent office, and each visitor has to pass a health screening.
Council hearings are also still mostly remote, as permitted by Gov. Kathy Hochul extending emergency orders first signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Once that order is lifted, they will begin to start holding press conferences in person, a spokesperson for the speaker’s office said. The current order expires next week but has been continually reinstated throughout the pandemic.
At district offices, meanwhile, availability and in-person hours vary widely by Council member. Some require appointments, while others will take whomever walks in.
Some are fully open, some hybrid, and others fully remote, calls made to every district office by THE CITY revealed.
Some of the newer members haven’t even opened their offices yet, chalking up the delay to renovations required to make bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some say they’ve just had bad luck.
Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn) took over former Councilmember Steve Levin’s office just as a new owner took over the building on Atlantic Avenue, he said.
There was then a major leak in his office’s conference room, making the space “uninhabitable,” he said. He plans to open up for the first time on April 11, and will also be hosting pop-up office hours at two locations in his district four times a month.
A spokeswoman for Councilmember Julie Menin, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan, said the rent at the Upper East Side office previously held by Ben Kallos more than doubled to nearly $10,000 a month when she went to take the lease over.
After finding a new space in February, that new landlord pulled out of the deal right before the lease was signed, she said. So she moved on to a third location.
“We are now in the final stages of lease negotiations and will be moving into the new office very shortly,” the spokesperson said.
The average monthly rent for Council district offices from July through the end of 2021 was $4,890, according to an analysis from the speaker’s office. The lowest rent was $1,350 and the highest was $8,430, they said.
A Vital Link
The district office is one of the most significant places for a Council member, offering a “vital link” between constituents and those who represent them, according to Mitchell Moss, an urban policy and planning professor at New York University.
“Most New Yorkers have never been to City Hall. New Yorkers live in neighborhoods which have become more, not less important, over the past two years,” he told THE CITY.
“In fact, the local neighborhoods have been the city’s source of strength during the pandemic.”
For Restler, the Brooklyn Council member, although he’s adapted to addressing needs remotely, nothing can replace having a space for residents to come by, he said.
“We’re eager to be back on Atlantic and for people to be able to stop in and say hello and work through documents and different issues,” he said.