As Mayor Eric Adams and his team scramble to respond to a surge of migrants from Central and South America, the City Council has been shut out of most of the planning, says Speaker Adrienne Adams, who added the executive branch is in “panic mode” that has stymied any collaboration between the two sides of government.
“We’re going to have to be very proactive against what’s been a very reactive administration,” Speaker Adams said in a wide-ranging interview with THE CITY. “So if we have to do that as the grownups in the room, then we’ve got to do that.”
The Council doesn’t necessarily have the power to take immediate action like the mayor’s office and its agencies do, but the 51-member body does have oversight and legislative authority, including allocating money from its budget to address the crisis.
Speaker Adams told THE CITY that the Council has largely been cut out of any planning or conversations as the city works to house tens of thousands of people who’ve recently arrived by bus and by plane, seeking asylum in the United States and a place to sleep in New York.
“The reaction to the panic is what’s taken over right now. The planning — as far as we can see in the Council, there is no real planning,” Speaker Adams said of the mayor’s handling of the more than 60,000 migrants who’ve come to New York City in the last year.
The Council has focused on longer-term housing solutions, she told THE CITY, also touching on it during her testimony Tuesday on the executive budget.
“While the administration continues to justify agency budget cuts as a result of the costs to assist asylum seekers, the reality is that many investments missing from the budget would be solutions to the current challenges facing our city,” she said.
The Council is also set to vote Thursday on a package of bills that aim to make it easier for people to find housing and leave the city’s homeless shelter system by, for example, changing income other qualifications to receive vouchers — including one that requires applicants to have lived in a city shelter for at least 90 days.
But Mayor Adams opposes the bills, saying the changes would be too costly because they would get more people onto tax-payer funded housing vouchers more quickly.
“We’re committed to continuing to make it easier for New Yorkers to move into permanent housing, however, these bills will not only cost New York City an estimated $17 billion over the next five years — adding billions onto the backs of New York taxpayers — but will force the creation of a waiting list for vouchers, eliminating the prioritization of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness for housing subsidies,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s chief housing officer, Jessica Katz, announced on Wednesday she would leave the administration in July, reportedly over its opposition to the housing bills.
Speaker Adams says the answer to the shelter crisis is an easier pipeline to independent living.
“We had some things in mind to move residents out into permanent housing, let’s get rid of the bureaucracy,” Speaker Adams told THE CITY. “We’ve got to be the planners. We’ve got to be the ones that are now proactive.”
The Council has been at odds with the mayor throughout the migrant crisis, criticizing the facilities for migrants and the mayor’s argument that the cost of the crisis requires budget cuts and staff reductions across city agencies.
They have also been critical of what they say has been bad communication from the mayor’s side of City Hall about what’s happening — which Speaker Adams said has restricted her members from offering much help.
“Everybody knew that Title 42 was going to expire. Why are we now sitting back in total crisis mode 100 times over?” she said, referring to the recently expired pandemic era federal doctrine that allowed the U.S. to more easily deny entry to people crossing into the country. “They should have seen this coming for a very, very long time.”
“This crisis requires an all-hands on deck approach and the mayor has been clear we need everyone to roll up their sleeves and help respond to this crisis,” Levy said. “We welcome suggestions from our partners who want to aid those in need, but we need solutions, not just complaints about where shelters should be placed. We will continue to communicate with local elected officials as we open more sites, as we have since day one.”
Finding Her Voice
The Council continues with its budget negotiations through June, wrapping up hearings this week with public testimony. Last year, members wound up apologizing for passing a budget without seeming to realize there were extensive cuts to the education’s budget. The Council later fought to have the cuts restored.
The speaker said they are proceeding very differently this year.
“There aren’t going to be any surprises about what the Council wants, what the Council expects, what the Council is going to get, as far as our priorities are concerned,” she vowed.
“We know who we’re at the table with this year. Last year, it wasn’t quite clear.”
Adams is in her second year as speaker and running again for re-election for her seat in the 28th District, representing southeast Queens neighborhoods including Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Rochdale Village, and South Ozone Park. She is running uncontested in June’s Democratic primary.
Leading as the first Black speaker, representing a majority-women Council, many who are first-time legislators, has been the proudest job in her career, she said.
“Taking a look at my colleagues, we really have come into this thing together,” she said. “The majority of council members have come into governing for the first time in their lives.”
Adams, who grew up in Hollis and went to Bayside High School with the mayor, entered politics after jobs in the private sector, including a stint as a flight attendant after graduating from Spelman College in Atlanta. She then worked at various companies doing telecommunications management and corporate training before taking a break at the suggestion of her husband Joseph — who she first met at St. Pascal’s elementary school and reconnected with years later.
She found her future in politics at a chapter meeting for her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, where she was given the name “Songbird,” which she uses for some projects in the speaker’s office, she said.
At one of the alumni gatherings she met Adjoa Gzifa, who at the time was the chair of Community Board 12 in southeast Queens.
“I checked out a few meetings — and loved it,” Adams recalled: “This is real people talking about my stop sign or talking about potholes.” She then became the chair of the board’s education committee at a time when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was co-locating or closing schools in her neighborhood.
“That’s where I found my voice,” she said.
“I’m watching our kids going into different schools begging the [Panel for Educational Policy], who are sitting their with their Blackberries ignoring our kids, while I’m watching these kids crying into microphones saying ‘Please don’t close my schools.’”
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards first met Adams through the community board, when he worked for State Sen. James Sanders, and said he refers to her as his “big sister.”
“She’s really coming into her own and one way I measure that is how are you defending your institution, how are you defending your members, how are you defending your principals, how are you defending the least among us,” he said.
Richards said Adams has “sharpened” over the last year, especially in her dealings with the mayor.
“I know the job is hard, I know it’s not easy on her,” he said.
Mrs. and Mr. Adams
“We have a strong mayor – we all come from the same neighborhood,” Richards said. “They went to Bayside together, but she also has a job to do.”
That two of the most powerful people in city government are the same age, have the same last name, and rode the Q31 bus together to the same high school is “unparalleled” in the context of the city’s history, Speaker Adams said. And “weird,” she admits.
“We’ve known each other since we were kids, literally,” said Adams, whose maiden name is Eadie (her husband isn’t related to the mayor, either).
“We were never in the same cliques or anything like that, but we just knew … there weren’t that many Black folks at Bayside High when we were attending so that always tends to bring folks together – if not in name but certainly in sight.” (The speaker will return to Bayside in June to give the keynote address, with her nephew as a graduate, she said.)
The now-speaker says she admirably watched the future mayor’s rise, first as a leader in the New York City Police Department, then in the state senate and as Brooklyn Borough President.
“I had a lot of pride, and I still do, in his ascension and in his accomplishments,” she said.
“We realize where we are right now in history as to Black leaders in New York City.”
But while they have “tremendous respect” for each other, they both recognize they have different styles, she said.
“The practicality when it comes down to the work is we’re two totally different leaders,” Adams said.
The pair recently publicly diverged in their responses to the killing of Jordan Neely, who was choked to death on a subway car. While Mayor Adams was initially criticized for his response to the video, and later was criticized for a public address on his killing, the speaker released a statement condemning the action within days.
“When that happened to that young man on the subway, all I could think about was my son and my grandsons,” she said. “And all I could be in that moment was a mother … all I could see was the dehumanization of a Black man.”
Adams says one of the guiding forces in her life is her Christian faith. She’s a member of the Greater Allen AME Church in Jamaica and says she starts every morning with the same prayer: “Order my steps in your will and your way and make me the best me that I can be…”
For the speaker, her faith shows itself through different ways, she said. And her faith is again contrasted with that of Mayor Adams, who has said multiple times that God was directly behind his path to politics.
“If our mayor said that God told him to run for mayor, who am I to say that God didn’t tell him?” she said, noting that she often finds inspiration in certain Bible passages or through dreams.
She hasn’t committed to running for higher office in the future, something every previous Council speaker has tried — and failed — to do.
“I keep saying ‘25 and out’ So that’s been my mantra,” she said, referring to the year 2025 when her term is up. She didn’t want to rule anything out, especially as she continues to work her current job.
“I don’t want anything to cloud me from doing what I have to do right now.”