Speaker Front-Runner Corey Johnson Seeks “Seismic Impact”

The Manhattan councilmember says he’d rethink affordable housing formulas, hire more cops, and close subway lines for repairs


When the New York City Council votes on its new Speaker tomorrow, to replace term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito, it’s now expected that Councilmember Corey Johnson will be the winner. Johnson, who represents a swath of western Manhattan from Hell’s Kitchen to the West Village, appears to have won the support of the powerful Queens and Bronx Democratic organizations, as well as onetime Speaker race opponents Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Donovan Richards, and Jimmy Van Bramer.

As part of our ongoing coverage of the Council Speaker candidates, the Voice sat down with Johnson recently to discuss his views on the role of the council, the role of the Speaker within city government, and how he would act on pressing issues of the day.

Manhattan Councilmember Corey Johnson’s jagged life arc would make any liberal political strategist a little bit giddy: The 35-year-old politician is a gay, openly HIV-positive substance-abuse survivor who grew up in a union household in Massachusetts before moving to the city, where he got involved in LGBT activism, got clean, and rose through the ranks via the local community board before winning election to the council in 2013.

“I was a 15-year-old, closeted, despondent, suicidal, gay teenager who came out, moved to New York on a wing and a prayer at the age of 19 — came with big dreams, as a lot of people that move to New York do,” he says. Now, the city is “under threat, under assault,” from a rising cost of living and a hostile federal administration, and Johnson says it’s the role of the council to “ensure that another 19-year-old can move to New York City, come here, live out their dreams, and not have to move to Detroit or Pittsburgh because New York becomes so expensive.”

In the crowded Speaker race, Johnson has had significant tactical advantages. The naturally skillful campaigner raised and spent a lot of money courting his fellow members early and has been adept at behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Yet it hasn’t all been milk and honey: Less-than-advantaged upbringing aside, Johnson is still a white, male Manhattanite competing for leadership of a council that was led for four years by a female, Puerto Rican Speaker and in a race against multiple men — and as of very recently, one woman — of color, in a city where the mayor and the comptroller are white males. This dogged Johnson throughout the race and has become a significant wedge issue now that he is the prohibitive front-runner.

Johnson calls the council “the most diverse municipal legislative body in the world,” but adds that “it should be a lot more diverse. We need more women. It’s an embarrassment, the number of women that are going to be in the council in the next term. We’re losing two LGBT members of the council,” he says, referring to term-limited members Rosie Mendez and Jimmy Vacca. That said, he does not think his ethnicity should be an obstacle to his becoming Council Speaker.

Some other councilmembers have also been concerned that the pugnacious style that helped Johnson engineer a win will manifest in a top-down governing style. Asked if he viewed his role as pushing forward with his own deeply felt agenda or incorporating all different ideologies and factions in the body, Johnson says the notions weren’t “mutually exclusive.” The Council Speaker, he notes, has to conduct the council’s charter-mandated business — legislating, passing a budget, conducting oversight over government operations, and land use — “in a way that benefits New Yorkers, works with the mayor when possible to achieve things, and empowers individual members in their own districts.”

Most of that oversight function involves looking over the mayor’s shoulder and critically examining his executive conduct, including the operations of the many city agencies under his purview. Johnson, who has held fundraisers for the mayor and flashily endorsed him for re-election, acknowledges that the Speaker candidates — all Democrats — have similar ideologies to the mayor. But, he says, “when we disagree, we can disagree forcefully without making it personal” — pointing to Speaker rival Ritchie Torres’s years-long campaign to hold the New York City Housing Authority accountable for the condition of its buildings. Nonetheless, Johnson says, “it’s better in most instances to try to work with the mayor to get things done when there are shared goals.”

Johnson’s most serious disagreement with the de Blasio administration, he says, is over the mayor’s efforts on the homeless crisis. “Ensuring that the money for the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services gets spent wisely and shelters are done in a way that works with the local community — I think it’s a key thing we’re going to have to figure out moving forward in these next four years,” he says. He believes the solution is to provide more housing with integrated supportive services, such as mental health, healthcare, and employment programs.

“The mayor announced about two years ago that he was putting over a billion dollars into supportive housing, but he is also reliant upon the money from the state legislature and the governor being released,” he says, pointing to the NY/NY IV money that was announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015, the majority of which has yet to materialize.

Johnson isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the mayor’s still-amorphous proposal to build ninety new homeless shelters in the city. “I don’t think it’s probably feasible that we’re going to be able to site ninety shelters in communities throughout the city,” he says. “I mean, the mayor’s plan was a ten-year plan; the mayor’s only going to be there for another four years.”

Of course, one reason for there being a homeless crisis in the first place is the staggering cost of housing in New York, and the next Speaker will be put in the unenviable position of trying to keep the city livable for anyone who’s not spending the New Year counting their substantial stock returns. Johnson says the city needs to build affordable housing across multiple income levels.

“In a lot of developments, in my district, we always try to get affordable housing that’s done at 40 percent, 60 percent, 80 percent, 100 percent, 120 percent, 140 percent of AMI, all in one building,” he says, referring to the metric of Area Median Income, which in the region was $95,400 for a family of four in 2017. That strategy is now being rolled out in part through the mayor’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, which Johnson voted for.

That approach sounds good on paper, but recent reporting has pointed to some developers’ difficulties in renting out rent-regulated apartments in the higher-income bands, with potential tenants at over 135 percent AMI finding that they could actually find a better deal from market-rate apartments. Meanwhile, units in the lower bands routinely receive hundreds of times more applications than there are apartments available. Johnson concedes that the AMI formula “does need to be re-examined, especially given the homeless crisis that we’re seeing right now. We need to be redirecting some of that moderate income housing toward the homeless population and toward lower-income folks who are struggling right now to find affordable housing.”

This doesn’t mean Johnson is disappointed with the pace of affordable housing development over the last four years; in fact, he says that next to universal pre-K, the mayor’s signature accomplishment has been exceeding targets for housing development and preservation. As with the homeless issue, Johnson reserves much of his criticism for Albany, whose say over the city’s laws and finances means “we can’t get everything done that we need to get done.” Johnson is also cool to suggestions that the city should invest in affordable homeownership, saying that preserving rent-regulated housing stock is the greater need.

Ultimately, any expanded housing plans will be dependent on the city’s financial situation, which is staring down the likelihood of deep state and federal budget cuts, made all the more acute by Congress’ recent passage of a potentially catastrophic tax overhaul that could hit the city’s budget hard. As a protective measure, Johnson urges that the city keep squirreling away reserves until it reaches Comptroller Scott Stringer’s recommended 10 percent of the annual budget.

That sounds like cuts will still be needed, so what’s on the chopping block? For Johnson, it’s a question of what isn’t. Any city agency could be subjected to some trimming — under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, agencies were already instructed to identify possible cuts as part of the “program to eliminate the gap,” or PEG — except some functions that Johnson calls “sacrosanct”: public safety, schools, and housing.

“Those are the three legs of the stool,” Johnson says. While this may sound surprising coming from the chair of the council’s health committee, Johnson quickly added that he was proud of the millions in funding he had allocated to HIV and AIDS prevention — but still did not add health to his sacrosanct list.

“The Department of Transportation, the Department Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Parks and Recreation, they all do important work,” says Johnson. “But I think that when times get rough, we have to ensure that public safety remains strong so crime remains low, the affordable housing progress that we’ve made continues at a good pace, and the mayor’s good work on universal pre-K and now universal 3-K moves forward so that we protect public school students in New York City.”

Johnson praises the city’s pilot neighborhood policing program and its neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs), who ostensibly serve as liaisons with the community — but argues that for the program to be truly effective, the NYPD would have to expand by hiring more officers, though he doesn’t have a set figure in mind. This is sure to set up a contentious skirmish with the city’s police reform groups, who lambasted the ultimately successful effort to add over a thousand additional cops under Speaker Mark-Viverito, claiming that the nation’s largest police force did not need to expand and should instead focus on retraining. Reform groups were also concerned about there being more officers to engage in so-called broken windows policing, or heavy-handed enforcement of quality-of-life crimes; its use has since declined but not been eliminated.

Even with more than a thousand police officers added in recent years, says Johnson, “on any given tour, any given shift, in a precinct, nearly every single officer that is on duty at that time spends almost the entirety of their time doing what are called radio runs. They’re in their car. They’re going from place to place. They’re responding. The NYPD, realistically, right now, does not have the resources and personnel to have a full-fledged community policing program, where you’re going to see cops walking down the street in every neighborhood on a daily basis.”

Given the prioritization of high-crime neighborhoods and specialized counterterrorism programs in the distribution of new officers, Johnson says, precincts in a district like his haven’t seen a net increase in officers. He also suggested that hiring more cops could actually save the city money by cutting down on exorbitant overtime costs.

Johnson agrees with all his fellow Speaker candidates that Rikers Island needs to be closed sooner than the ten-year estimate that the mayor’s plan calls for, though he is one of the most optimistic in terms of timeline, with a ballpark of three to five years. He points to jails in the districts of Queens councilmember Karen Koslowitz, Brooklyn councilmember Stephen Levin, and his own — the all-female Bayview Correctional Facility on the West Side Highway, which was shuttered in 2013 and sold to a nonprofit in 2015 — that the three councilmembers support as alternatives and that could house an additional 1,300 inmates if reopened or expanded.

“Now that we have these three members, and we have three potential sites that have said, ‘I am not opposed, I would go through the [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process,’ we should begin the ULURP process with [the Department of] City Planning, the Department of Correction, and the Department of Design and Construction, coming up with plans for those sites, setting aside the capital money and moving through process,” he says.

On the chronically underfunded public transit system, Johnson notes, “In a perfect world, the MTA would be a city-run authority, without influence from upstate legislators [for whom] the MTA has no impact on their communities,” says Johnson. Since that’s not going to happen, he supports the Move NY congestion pricing plan to fund improvements to the infrastructure, most critically the subways’ signal system.

If Albany fails to act on a congestion pricing plan, should the city still pay up? “We have to ensure that if we are putting additional money in, we know where the money is going to be spent, [and that the] city is going to be part of negotiations on prioritizing where that money gets spent,” says Johnson. One way to make necessary repairs more quickly — Johnson is unsurprisingly unsatisfied with the MTA’s estimate of ninety years to get the entire system fixed up — would be to take the model of the L train shutdown and apply it to other lines, closing them down to conduct critical repairs.

“New Yorkers would actually probably be OK” with such a plan, Johnson says. “They may not love it, but they’d be OK if you said, ‘You know what, we have to shut down this number of stations, on these lines, for six months.’ ”

Johnson says any effective Speaker needs to keep an eye on hyperlocal issues. “Most New Yorkers — and I mean this not in a critical way, I mean it actually in a loving way, actually — are extremely parochial and proprietary about their neighborhood,” Johnson says, caring about “their local school, their local small business, their local park, their local corner, their block, the empty tree pit, the sanitation pickup.”

Still, Johnson is well aware of the odd political moment that will face the next Speaker. “In this age of Trump, and in this age of Ryan and McConnell,” he says, “we need to come up with progressive, creative ways to do things that will have a big, seismic impact locally, that push back on the regressive things happening at the national level, and [show] we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

One possibility floated by Johnson is a municipal single-payer healthcare system. “The mayor put forward, two years ago, a plan on getting, not an insurance product — because under the ACA you can’t create an insurance product for noncitizens — but legally to come up with a way to get universal health insurance to certain low-income neighborhoods.” This would be easier with bluer state and federal governments — and an end to Independent Democratic Conference dominance in Albany, which has held up much progressive legislation. Johnson is confident that this is on the horizon, pointing to results from the November general elections in Virginia and elsewhere.

“The reality that New York is living in right now will change if we can get Democratic control of Congress, and a Democratic, unified state senate in Albany,” Johnson says. “Then we won’t have to be on the defensive in the city.”