Harvey Epstein. Photo via Met Council on Housing.
If you’re not aware, there’s a special election next week to select a new representative in the 74th Assembly District. On Tuesday, voters will pick among four candidates to replace former Assembly member Brian Kavanagh, who switched over to the State Senate.
The 74th AD covers the East Side of Manhattan below Midtown, including the East Village and a few pockets of the Lower East Side beneath East Houston Street (see the district map here). The favorite is longtime community activist Harvey Epstein, running on the Democratic Party line. Other candidates include: Bryan Cooper (Republican Party), Juan Pagán (Reform Party) and Adrienne Craig-Williams (Green Party).
Earlier this month, Epstein reached out to local news outlets, including The Lo-Down. We interviewed him one rainy afternoon at his campaign headquarters on Avenue C.
Epstein is a public interest attorney who just wrapped up a 12-year tour of duty as head of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. He’s a former chairperson of Community Board 3, tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board and a former parent leader at the Neighborhood School.
Even if you don’t know Epstein personally, you’re probably aware of the impact he’s made in the local community. His team at the Urban Justice Center was behind several high-profile cases against Lower East Side landlords accused of harassing rent stabilized tenants. Epstein helped lead a successful effort to pass a dozen tenant protection bills in the City Council last year. He was one of the most outspoken members of CB3 on the issue of affordable housing, especially in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (now known as Essex Crossing).
In our conversation, Epstein made it clear that working to alleviate New York’s affordable housing crisis would be a high priority for him in Albany. He noted that there are more than 60,000 homeless people on the city’s streets. ‘People are struggling, and we need to do something about it,” said Epstein. “The state needs to do better.”
He would repeal vacancy deregulation as a way of protecting New York City’s stock of rent stabilized housing. At the same time, he said, the State Legislature needs to look for new opportunities to create middle-income housing (the Mitchell Lama Law is 40 years old). “We need affordable housing at every (income) level,” he added.
As for the troubled New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), Epstein was pleased by Governor’s Cuomo’s recent decision to add another $250 million to the housing authority’s budget for critical repairs. But much more needs to be done, he said. While the federal government has starved public housing of funding, Epstein noted that local governments have failed to fill the gap. “There’s not enough money going into NYCHA,” he asserted. “The state and the city, have not done their job to fully fund NYCHA. That really falls at the feet of the state. Over the past 20 years, New York gave up its responsibility to NYCHA.”
Another big issue for public housing tenants throughout the Lower East Side is NextGeneration NYCHA, which calls for building new mixed-income housing alongside existing residential towers. Several developments in the 74th Assembly District could be impacted, including the Baruch Houses (NYCHA is now evaluating development proposals for new senior housing at Baruch).
Epstein said he wants more robust resident engagement as NYCHA pursues development opportunities. “I want the residents to be driving these conversations,” he explained. “It’s really important that the people who live in those developments have a say in what’s happening.” Epstein is skeptical about NYCHA’s plan to build 50% market rate apartments in new infill projects. “I have serious reservations about a 50-50 deal,” he said. “I always believe that on government land you need to do your best to get 100% affordable housing.” There’s an argument to be made, he added, that no new development should occur on NYCHA land. “I’m not 100% convinced we need to do something there,” Epstein said.
From 2008-2013, Epstein was part of a task force created by Community Board 3 to develop a grassroots plan for the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. He was among a group of nine members who vowed to oppose the final deal because the city would not commit to making 50% of the apartments permanently affordable. The Bloomberg administration eventually relented, and he backed the plan.
Years later, with the first Essex Crossing buildings opening to residents, does Epstein feel the community got a good deal? “In my 2008 eyes,” he responded, “I think we did the best deal we could get. I have no idea in 2018 whether we could have gotten a better deal than we got in 2013. But that’s not how it works in life. I think we got the best deal we could get, and I think we should feel proud of what we got.” Personally, he would have loved to have secured more affordable housing, but Epstein said it was significant that the city agreed to permanent affordability, something it hadn’t done in the past. “That was the old best,” he added. In future projects, “we have to figure out what’s the new best deal we can get for the community.”
While we spent a lot of time talking about housing issues, Epstein has many other priorities. Near the top of the list is the decaying, dysfunctional Metropolitan Transportation Authority. For starters, said Epstein, the “MTA needs to stop borrowing money for capital improvements. For every dollar you give to the MTA, 20% is going to pay off debt service.” In addition to fully funding the MTA, he wants to see a reduced fare program for low-income residents. Other topics Epstein wants to tackle in Albany include more funding for public schools, strengthening gun control laws and establishing a single-payer healthcare system.
In February, Epstein was selected by the Democratic County Committee in the 74th AD as the party’s nominee. Many local elected officials and community leaders rallied around him, making victory at the party level relatively easy. But Epstein wants to see the process change. He supports open primaries for all special elections, rather than relying on party bosses in “smoke-filled rooms” to pick candidates for statewide office.
Asked what he wants voters to know about his candidacy before Tuesday’s election, Epstein concluded our interview by saying, “I want them to know I care deeply about this neighborhood, and I’m really open to hearing from them. I will always try. People should hold me accountable.”
If you want to find out whether you’re a voter in the 74th Assembly District or locate your polling station, consult the Board of Elections website.