Q&A: Brad Lander On His Run for City Council

About a month ago news hit that housing advocate Brad Lander was going to run for Bill De Blasio’s spot on the City Council. Since 2003, Lander has been the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development; prior to joining the Pratt Center, he served as the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee for a decade. We asked him to give us the lowdown on his Council run, as well as some housing issues, and here’s what he had to say:

Why’ve you decided to run for Council? How long has your run been in the works?

brad-lander-headshot-2007.JPGI’m running for City Council because I love our Brooklyn neighborhoods, but fear that much of what I value about being a Brooklynite is under threat. We’ve got a tremendously diverse mix of people, public treasures like Prospect Park, some great public schools, neighborhood shopping strips with small businesses who care enough to give us umbrellas when it rains, and passionate civic activism. But much of this is threatened by skyrocketing real estate prices, out-of-control development, and growing inequality.

In fifteen years as a not-for-profit director, a builder of affordable housing, a city planner, and a community organizer, I’ve worked with hundreds of residents, activists, and advocates with tremendous commitment, street smarts, and savvy to confront these challenges. But I’ve only seen a handful of public officials that come anywhere close to matching that grassroots passion.

I really believe that so much more is possible if we can pair community action with strategic work at a citywide level by elected officials. We can preserve the affordability and livability or our neighborhoods. We can create opportunity for a much wider range of people through good schools and a fairer economy. I’m running for City Council to bring people together around these common values and shared interests, and to help channel that community energy to force concrete change both in our neighborhoods and at City Hall.

How do you think your experience with the Pratt Center and Fifth Avenue Committee qualifies you for the Council position?

More than anything, the Fifth Avenue Committee and the Pratt Center have taught me how to work effectively with diverse groups of neighbors toward common goals. In my 10 years at FAC, we grew from a staff of 5 to 50, from a budget of $250,000 to over $5 million. As neighbors working together, we created 500 units of affordable housing and preserved thousands more, and helped over 1,000 community members get living-wage jobs (through effective job training in growing sectors, by starting two small businesses, and through literacy programs). At Pratt, we’ve helped neighborhoods create greenways and child care centers and develop community-generated plans for future growth. We’ve worked with community organizations and churches and community boards and unions to change New York City’s zoning and tax laws to promote affordable housing and good jobs, when many said it was impossible.

I’ve also gained substantial experience as an affordable housing developer and city planner around the critical development issues facing our communities. The last building I worked on at FAC just broke ground on Atlantic Avenue, and I think it is one of the most exciting things happening in Brooklyn today 80 cooperative units, 75% affordable to low, moderate, and middle income residents, meeting some of the highest standards in sustainability. I have negotiated with developers and city officials, run spreadsheets, structured financing, analyzed zoning, and crafted new tax and zoning policies. Now I hope to use those skills to give communities a bigger seat at the table in discussions with developers and city agencies.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing District 39, which covers such a wide swath of Brooklyn? Since your career has focused on Brooklyn housing and development, how do you anticipate tackling other areas facing the district’s constituents?

The communities of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hills, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, and Borough Park have some common challenges, and some unique ones. In many corners, rampant development continues to be a central issue undermining both the affordability and the quality-of-life of our neighborhoods, as you explore so well on Brownstoner. I will bring my experiences as a community-based planner, an affordable housing developer, and an organizer to these challenges. These are not easy issues, but with smart planning and proactive investments, we can do better. We can stop much out-of-scale development, and preserve the affordable housing we have. And we can also leverage the new development that does occur to help us create not only new affordable housing and good jobs, but the schools and child care centers we need for a growing population.

The other central issue facing the 39th is public education. As a public school parent (and the husband of a member of the School Leadership Team at P.S. 107 in the South Slope), I have some first-hand experience, but I’ve also got a lot to learn. Luckily, I have some of the best teachers a candidate could imagine. Over the past year I’ve met with parent leaders and teachers and administrators from public schools all over the district from P.S. 58 and the Brooklyn New School to P.S. 107 & 321 & M.S. 51 to P.S. 154 & 230. They have already taught me some of what’s needed: a new school to address overcrowding in Kensington, a new early childhood/pre-kindergarten center to ease crowding in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace so we can keep classes small, hopefully a new public high school in brownstone or downtown Brooklyn. I’d like to help replicate some of the area’s successful after-school programs in more places. On a policy level, we need less focus on high-stakes testing, more emphasis on developing young people in holistic ways and a Department of Education that listens harder to the voices of parents and teachers.

I plan to bring the lessons of community development and community organizing to this work. During this campaign, and as a Councilmember, I plan to continue to bring together this great set of leaders to learn together, set goals, develop policy solutions, help each other across the boundaries of school communities, and commit myself and my staff to help raise public and private resources, identify volunteers, and promote public service and community action.

One of the best things about this campaign is the opportunity to meet people from every neighborhood in the district and hear their concerns and their ideas. I’m sure my list of issues will continue to grow as the campaign continues, and I hope Brownstoner readers will share their thoughts with me.

How would you assess Bill De Blasio’s work as a councilman, and what do you intend to do differently if you’re elected?

Bill has been a very good City Councilmember, and he would be a great Brooklyn Borough President. He’s fought for and won significant new resources for child care, helped to rezone significant portions of our neighborhood to prevent out-of-scale development, and insured affordable and senior housing at Public Place. I had the privilege to work closely with him in the fight to reform the City’s absurd 421-a property tax program. The reforms we won will help create 20,000 units of affordable housing and save the City hundreds of million of dollars by rolling back tax breaks for luxury development. And Bill’s been a citywide leader on other progressive issues, from homelessness and education to electronics recycling.

But of course, we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything (partially because I crane my neck trying to look up to see him). I believe that we do need adopt some form congestion pricing (along with residential parking permits, muni-meters with higher parking charges on the commercial strips, and a much-improved bus rapid transit system). Otherwise, we will choke on traffic.

And we haven’t always agreed on Atlantic Yards. I co-authored one of the first reports that raised deep concerns about the scale, infrastructure, transparency, and subsidies in the project … and I still have all of those concerns today. I know that Bill is not satisfied with the current state of the project, and I am confident that he will be fighting for major changes. I believe we could and maybe still can achieve affordable housing and good jobs with a much better approach to size, scale, design, open space, infrastructure, neighborhood preservation, and traffic.

Some people are wary of subsidized affordable housing and think it would be in everyone’s best interest for private developers to assume control of city- or state-run/financed projects/developments (from public housing to Mitchell-Lama to rent-stabilized properties). How would you answer them, and how do you think this issue affects District 39, which includes affluent neighborhoods like Cobble Hill and less-affluent neighborhoods like Kensington?

Brooklyn’s diversity is what makes it great. I feel lucky to live in a neighborhood where my kids go to school with a real mix of Brooklyn and America Italian, Jewish, African-American, Latino, Chinese, the kids of lawyers and ironworkers and freelancers and building superintendents. Where senior citizens aren’t pushed out when their Social Security check doesn’t keep up with the market price of luxury housing. Where small businesses and vendors representing so many cultures thrive on our shopping strips. That diversity is good for all of us, from Cobble Hill to the Slope to Kensington to Borough Park.

Unfortunately, the real estate market doesn’t care about diversity or the quality-of-life of our neighborhoods. Unless we have the will to preserve affordable housing (by strengthening rent regulations and repealing vacancy decontrol, and by keeping Mitchell-Lama and public housing affordable), and to create new affordable units we will quite simply lose the soul of our neighborhoods.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can create and preserve affordable and livable neighborhoods. We can manage and regulate new development so that it contributes to our neighborhoods rather than undermines them. We can generate and share opportunity through good schools and good jobs. Well-crafted public action in pursuit of these common goals is good for all of us, and I believe it is the right thing to do.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to share these thoughts. I invite Brownstoner readers to e-mail me at brad.lander AT gmail.com with ideas and concerns.

0 Comment

  • There are a lot worse things to be. Like a do-nothing council member. And a rude and pathetic commenter.

  • If he wants that job it might be a good idea to get his ass to some community meetings in Carroll Gardens/Gowanus. Or is he just another do nothing mouthpiece?

  • Sounds like a NIMBY. Bad for owners. Great for people who free load off of others.

  • Lander is a good guy who has generally been on the side of right. Yeh, he’s got political instincts (always a slightly dodgy prospect but necessary for those who feel the calling) but he has worked for years on issues and projects that have made a real difference to Brooklynites. I would characterize him as a moderate who believes in growth but also believes in prserving and expanding middle/low income housing and — gasp — PLANNING our urban enviroment for a healthy future instead of always having to react from behind the 8-ball. He’s been one of the only consistent voices of reason about Atlantic Yards — pointing out the unaddressed infrastructure and enviromental impact issues while continuing to maintain a dialogue with both sides.

  • Note to all you brownstone owners: he doesn’t like that real-estate prices have and are going up.

    Is he getting your vote?

  • I’ve met him. While he’s generally smart and makes alot of good points, he really gives off a strong vibe of being a total douchebag. I don’t trust the guy.

  • I’m sorry 12:26, “douchebag” is a metaphor that doesn’t really tell me the nature of your objection.

  • His egalitarian approach won’t work in today’s market. On paper, his ideas are worthy of discussion, but probably won’t go much further than that. Money and greed are unstoppable. C.R.E.A.M. – guy doesn’t stand a chance.

  • The man is another tool of the rich who will dupe the poor to vote for him because he is a) a democrat and b) he happily dangles the carrot of subsidized housing to the lucky few who will get it.

    Does this man know anything about urban planning? No, because only a fool would suggest the lack of infrastructure is a problem with the atlantic yards development.

    Also, his comment that we can “prevent out of context development and maintain affordable housing” just reeks of pure economic ignorance.

    If we are to maintain the exact same density of buildings we have today, how can we possibly have more affordable housing?

    We can’t. He knows it, everyone with a brain knows it, but rich townhouse owners don’t want to admit because it means they will have to give up something they want – exclusivity. He panders to the poor because many don’t understand why they can’t afford the new condos. It isn’t because they EXIST, but because there aren’t enough of them.

    There is precious little vacant land in this city. The only place to build is UP and morons like this do nothing but continue to keep people in misery.

    What is the other choice quote – Rampant development undermines affordability?

    This man is a disgrace. If he is elected, it will be because of his pathetic pandering to the chosen few who are lucky enough to score a rent stabilized apartment or government subsidy (HFA/HDC income restricted units), and of the wealthy townhouse owners who do not want multifamily development to come to their neighborhood.

    Any politician that supports rent stabilization also must be tossed to the curb. Landlords will NEVER maintain stabilized buildings, and in time they will simply collapse or be abandoned. Conversely, the threat of rent control is so great no one will ever build anything but very high end luxury rental apartment buildings. Why would any developer build an apartment building for the poor when they will immediately try to get a permanent, below market leasehold? You would have to be crazy to build new housing with politicians like this running around.

    The man obviously has no understanding of real estate economics, and should not be elected to public office given his ignorance. In the end, if his policies are implemented, he will die an old man knowing he sold his sole at the expense of the young generation that will never get a piece of the plunder he is promising his constituents.

  • Oh, and the man obviously doesn’t know enough about the subsidized housing programs. There is NOT an infinite amount of money available from the HDC to build affordable co-ops.

    There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who need better housing than they have today. A project with 75 “affordable” units does nothing to alleviate this, and the fact he doesn’t recognize the second REALLY low interest mortgage comes from capital reserves that are limited in quantity indicates severe ignorance of these government programs.

    There will never be enough housing constructed with these programs to meet demand, and presenting these programs as solutions to the current housing crisis is just crazy.

    “I’ve run spreadsheets!” he says. I’ve worked on dozens of HDC/HFA type properties in this city, and even I have run across projects that have not qualified for the 1% second mortgage. How does this guy not know this?

  • I won’t speak for Brad, but I would consider the Polemicist’s condemnation an endorsement, kind of like getting booed when you’re the visiting team … no higher compliment.

  • 1:06 is either 1) rich 2) one of the lucky few living on the public dime or 3) an old fart who got into the shell game before the city took off in the past decade. I guess it’s possible he has a polemical streak like yours truly :)

    He is obviously not a young person who lives in a shared apartment because he can’t get into one of Brad’s special government programs.

    There is only one question one must ask in politics: Cui Bono?

    Brad’s policies don’t benefit the middle class, or the unlucky poor. They only benefit those who are rich, and the poor who win the lottery to get subsidized housing.

  • Just by reading that brief interview with him, I can tell he has no clue. First of all, when he is against “out-of-control development” then he is only going to make it more unaffordable.

    You can’t be against new development and at the same time think you’re going to be able to keep housing affordable.

    When you put limits on a commodity, the commodity will only get more expensive. Yes, you can then artificially through law, force projects to include an affordable component but then the rest will have to go up in price to compensate for that.

  • has anyone else noticed the inflatable rat outside the Fifth Avenue Committee headquarters? Apparently they employ non-union labor on their affordable-housing building sites. Seems they like the free market when it suits them.

  • That Atlantic Avenue project he is so proud of uses non-union labor with no health benefits.

  • An osso bucco in every pot!

  • this is the partner in crime with michelle de la uz, misleading and tricking people on the street to sign the stuff they have in their agenda. I can’t begin to tell you about this two, going around the bush to avoid permits and bend the law. ducthbags and scunbags.

  • But who will Boro Park support?

  • Hey Polemicist, isn’t it Chi Bono? Or have I confused Italian with Latin.

    Regardless, Brad told me at a meeting one time that he was tired of fighting against the down-zoning. Showed me he knew which way the wind blows politically with the neighborhood groups. Or maybe he just didn’t want to argue with me. The rest of us will just have to depend on a City Hall that knows how to say no to the NIMBY and BANANA juggernauts. I just think there is a strong undercurrent of people who know down-zoning to be the close-minded reactionary world view that it is. They just don’t go to public meetings of community groups and neighborhood associations and pick at anyone who plunked their money down for buildable square feet.

    The entire City Council in Brooklyn favors down-zoning. So, if Brad Lander stands up for good transportation policy like congestion pricing and increased parking fees he will be way ahead of the rest, including his mentor Bill D.

  • 10:15 I actually don’t know Italian, but Cui Bono is latin. If what you say is true, I suppose he is better than the alternative. But still, I’m tired of having to compromise over something so fundamental.

    Anyway, if what you say is true, what this means is we need to start fighting against the old hags and curmudgeons who demand a never changing neighborhood. There are so many young people in Brooklyn these days.

    Unfortunately, the power today rests in the hands of the two most selfish generations in history – the greatest generation and the baby boomers. They have grown up with a Brooklyn that hasn’t changed since the 1920s and they are so attached to it that they cannot see any alternative. They also have grown up in a different world where they are accustomed to getting what they want.

    How do you motivate the youth? Do they really feel no connection to this city and are content to rent a dump until they decide to move to the suburbs? I don’t have the answers… but it sure is frustrating.

  • Congrats to Brownstoner for providing this forum and to Lander for being so substantive.

    Especially at this early, early stage, candidates (or the media?) have offered little on the issues to date.