Mayor Bill de Blasio tackled upper Manhattan residents' concerns about the lack of affordable apartments, the shoddy condition of some buildings and other tenant issues for about two hours Wednesday night in the first town hall meeting of his 20-month mayoralty.
"What is affordable?" asked a young man at the Washington Heights event, wondering if the rents for units that will be part of the administration's plan to provide housing for low- to middle-income families will be too steep for some.
The initiative is "tailored" for specific neighborhoods, including fast-gentrifying Washington Heights, and the units are targeted to be affordable for families making between $20,000 and $40,000, de Blasio responded.
The mayor was welcomed by the more than 300 participants, some watching from an overflow room. Many asked questions in Spanish. Several who raised worries and complaints with de Blasio -- including one woman who said she was discriminated against by a city worker -- were angry and emotional.
De Blasio had faced criticism for failing to conduct town halls and hear people's concerns face-to-face in an unfiltered public forum as has been done by previous mayors such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani did. In recent months, he has also taken listener calls on radio shows.
The mayor was accompanied by a slate of top aides, including Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal, who helped him answer questions. City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) hosted and moderated the event.
One woman took issue with the de Blasio administration's plan to mandate affordable units in new development, saying the initiative also would usher in market-rate apartments as a threat to Washington Heights.
"What we're really worried about, Mr. Mayor, is your inclusionary zoning," she said.
The housing-themed session in the gymnasium of Gregorio Luperón High School for Science and Mathematics was intended to help "protect people who just want to live in the neighborhoods they love," de Blasio said in opening remarks.
Edward Torres, 65, of Washington Heights, who told the mayor about his building's leaky roof, said the town hall can only be considered a success "if something is accomplished, if things are fixed, if this is more than a place for some of us who are frustrated to vent."
De Blasio and his aides said some problems raised by participants were not the fault of his administration. "We did inherit a mess," Been said.
The mayor plans to conduct more town halls meetings in the near future, said spokesman Wiley Norvell.
The mayor also said the city needs more funding and support from Albany.
On Wednesday, de Blasio told participants that the Rent Guidelines Board this past summer approved a historic rent freeze on rent-regulated apartments: a zero percent increase for one-year leases and a 2 percent increase on two-year leases. He also said tenants should call 311 to seek free legal representation if their "unscrupulous" landlords are harassing or evicting them.
Newsday in May reported that de Blasio has avoided town halls and call-in radio shows, but the mayor since then has taken listener questions on radio appearances. The mayor recently has hosted a Google Hangout with students, a tele-town hall with parents and an open forum also for parents in Canarsie.