With New York still all but locked down and the mayoral primary just five months away, voters could spend all day binge-watching candidate Zoom forums. But what if the candidates, despite their different backgrounds, mostly sound the same — all pledging the magic of no crime yet minimal policing, balanced budgets yet no friction with unions? Herewith, some common nostrums to look out for as markers of unseriousness.
First, the handy wrong answer to questions about abysmal quality-of-life conditions and nuisance crime, from open-air drug use on Eighth Avenue to chronic shoplifting from the Duane Reade: The perpetrator needs to “get help.” Yes, he probably does. If you’re exposing yourself to passersby or defecating in the subway, you’re probably not operating at optimal mental capacity. But what if the person in question doesn’t want help?
Most subjects are already familiar with the social services the city offers and aren’t interested in going through the system again. Repeat theft suspects have already been through treatment programs.
That’s not to say the fifth time, or the 30th time, won’t be the charm — it often is.
But in the meantime, what? If a candidate won’t commit to assertive use of Kendra’s Law, to compel people into treatment or, yes, use of the criminal-justice system to keep the streets safe, the “get help” answer is only shorthand for, “there’s nothing we can do about the street disorder.”
Second, relatedly, the trendy wrong answer to more serious crime is “violence interrupters.” That is, instead of police, nonprofit workers, often former gang members, use their supposed street cred to convince young men not to retaliate for a shooting by committing another shooting.
The large-scale model for this? Chicago, LA and Baltimore are the usual cities, and they all suffer homicide rates far higher than New York’s, with Baltimore’s homicide rate 13 times ours. Will you commit to a specific goal, say, getting shootings down to 2019 levels, before they doubled in 2020? If you can’t achieve this, will you return to policing crime, or say the “root causes” of poverty make crime unfixable?
Third, the wrong answer about the budget: “Everything is on the table.” With 545,200 New Yorkers out of work, and the city facing a long-term crash in commercial-property values and thus property taxes, voters deserve specifics.
Will you ask the public-sector workers for a wage freeze, if necessary to keep trash picked up and swimming pools open? Will you ask public-sector retirees to pay their own Medicare premiums out of their retirement income, as everyone in the private sector does?
Taking a firm hand with unions is hard even during the good times. The next mayor will need to show he or she has a voter mandate to do so — and that’s hard if you won’t divulge your plans.
Other tell-tale signs are vows to eliminate waste — if you don’t have an example of such waste, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about.
Finally, housing for all — with homelessness couched as a lack-of-housing issue, not a chronic joblessness, addiction or mental-illness issue.
With candidates largely focused on building low-income housing, including ideas to convert Manhattan office space into cheap apartments, the question is: with what money?
Just as with existing public housing, the problem isn’t just the initial construction costs — offices aren’t going to convert themselves into high-rise apartments without tens of billions of dollars in capital investment. Rather, the unanswered question is the ongoing maintenance, operation and security costs, which low-income tenants can’t pay.
For two decades, the city’s approach has been to provide operating subsidy through the private sector, not the public sector. That is, through “80-20” buildings and other such schemes, market-rate apartment tenants paid high monthly prices to defray the operating cost of lower-income neighbors.
But with market-rate rents plummeting, and retail space on the ground floor of many buildings empty, can this model hold? If not, the city can’t do much more than commit to a limited quota of new supportive-housing units for people with severe mental illness with strong pre-existing ties to the city.
From universal housing, to utopias, to public-safety-by-persuasion, the mayoral candidates have lots of easy answers — which are no answers at all.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.