Speaker Corey Johnson’s Remarks as Prepared for Delivery: Association for a Better New York (ABNY) Power Breakfast Keynote Address

Good Morning!

Thank you so much for having me today. I also want to thank all the first responders with us today for their bravery. Too often we take these folks for granted, but they are always there when we need them. I also want to acknowledge that we’re joined this morning by two former City Council Speakers – Peter Vallone Senior and Christine Quinn.

It’s an honor to be here today in front of so many of my esteemed colleagues, friends, and fellow New Yorkers to address the Association for a Better New York. I can’t help but imagine what Lew Rudin would think if he were here with us today. I believe he’d be in awe of the continued success of the organization he founded, and I know that he would be incredibly proud of his son, Bill. Thank you, Bill, for your strong leadership and stewardship of ABNY.

Thank you, Chair Rubenstein for that kind introduction. Let’s give a hand to Steven Rubenstein.

Steven, we’re both in new jobs. We’ve been chosen to lead two vital New York institutions – ABNY and the New York City Council. I was elected on January 3, so you’ve got two days on me. But I think you’re off to a fantastic start. You’ve selected the progressive City Council Speaker for your first ABNY Power Breakfast. It was a bold choice.

There are folks on both sides that might balk. Because progressivism and business aren’t always a natural fit. But that’s New York.

We’re a City of contrasts. We’re the city of James Baldwin and Fiorello La Guardia. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and John Jacob Astor. Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses Shirley Chisholm and David Rockefeller. We come from very different places. Some of us even come from Boston. And we don’t always see eye-to-eye. But despite our differences, there’s no reason we can’t work together to make our city better. We’ve done it before.

In the 1970s, we faced a fiscal crisis that almost brought us down. And in 1971, Lew Rudin gathered a group of business leaders for the first ‘ABNY Breakfast,’ because the City was on the brink of disaster. And they knew they had to do something about it. The City was eroding before their very eyes. New York was headed toward bankruptcy. Crime and drugs and arson and poverty were rampant. The theaters of the Great White Way were replaced by peep shows, and places like Verdi Square took on names like ‘Needle Park’. Our subways, once one of the true wonders of the modern world, became filthy, unreliable and dangerous. We were in dire straits.

But then, men and women from the worlds of business, labor and government came together, leveraging their expertise and influence to save New York City. That was ABNY. And since then, ABNY has become an indispensable resource in times of need.

When Dick Ravitch (who is with us this morning, thank you Dick!) took on the monumental task of saving the subways, he turned to the business community. And they answered, lobbying Albany for new revenue streams and paving the way for a revitalized subway system.

When we were attacked by terrorists and the towers fell on September 11th, some said Lower Manhattan would never recover. The business community stepped up. Businesses returned downtown and thrived.

Today, the City has bounced back from the worst global recession since the 1930s. Last year, we had a record number of jobs, 4.4 million. Since the bottom of the recession in 2009, we have gained 700,000 jobs, a 19 percent increase. Construction is booming. And on top of that, crime hasn’t been this low since the 1950s.

But amidst these positive indicators, our City is still facing some very serious challenges. Housing costs have soared. Our City is becoming nearly unaffordable for anyone without a six figure salary. An astounding 44 percent of New Yorkers are living at or near the poverty level. Almost half of all New Yorkers. Let that sink in.

And it’s hard to escape poverty without a good job. But while there are new jobs, not enough are full time jobs. And many pay wages that are far too low. In fact, the Robin Hood Foundation found that almost half of New Yorkers under 65 are “underemployed,” working fewer hours than they need to support themselves. That’s 1.6 million people – more than the entire population of the City of Philadelphia. So, New Yorkers must work two or three jobs, seven days a week, and still can’t make enough to provide for themselves or their families. These aren’t just numbers to me.

My mom, Ann, raised my sister and me under difficult circumstances. She was my lunch lady at school, and cleaned houses on nights and weekends to make ends meet, often taking me with her because we didn’t have a sitter. And I was lucky. There were 12 units of affordable housing in my town and we lived in one of them. So, I know the social safety net works. It lifts up families. And it got me where I am today.

I’m a progressive. That is no secret. My politics are probably very to the left of nearly everybody in this room. But here’s how I see it. Being progressive does not mean being anti-business or anti-growth. And being in business, real estate, or finance does not mean opposing a strong social safety net. This is NOT a zero sum game.

We ALL need a strong economy. A vibrant private sector to provide good, high-paying jobs. A strong and solid tax base to finance essential programs and services. An environment that supports entrepreneurs and encourages innovation. But a strong economy is built on more than just finances.

We need good public schools and public colleges. Clean air and clean water. Social programs to help prevent poverty and homelessness. A great public hospital system. And access to affordable housing.

I firmly believe that if we truly work together- all of us-  that we can achieve a truly inclusive economy. But we need to do more than just talk about it. I’m here as the next Speaker to get things done.

Let’s start with some of the basics. Starting with affordable housing. A third of renters pay at least half of their household income in rent. This is driving families out of New York City or into homelessness. When that happens, everyone loses. We need to dramatically increase the amount of truly affordable housing we’re building in New York City.

To their credit, the de Blasio administration has made this a top priority. But we can and must do better.

We must preserve and maintain the affordable housing we have. That’s why, next month, the City Council will extend rent protections for over one million apartments by renewing rent stabilization and rent control. And next year, Albany needs to not only renew our rent laws, but remove loopholes that are causing us to lose thousands of units every year.

But this isn’t the whole story. Income inequality remains a systemic problem. Today in our City, poverty is increasingly manifesting itself as homelessness. A record number of New Yorkers are now homeless, and this crisis shows no sign of abating. Every night, over 60,000 people sleep in our shelter system. 23,000 of them are children. They navigate their lives – going to work, getting to school, keeping appointments – all without a permanent home. One in every 10 public school students was homeless at some point during the last school year.

The most successful model for ending chronic homelessness is supportive housing, which pairs affordable housing with on-site social services for people with mental health and substance abuse issues. The City and State both have plans to create tens of thousands of units of supportive housing over the next 15 years. But it is taking way too long. We need these units now. Let’s work together to ensure that we build and maintain a sufficient amount of affordable housing, including homes for our most vulnerable populations.

But sometimes an affordable home is not enough. All New Yorkers deserve access to a robust social safety net. By supporting an inclusive, dynamic economy, and by fighting together for funding at all levels of government, we can uplift everyone.

Anti-hunger initiatives are a core component of the social safety net. There are far too many people who don’t know where their next meal will come from. In New York City, 1.64 million people rely on SNAP benefits to meet their basic nutritional needs. While SNAP is crucial in our fight against hunger, families often cannot stretch their benefits to the end of the month, and must turn to our network of nearly 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens to fill the gap. The Trump Administration wants to make devastating cuts to this life-saving program. And his tax bill provides benefits to those at the very top, at the expense of the neediest. The federal government should be a partner in finding solutions to homelessness and the hunger crisis. They should NOT be exacerbating it.

I need you ALL to support this fight for basic fairness. We know that our City only works when we all succeed, no matter if you are poor or wealthy. So for us to achieve those goals – our collective goals as New Yorkers – let’s create a fair and inclusive economy. One that will support a social safety net, jobs that pay living wages and benefits and that offers enough affordable housing so that families can live and thrive in New York City. I recognize that this is not a simple notion. There are headwinds.

Perhaps one of the most critical barriers to growth and prosperity is our City’s infrastructure. We cannot achieve 22nd century growth by relying on 20th century infrastructure. If we’re going to support our neighborhoods, grow and attract businesses, and maintain a strong workforce, we need to focus on upgrading infrastructure — not just transit, but schools and parks and community spaces.

New York City is doing its part. We have a $68 billion 4-year capital plan. That’s a lot of money, but we’ve got a lot of needs. So we have to make sure we’re spending every dollar wisely and effectively.

That’s why this City Council created the new Subcommittee on the Capital Budget, to show our commitment to the City’s infrastructure needs, to promote transparency, and to ensure that projects are moving forward efficiently. City funding of capital projects like the extension of the 7 line helped make Hudson Yards the success that it is today.

Funding capital projects creates good jobs and strengthens communities. Like $91 million for PS 11 in Long Island City…$40 million for a new pavilion and improvements to Orchard Beach Park in the Bronx…and $28 million for a new emergency room at Richmond University Medical Center on Staten Island. We must continue to make these types of investments for our long-term growth.

On the federal level, as you all know, things aren’t looking too good. Instead of the trillion dollar infrastructure plan this president promised us, we’re facing the prospect of massive cuts to infrastructure funding. Making matters worse, the Trump administration has walked away from the Gateway Tunnel Project, perhaps the most crucial infrastructure project in the nation. But dealing with the federal government isn’t easy these days, so let’s move onto to something that is.

Fixing the subways. It’s the greatest infrastructure challenge we face today. The subway is the lifeblood of our economy. And our failure to address this crisis could be our undoing.

I take the subway to City Hall just about every day. Like most New Yorkers, I carry a MetroCard in my wallet. I’m lucky in that my commute is only a few stops on the express line.  On a good day, it takes about 12 minutes to get to Park Place from 14th Street on the 2 or 3 train. But I gotta tell you… the good days are becoming fewer and far between.

Nearly 6 million New Yorkers take the subway each day. They’re going to work, or to a doctor’s appointment, or to school. And they need to be there on time. Almost every day, all of us who ride the subway endure dangerously packed train stations, inaudible announcements, phantom sick passengers or train traffic ahead.

But now the system has truly reached its breaking point. This shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise. The subway signals we still use today were installed when F.D.R. was president. We have to create our own parts because they aren’t manufactured anymore. The inside of a signal station looks about as modern as Geppetto’s workshop. At the pace we are going, it will take 50 years to finish replacing the MTA’s obsolete signal system. We must take the necessary measures to get the subway system into a state of good repair, and we shouldn’t have to wait 50 years to do it. We need a fully-funded, long-term plan to modernize our transit system. And we need it now.

Money going to the MTA must be spent efficiently, with clear timelines and appropriate oversight. We need new, smart, sustainable revenue streams. And one piece of that puzzle is congestion pricing. We need congestion pricing, this year, this session.

My district, which includes Manhattan’s West Side from Canal Street all the way to Columbus Circle, is clogged with traffic on a daily basis. We can reduce congestion and raise badly needed funds at the same time. And that money must be dedicated to our transit system. Ultimately, we need to look beyond saving our current system, and toward building a system for the next century. We shouldn’t stop believing that a better way is possible.

During the Great Depression, we built the Empire State Building in one year. Please don’t tell me that in 2018 we cannot modernize our subway lines. Because I’m here to get things done. But I can’t do it alone. I need your help.

We need to convince the State legislature that congestion pricing is the right thing to do. That fully funding the MTA is the right thing to do. We need to convince Washington that building the Gateway Tunnel is a national imperative. We may not always agree with our partners in Albany and Washington, but we must always be willing to work with them. That’s who I am.

I came to New York at the age of 19, carrying two suitcases and knowing two people. And from the moment I arrived…I knew that I belonged. I was able to find a cheap place to live until I got on my feet and found my first job. For me, New York City is a place where a 19 year old can arrive on a wing and on a prayer, and still make it.

Four years ago, I took office with one, simple goal: To be the next City Council Speaker. (Just kidding!) No, really, I took office to get things done. To use the power of public office to spur change. And to fight for my neighborhoods. My constituents and my community. It’s a promise I’ve done my best to deliver on as a City Council Member. And it’s a promise I’ll continue to live up to as Speaker. By working harder. By thinking smarter. And by working with all of my colleagues to tackle the toughest of challenges head on. Even – and ESPECIALLY – when they aren’t popular. Because we know that working together, we can do more. We must think outside of the box. Unrestrained by the politics of yesterday and the way we used to get things done.

The world is moving too quickly for us to be mired in petty political squabbles and bickering. Polarization is no substitute for policy and playing political games will doom our efforts before they even begin. The founders of ABNY knew that. They worked across ideological lines to advocate for one, simple goal: A Better New York.

And whatever that means to you…Whether you’re a business owner, a nurse or a firefighter or a 19 year old just arriving here to start a new life here… it’s a theme that resonates with all of us. We will not always agree with one another.

But I’m here to tell you that I will always be honest. I will always be straightforward. And I will always be a willing partner as we pursue our collective goals. So, thank you in advance for your partnership. Thank you for your advocacy. Thank you for your many contributions to the people of New York City. I look forward to working with each and every one of you to ensure the success of our City. Thank you.

 

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