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?
I’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 â€¦ 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.