DMI Blog

John Petro

A Sorry State of the City

People here who are lucky enough to have a job are finding that their paychecks don't go nearly as far as they used to. Foreclosure and disinvestment are undermining the stability of neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. The city's mass transit system is set to suffer drastic service cuts to vital subway and bus lines. And while rents across the city have declined slightly for the first time in years, middle-income families pay so much of their income in rent that there is little left over at the end of the month for other necessities. That's the sorry state of the city for most New Yorkers today, and it needs to change.

In his State of the City speech today, Mayor Bloomberg defined an ambitious goal for a third term: "To make the strongest possible recovery from the most severe national recession our country has faced in the post-war era."

Bloomberg added, "With the right strategy, there is no doubt in my mind that we can help lead the national recovery, and lift our City to new heights."

That strategy needs to include concrete policies that will rebuild the middle class and ensure shared economic progress. Forget shuffling top deputies like a deck of cards; the city needs a more focused vision for rebuilding the middle class and ensuring shared economic progress in the months and years ahead.

Mayor Bloomberg needs to acknowledge that residents require more than just minimum-wage employment to survive and thrive. That's why the mayor must devote more resources, energy, and leadership to increasing the number of good jobs available to the current and aspiring middle class. The city should promote and expand high-paying manufacturing jobs in places like Midtown's Garment District and Brooklyn's Navy Yard, and craft better zoning, economic development, transit, and land use policy to support this effort. These jobs would enable residents to contribute more to our local tax base and economy.

Another cost-effective reform would be a citywide living wage to transform poverty-level jobs in retail and home health care, the city's two fastest growing sectors, into jobs that can elevate working families into the middle class. The city will add 22,000 cashier jobs and 32,000 retail salesperson jobs to the economy over the next seven years, but these jobs pay paltry wages, between $17,000 and $22,000 a year on average. Unless we permanently raise wages in these sectors, more and more families will be added to the ranks of the working poor and increase the city's tax burden through increased reliance on public assistance.

Now let's talk about housing: it's simply too expensive for all but the richest residents. So the city must address the housing needs of struggling New Yorkers. Developers who want to build and sell more luxury condominiums must also add to the city's affordable and moderately-priced housing stock. At a minimum, they should be required to set aside 15 percent of all new units for middle-income families through citywide mandatory inclusionary zoning, a cost-effective policy with a track record of success in other cities.

And then there are issues of basic workplace fairness, such as the right to stay home from work when you fall sick. A bill to guarantee all working people paid sick leave has been languishing in the City Council since last year and the support of the mayor would quickly make this bill become law. A similar law has been proven not to hurt businesses in San Francisco and is projected to deliver considerable cost-savings there over time. The message on this is simple: healthy workers and healthy businesses can coexist.

For current and aspiring middle class New Yorkers, the city is in a sorry state indeed. But unless the Bloomberg administration embraces these progressive policy reforms, this sorry state will persist for the next four years.

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Posted at 3:24 PM, Jan 20, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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