June 18, 2021 Op-Ed By: Brent O’Leary, Candidate for NYC 26th Council District
Due to term limits put in by referendum, for the first time since the beginning of our city, we will have an almost entirely new government. Come January 2022, there will be a new Mayor, a new Comptroller and at least 35 of the 51 city council members will all be new.
This new government will be faced with the lingering effects of the pandemic, a shrunken revenue stream, and sense of danger that pervades the city. It is easy to see why the future of New York City will be determined shortly and why so many people I hear from are deciding whether to stay or go.
I declared my candidacy nearly three years ago; it is my deep desire to serve you in that office. But no matter who emerges from the primary— me or any of the other candidates from the large field— our next council member’s mandate is clear: they must fight to enshrine the human rights of New York City residents that have long been pushed aside and fight for the investments and policies that will make those protections undeniable.
Investments is a key word. In District 26, our needs have evolved and grown immensely, but our infrastructure — of all kinds — has not kept pace.
Addressing this, and thereby laying the groundwork for western Queens to thrive, grow, and provide for everyone, is the job of our next council member. Whoever takes office in 2022 must be ready to enact their plans to solve our safety, housing, and healthcare crises.
These are my plans and I promise to work with whoever is elected Mayor and Comptroller to make them happen for Sunnyside, Long Island City, Woodside, and Astoria.
Safety, Criminal Justice, and Policing
The expectation of safety is a human right, and the next city council member representing District 26 must promise to work with any and all partners to ensure that no one in our community should be in fear of leaving their home or being a victim of a crime.
The safety of the community, and the equitable treatment of its residents, should be the primary responsibility of our next council member.
Unlike ever before, I am hearing an undeniable sense of worry and danger about the safety of our city right now. The fear is not unfounded; Random street attacks, targeted hate crimes, and shootings appear in the news daily.
If we are to make New York City even better than before, we must address these concerns head on.
That means enacting comprehensive programs that deal with the root of crimes at their source: fighting the affordability crisis that drives people to crimes of necessity, investing in our schools and programs so people have a community and a way forward, providing small business relief where it is needed most so we can employ people locally and fairly, decriminalizing petty and nonviolent offenses so we are incarcerating less, and funding re-entry programs so that we are rehabilitating more.
For New York to thrive post-COVID, we must make our city safe by investing in the people who live in it.
This is impossible without a rebuilding of the relationship between the NYPD and the city’s residents. Comprehensive training and screening processes for officers must be mandated to eliminate bias and make sure officers are trained in proper conflict resolution measures.
We need to develop and implement alternative methods for addressing public-safety situations which our best police officers simply aren’t equipped to handle. We need to reallocate money currently paying for things like military- style weaponry or the excessive overtime expenditures.
The truth is that the money going to these things would reap exponentially greater rewards if invested in social services and alternative interventions. With steadfast humanitarian instincts, they must scrutinize our existing jails and prisons and then lead efforts for reform.
There is no excuse for the maltreatment — and exploitation, in undisguised 21st-century labor slavery — of the incarcerated, who should be provided support and resources, not made to suffer punishment on top of interaction with the justice system or the sentence it has imposed.
Housing is a human right, and whoever represents our district must believe that every person in western Queens deserves a roof over their head. I’m not saying this is an easy or simple challenge, but we also have the proven methods and models to make it happen. With aggressive action, our councilmember can take us there.
How can our council member fight to make a western Queens without a soul unhoused? We’ll need to build (and administer) truly affordable housing; fund and reform NYCHA; control out-of-control rents; and significantly strengthen the rights of tenants.
How do we establish truly affordable housing? To begin with, we have to transform the calculation by which we determine median income and affordability levels so Queens is not included in areas such as Manhattan and Westchester.
Then we must prioritize investments in the housing models that work for working people. That means investing in Community Land Trusts, Mitchell-Llama style housing, and nonprofit development contracted with trustworthy developers under favorable conditions.
Meanwhile, our councilmember must fight housing privatization. Public land must be for public use; public housing must be publicly owned and operated. The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, and all forms of privatization of NYCHA, must go the way of the Dodo. These programs don’t create housing for our communities. They develop boondoggles that make all our rents higher.
Our councilmember must advocate unabashedly for full and swift repayment of billions in outstanding federal debt to NYCHA, which can immediately go to overdue maintenance and repairs. They must fight to increase investment in supportive and transitional housing programs.
It’s time for bold policy remedies that shift the balance of power between owner- landlords and tenants. We need a Tenants’ Bill of Rights which creates clear and comprehensive protection from eviction and establishes a right to renew a lease at a rent not exceeding a predetermined increase reflecting ordinary inflationary effects, not profiteering by rank exploitation of tenants.
Realizing our values when it comes to housing will require a multitude of approaches advanced in tandem. It will take steadfast commitment to opposing powerful interest groups whose intentions for our communities do not meet our communities’ needs.
Health care is a human right, and whoever represents Sunnyside, Long Island City, Woodside, and Astoria must demand that a comprehensive health care plan is accessible to every single New Yorker.
Though there is no single path to this goal, its achievement will begin and end with our city’s public healthcare infrastructure. That infrastructure itself is strong: the NYC Health and Hospitals system, and NYC CARES program, are robust and logistically sound, and they already service tens of thousands of people every year. But, as things stand, these systems can’t, and don’t, care for every New Yorker in need.
It’s within our means to make the investment necessary to change that. Our next council member must be aggressive — no, ruthless — in leveraging their power and platform to urge passage of the New York Health Act, a bill which would provide healthcare to every New Yorker.
Should that legislation stall, our city council representative must fight for the necessary funding and budgetary measures at the city level. The advocacy cannot stop in our district though; our next city council member must engage actively with the national movement for universal healthcare; and they must ensure comprehensive care is a right of all New York City residents, including non-citizens and the incarcerated.
What District 26 Needs Most of All
The challenges facing our city are too numerous for one op-ed, but their root can be boiled down to a single problem: for too long, politicians have uplifted their own to deal with community problems instead of the community leaders who have been on the front lines fighting them.
Why are our schools underfunded? Why are our environmental resiliency initiatives failing? Why is our budget simultaneously wastefully large yet insufficient for our basic needs? City politics have slowed or stopped completely all of these initiatives.
With an entirely new city government coming into power in 2022, we have an opportunity to break the cycle and change our city for good. Who we elect next week will shape how we deal with homelessness, small business recovery, green jobs, energy independence, transportation re-development, fair taxes, and a hundred more issues that each deserve their own opinion pieces.
The future of our neighborhood and New York City is in your hands; which NYC will you choose on June 22nd?
*Brent O’Leary is a candidate running for City Council in the 26th District