Corey Johnson is loving being in the City Council. Photos by Tequila Minsky
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Not a freeze — but a rollback!
City Councilmember Corey Johnson said he’s hoping for nothing less than that from the Rent Guidelines Board when it decides in three months on lease-renewal terms for rent-regulated apartments for the next two years.
A rent freeze is unprecedented in the history of New York City rent regulation. But a rollback — an actual rent reduction for tenants — is simply unheard of.
Yet, this is something that’s achievable, Johnson firmly believes. He’s part of the Real Rent Reform Campaign, which is working hard to turn back the tide of landlord wins.
Rent-regulation laws protect the affordability of 1 million apartments in New York City.
“I think there should be a rent rollback,” Johnson said. “For years, landlords have gotten — depending on the year — what were unwarranted increases. Even if you look at this last winter, heating prices are way down because the cost of heating oil is way down.”
Johnson made his remarks last Friday during an interview with The Villager at the Good Stuff Diner, on W. 14th St. near Sixth Ave. The eatery is fittingly on the border between the Village and Chelsea, the two neighborhoods at the heart of Johnson’s West Side Council District 3.
Last year, six months into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term in office, the R.G.B. passed historically low increases of 1 percent for one-year lease renewals, and 2.75 percent for 2-year leases. De Blasio had vowed to push for a freeze, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
Since its creation in 1969, the R.G.B. had never passed increases of less than 2 percent and 4 percent.
In an encouraging sign, Johnson noted, de Blasio recently appointed three new members to the guidelines board, which could help sway the vote.
“Two of them are public members who look pretty promising,” Johnson said, “that they would support a rent freeze or a rent rollback. The other is a landlord.”
And rent freezes, in fact, have happened before — in Westchester and Nassau County — the councilmember noted.
Holds panel on R.G.B.
Two weeks ago, the R.G.B. held its first meeting, one of a series that will culminate in their final vote — before the usual raucous crowd of tenants and landlords — at a date in June to be determined. The evening before, Johnson had convened a panel discussion at P.S. 3 in the Village entitled, “Reforming the Rent Guidelines Board.”
Among the four tenant activists on Johnson’s panel was attorney Tim Collins, who was executive director of the R.G.B. from 1987 through 1994.
Last May, Collins testified before the R.G.B., that from 2008 to 2013, the board “indefensibly inflated” the projected operating costs for landlords, leading to excessive rent hikes each year.
“Between 2008 and 2011 the average amount of rent paid by stabilized tenants jumped from 31.6 percent to 34.9 percent of household income — the highest rent burdens ever recorded,” Collins testified. “More than one in three stabilized households now devote more than half of their income to rent.”
Collins told the guidelines board that there is only one way to “get things back on track.”
“The board must act boldly and without hesitation to roll back rents,” he declared. “The needless burdens imposed on tenants over the past five years must be lifted as quickly and as fully as possible.”
In short, Collins said what is warranted is an “across-the-board rollback” of 4 percent on all leases — or, alternatively, a rollback of 6 percent on one-year lease renewals and 2 percent on two-year renewals.
‘Look at the data’
“The R.G.B. has to look at the data in terms of landlords’ expenses,” Johnson stressed. “But in the past, the R.G.B. didn’t care what the numbers said — ‘Just put in the increase.’ They favored landlords over tenants.
“I think we have the best possibility that ever existed to get a rollback,” he said. “And it would be a real disappointment and a lost opportunity, if we don’t.”
Similarly, in his State of the City speech in February, Mayor de Blasio said it’s not tenable that so many New Yorkers are paying from 30 percent to 50 percent of their income toward rent.
Johnson, 32, is feeling the crunch, too, in his studio apartment — and not just because it’s such a tight space.
“I live in a 319-square-foot apartment — it’s tiny,” he said. “And my rent just went up to $2,700 a month, which is outrageous.
“It’s emblematic of what’s happening all over the city,” he said. “Which is why I feel the most important thing that can happen in Albany is the repeal of vacancy decontrol. We’ve lost too many rent-regulated apartments.”
Currently, apartments can be decontrolled when the rent hits $2,500 if they become vacant or the tenant earns more than $200,000 annually.
Corey Johnson with residents at the Westbeth artists’ affordable housing complex, at West and Bethune Sts. The councilmember warned that the place’s board of directors better “stop hiding the documents” from residents.
Works with Westbeth
Also on housing, Johnson said, he’s incensed at what’s going on at the Westbeth artists’ housing complex, where the board of directors has sued to stop the residents from getting access to public records from the state Attorney General’s Office.
“The corporation and the board at Westbeth should stop hiding the documents and be transparent,” Johnson stated. “And they should stop warehousing apartments and start occupying them with artists who need affordable housing.
“The board should listen to the Westbeth Artists Residents Council’s recommendations. They should listen to the people who live in the building — the will of the population that lives at Westbeth.”
Clearly, rent regulation and affordable housing are among the issues on the front burner for Johnson. But the interview at the diner was broader, about Johnson’s first year — plus a couple of months — in office, and the full range of issues he and his constituents have worked on and will be working on.
A major concern, for example, is the mayor’s new “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” plan, which has blindsided many communities. The plan would allow for taller buildings in so-called “contextual zones.” If developers include affordable housing this would garner a square-footage bonus — but they could also build higher even with 100 percent market-rate housing.
“I am a huge proponent of affordable housing,” Johnson said. “But we cannot undermine years of negotiation, compromise, tradeoffs that created certain contextual zoning districts in pursuit of an affordable housing plan. It needs to be tailored to the neighborhoods.
“In West Chelsea, there’s a 70-foot height limit,” he said. “That took years and years of compromise and negotiation. The one-size-fits-all solution undermines all that community activism and neighborhood planning.”
‘Today’s defining issue’
However, the biggest issue the city is grappling with right now is income inequality, in Johnson’s opinion.
“Forty percent of New Yorkers are living near or below the poverty line,” he said. “Rents are going up, food costs are going up, subway fares are going up and wages have remained either stagnant or gone down. This is the defining issue of our time — as a city and as a country. The rich are getting richer as everyone else falls behind.”
To help address this situation, de Blasio and the Council passed the paid sick-leave bill, which covers an additional 400,000 New Yorkers, and the city is building more affordable housing.
In addition, Johnson firmly believes that the city’s minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour, which is what the mayor also supports. However, Governor Andrew Cuomo only wants to raise it to $11.50 in the city and $10.50 for the rest of the state.
“De Blasio wants local control, where the city sets its own minimum wage,” Johnson noted. “And, if that happens, I would support $15 an hour — like they just passed in Seattle. Families can’t support themselves on $11.50 an hour — it’s basic,” he stressed.
Busy passing bills
Johnson — who chairs the Council’s Health Committee — is proud that he passed five bills last year, the most of any councilmember other than the Finance Committee chairperson, whose position lends itself to bill passing.
One of his bills protects domestic-violence survivors by cutting through multi-agency bureaucracy and making it easier for them to get placed in shelters.
Another bill Johnson got through requires pet shops to spay / neuter and microchip their dogs and cats.
Another piece of Johnson legislation now allows people to change their birth certificates to accurately reflect their gender identity.
“It’s a big deal for transgender people,” he noted. “You used to need surgery certificates.”
Johnson co-chairs the Council’s Manhattan delegation with Margaret Chin.
No contact with Quinn
Asked about the once-powerful Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who previously represented District 3, Johnson said, no, he is not in contact with her at all.
“She’s at Harvard, at the Kennedy government school, and she works for the governor, so she’s in Albany,” he said.
Facing term limits, Quinn ran for mayor in 2013, and finished a disappointing third, with 15.5 percent of the vote, behind de Blasio and Bill Thompson.
On the other hand, Johnson said, he is tight with former state Senator Tom Duane, who held the Council seat before Quinn and was her political mentor — and apparently now is Johnson’s, too, to an extent.
“I’m very close with Tom Duane,” Johnson said. “We talk all the time. He’s the definition of a mensch. I rely on him for advice all the time. There’s no one with a bigger or better heart.”
For his part, Duane is doing nonprofit consulting these days.
Johnson is proud to have introduced a bill, called HASA for All, that would extend H.I.V./AIDS Service Administration benefits — notably housing — to all low-income, H.I.V.-positive New Yorkers. HASA was created by Duane in the 1990s.
Of course, a huge issue anywhere in the southern half of Manhattan is development. District 3 sports the Hudson Yards mega-project, among others, which is creating an entire new neighborhood in the far West 30s.
“I have more development in my district than anyone else,” Johnson said.
Corey Johnson makes a point while talking with residents at Westbeth in the West Village.
On the waterfront
A lot of that development is actually in Hudson River Park. For starters, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg have committed to funding the construction of Pier55, a glitzy new landscaped “performing-arts pier” at W. 13th St. A nonprofit headed by Diller has gotten a lease from the Hudson River Park Trust to run the pier for 20 years.
“There needs to be community input on Pier55,” Johnson stressed, “and it needs to be accessible and open to people who live in the community. … And they also have to preserve the historic archway there, which is where the Titanic’s survivors were brought.”
Meanwhile, a few blocks north, construction is slated to start this year on Pier 57 to transform it into an artisanal-foods market and shopping destination. The pier will also be home to the Tribeca Film Festival, plus feature small playing fields for kids.
Pier 76, at W. 36th St., the city’s tow pound, will also be redeveloped as part of the park.
And things are finally getting rolling on Gansevoort Peninsula. The Department of Sanitation recently relocated its garbage trucks from Gansevoort to a newly completed mega-garage for three sanitation districts at Spring and Washington Sts. Meanwhile, at the peninsula, demolition has started on what’s left of the old incinerator building, which served as the trucks’ garage.
A nine-member community advisory group, or “CAG,” has been set up to weigh in on Gansevoort’s redevelopment into a park. The mayor, borough president and Johnson each have three appointees on the CAG. Johnson recently appointed Adam Weinberg, the president of the Whitney Museum, and George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Artists Residents Council.
Marine waste transfer
A big issue concerning Gansevoort will be the marine waste-transfer station that is still planned to share space with the park on the peninsula. The recyclables would be barged from Gansevoort to the city’s new recycling facility in Sunset Park. The plan was for the state and city each to give $25 million to the Trust in return for “alienating” part of the peninsula’s parkland for use for the transfer station. However, Assemblymember Deborah Glick has previously told The Villager that the state feels it shouldn’t pay anything since the waste plan is a city issue.
Johnson noted that the volume of garbage trucks going to Gansevoort — since it would only be for recyclables — at least would be less than that expected at the garbage transfer station on the Upper East Side.
Scoping out Pier 40
And then, of course, there is Pier 40, at W. Houston St. — the Lower West Side’s crumbling “sports pier” — and the issue of development-rights transfers from the pier across the highway to the St. John’s Center site. The funds from the sale would then be funneled back into Pier 40, to fix the badly corroded metal piles that hold up the massive, 14-acre structure.
“We are still not close to certification of the ULURP,” Johnson reported of the city’s seven-month-long review process. “The ULURP is for two things: the mechanism that allows for transfer of air rights from Pier 40 to the St. John’s Building, that’s a zoning text amendment; and a zoning map change, to change the St. John’s site’s use from manufacturing to residential.
“We’re working with the Trust and City Planning,” he continued. “There’s got to be a scoping process — that’s pre-ULURP. The scoping will determine the size of the project and what the environmental impact is going to be, and which type of environmental study will be done, an E.I.S. or an E.A.S.; and the Trust has to have an appraisal of the air rights.”
Is the ‘rights price’ right?
Earlier reports said that Atlas Capital Group had committed to buying $100 million worth of unused development rights from Pier 40. The pier apparently has 250,000 square feet of unused air rights, which would then translate to $400 per square foot, which some say is low considering surrounding real estate prices.
Asked his thoughts on that figure, Johnson said, “I would hope that whatever the air rights will be sold for will cover the whole cost of rehabilitating Pier 40. That is why the legislation was passed.
“Forty percent of the revenue for the whole park — from Chambers to 59th Sts. — comes from the parking on Pier 40,” he emphasized.
Hope for a hospital
During his primary campaign against Yetta Kurland in 2013, the two candidates engaged in a debate sponsored by The Villager and its sister papers, Gay City News and Chelsea Now. At the debate, Johnson and Kurland both pledged that, no matter who won, they would work together to try to restore a full-service hospital to the Lower West Side. They shook hands on it.
Asked last Friday where that effort stands today, Johnson said, “We still need a full-service hospital on the Lower West Side — no ifs, ands or buts.”
At the same time, he said, “There are hospitals being closed down all over New York City. We’ve lost 13 hospitals in the last 10 years. This is a public-health crisis. Unfortunately, New York City does not control our own fate when it comes to hospital services — the state Department of Health does, and they’re the ones that shamefully allowed St. Vincent’s Hospital to close.”
Plus, he added of getting a new hospital, “Even if you put cost aside, you need to find real estate for it.
“They should have been forced to put a full-service hospital with a Level 1 trauma center on that site,” he said.
On another health issue — but affecting animals — how about the carriage horses? Their stables are in Johnson’s district.
“I think the horses should be moved to Central Park,” he said, reiterating the position he has held for a while now.
“The current bill is a ban,” he explained. “I think we should seek a compromise, to get them off the street and confine them to Central Park. The horses would never leave Central Park.”
What about the claim, though, by Allie Feldman of NYCLASS — the anti-carriage horse group — that if the horses are put in the park they would need a lot of space — about 70 acres of the famed 800-acre greensward — for a stable and pasture? This would effectively transform a large chunk of the park into the O.K. Corral. Feldman argues that, as a result, the idea would never fly.
Unblinking, Johnson simply repeated that he thinks the urban equines should be put in the park.
Finally, he mentioned that he’s very excited about participatory budgeting. His district’s constituents — anyone over age 14 — can vote on how they think $1 million in City Council funding should be allocated among 12 projects in District 3. Voters can support giving all the money to one project, or split it up among several.
Twenty-three Council districts are currently doing this, and it’s the first time it’s being done in District 3.
The projects include adding a bathroom for the first time ever in the Jefferson Market Public Library, countdown clocks at bus stations and other various improvements for parks, schools and streets.
Voting will take place April 11-19 at several locations throughout the district, including the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, the L.G.B.T. Center, Hudson Guild, Fulton Houses and Johnson’s office. Check http://council.nyc.gov/d3/html/members/pb3.shtml#vote for details.
The son of a Teamster, Johnson famously came out as gay while he was captaining his high school football team in Massachusetts, which landed him on the cover of The New York Times.
With an impressive grasp of the issues and a firm bead on the political landscape, he certainly has the air of a natural politician. In that vein, when he was running for City Council, he earnestly told The Villager, “This is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Paving the way to his Council campaign, he had previously boldly leapfrogged a more-veteran contender to win the chairpersonship of Community Board 4.
Asked how he likes being an elected official now, he said, “I love the Council. I love it. I say this with every fiber, every ounce. Sure, there are days that are difficult. It is a complete and total honor to serve these neighborhoods and this community as a whole.”
And, at the end of the day, a councilmember has to have fun, too. A song came on the diner’s sound system, and Johnson suddenly was lightly singing along to the lyrics as he bopped a bit in his seat.
“Kelly Clarkson,” he said, beaming a smile.
Corrections: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated that both the city and state would need to pay $50 million to “alienate” part of Gansevoort Peninsula for the marine waste transfer station. In fact, the total payment to the Hudson River Park Trust would be $50 million — with the city and state theoretically each paying $25 million. In addition, the article stated that the price Atlas Capital Group would pay for Pier 40’s unused development rights would be $100 per square foot. In fact, it would be $400 per square foot. Also, the article stated that Tom Duane passed HASA in the 1980s, but he did this in the ’90s.