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A Conversation with Sheldon Silver

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Sheldon Silver rallied at City Hall last month with housing advocates, calling for the passage of stronger rent regulations.

Most community news outlets keep tabs on their neighborhoods’ elected representatives.  On the Lower East Side, of course, our state assemblyman just happens to be the Speaker, one of the most powerful and high-profile public figures in New York.

This means Sheldon Silver is very much in demand, a constant presence in newspapers and on television across the state. But even foes would concede Silver has never forgotten his roots — and continues to pay a lot of attention to the old neighborhood.

After a frenzied few weeks, Silver and his colleagues in Albany are back home for the holidays. Last Thursday, he sat down with me in his office across from City Hall to talk about the Legislative session, important local issues and the ever-evolving Lower East Side.

Sheldon Silver, Andrew Cuomo, Senate leader Dean Skelos.

We began with a discussion of the newly enacted state budget, which was passed by the Legislature a few hours early late last month — the first time that’s occurred in nearly three decades. Silver said:

It is a difficult economic climate. Jobs are not growing, (even with) all of the projections of the economy rebounding, etc.  Today’s report on unemployment claims – up over 400,000 nationally… We had a $10 billion budget deficit this year. We did not have a great increase in revenues. Going forward we don’t project a great increase in revenues… We lost federal stimulus money which paid for about $7 billion in services. So those are real dollars gone for schools, health care.

The budget slashes $1.3 billion in school aid and $2.7 from Medicaid. But Silver said he fought for and won restorations in many programs that the governor had proposed cutting much more deeply:

The governor proposed eliminating (federal) Title XX money. We restored 100%. Especially downtown,  five senior centers were projected for closing by the city.  Now it’s up to the mayor and the City Council to restore their share to make sure none of them close. I’ve got a commitment from the chair of the chair of the City Council Finance Committee that, if we restored all the (state) money, they’ll restore all the (city) money. Clearly that was important. Summer youth employment program, run out of some of our settlement houses, we restored all the money the governor had cut. We restored a significant amount of important services to our community that also goes on a citywide basis but our community is really a microcosm of the rest of the city in terms of its needs… Overall the budget process worked. It worked in a timely fashion. It was passed about 23 and a quarter hours early, which is a lot earlier than before, and it is an accomplishment, especially in a time when we had such a huge deficit.

Big issues remain, of course. Ethics reform and rent regulation laws, which expire June 15, are high on Albany’s “to do” list.  Extending rent protections is a big priority for many downtown activists and a big priority for the Speaker:

I have made the rent laws a priority this year from day one. I spoke at the governor’s State of the State address and I put rent laws out there right up front. I did some events down here. This week we passed the comprehensive renewal and extension and enhancement of our rent regulations and I think it’s significant to the city. I think it’s particularly significant to the entire Lower Manhattan community. If we don’t allow rent regulation to continue we will lose thousands of residents down here. Their housing will become unaffordable, totally. We have put in a comprehensive bill that not only eliminates vacancy decontrol but adjusts rent levels that were set 14 years ago… We put in an adjustment of those (levels) to reflect current market conditions and the current, i call it, middle class. $200,000 for a family living in the city is no longer luxury, no longer wealthy. It’s middle class today.

The governor has said he supports expanding rent protections, but has not been very specific about what provisions he’s willing to champion.  Property owners (and some newspaper editorial boards) are dead set against key enhancements in the Assembly’s legislation. I asked Silver whether he felt Governor Cuomo would ultimately push the Republican-controlled Senate on vacancy decontrol:

(The governor) has indicated publicly he is for expansion. He has indicated publicly that he looks favorably upon the bill that the Assembly passed… He has not been any more specific than that, but contained in the bill the Assembly passed is the elimination of vacancy decontrol and an adjustment in the capital improvement ratio, a reduction in the vacancy bonus that’s available and overall a certification process, which is key to the entire thing. Right now, decontrol happens without certification by anybody and may not become an issue until four or five years later when some new tenant decides this should never have been decontrolled, and someone (a property owner) claims either they made tremendous capital improvements or there were two vacancies during the course of the first year, which entitled them to bonuses that put them over… So one of the prime things that’s important here is a certification process by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal or by the city, either one. But some process where somebody reports every event that gives (a landlord) a benefit anywhere along the way. That’s the key to everything.

During our conversation, Silver drove home a point he’s made on more than one occasion in the past several days — the millionaire tax (in his view) is not dead:

One of the things coming out of the budget was probably the tax for people making over a million dollars. We fought to renew it. We had no partners in the Senate or the governor. It is something that will expire December 31st. It is not something we will give up on with the passage of this budget. I think it is important to us because it represents, for next year, which is the key, it represents an income of about $2.5 billion to the state. Realistically for every teacher who gets laid off in this state you’ll find someone making more than a million dollars who had their taxes reduced this year. I don’t think that’s equitable at this time. There is no evidence at all that anyone moved out of this state because they’re paying 1% more in state income taxes. There’s absolutely no evidence of that. there are people who used to make more than a million who don’t make more than a million now because of the economic climate in the nation, but we have not lost people in this state, except some who went to Florida because they like the sunshine there and they retired.

Since Andrew Cuomo’s election, city and state media have obsessed over his relationship with  Sheldon Silver.  Some see the Speaker as an “obstructionist,” who’s derailed the plans of Cuomo’s self-destructive predecessors. Others (especially in Lower Manhattan) believe Silver is the guardian of progressive principles, under siege as a centrist governor positions himself for a likely presidential run. Silver had this to say about the governor’s fiscal policies:

The governor is a unique governor for this state. Socially he’s been progressive, he’s been progressive his whole life. Economically, budget wise, he’s being somewhat practical and, to my way of thinking, not as practical. The reduction of the tax for people making over a million is a perfect example. If you’re practical, it balances your budget next year. If you’re practical, it makes restorations to education — if you’re practical. He says right now he’s reduced the out-year deficit to about $2 million.  If you enact the tax or rescind the reduction in the tax, you then close that $2 billion and have additional money… Even if you’re a fiscal conservative you still have to look and say ‘I’ve cut very difficult things this year. We’ve reduced the overall state expenditures this year, which is unheard of, unprecedented, never happened in the worst years.” We can’t do it again next year, and this is the way to do it. What we proposed… was a one year extension of (the tax) and, truthfully, it should probably be something that you use ultimately, when you can afford it, to readjust the rest of the tax schedule. Right now, because of the collapse of rates in New York, people making $10 million and people making $55,000 or $60,000 pay the same tax rate… That’s rather unusual and not good policy.

Silver hosted a meeting last week to discuss a bus management plan for the soon-to-open 9/11 Memorial. Photo credit: Silver’s office.

While Silver focuses on weighty budget matters in Albany, he’s also keeping track of important neighborhood issues, including the ongoing Seward Park redevelopment talks. In January, he endorsed Community Board 3’s planning guidelines, which ended 43 years of squabbling over the former urban renewal site. In the past two years, there had been an endless amount of conjecture as to whether he would support redevelopment. Throughout CB3’s discussions, some activists have criticized the city’s insistence that the SPURA site be financially self-sustaining (and not dependent on government subsidies).  I asked whether he agreed with this point-of-view:

For 43 years or so it’s been an issue. I’ve lived across the street from it for awhile, when I lived in (the) Seward (Park Cooperative). I never lived more than five blocks away from it. I walk the streets and hear from everyone on it, not to mention various meetings, including with the heads of the community board, who ultimately brought a very good process to conclusion. Ultimately I think you’re taking some pretty valuable property and there’s no reason why it can’t sustain itself, and have public goods as a part of the project. I think at this point it’s really premature to make a determination as to exactly what the economics of it are. The community board has put together a plan, they’ve put an outline together. I think (architectural firm) Beyer Blinder Belle has been engaged (by the city) to put out a preliminary plan on (SPURA) that will make it ready for ULURP (the city’s land use approval process) and then they put out RFP’s (requests for proposals). At that point is the time to make the economic determinations and get plans and thoughts from various developers pursuant to the plans of the community board. So I think it’s premature to make those determinations. If it wasn’t as complicated and all encompassing a plan it would be very easy to put it out and the city could make money on it probably but it is all encompassing and the city should still be able to at least have it self-sustaining, to do some things for the public good, have some open space in it and do what the plan calls for, or very close to what the plan calls for, and not require a permanent subsidy – because it’s had a permanent subsidy now for 40 some odd years – in maintaining it. We’ll see what happens.

Silver, City Councilmember Margaret Chin and Chris Kui of Asian Americans for Equality. Silver’s office helped push a property owner to renovate a tenement building ravaged by fire.
Silver with family members in Luther Gulick Park.
Silver shooting a few baskets in Gulick Park last year.
Silver participated in an oral history project in Gulick Park.

Silver has seen it all on the Lower East Side.  His first home in the neighborhood was at 235 Henry Street. His family moved into the Hillman Co-op on Grand Street when he was five years old. Silver lives in a different apartment, a one-bedroom unit, in Hillman to this day. I asked for his thoughts on what’s changed and what’s stayed the same on the LES:

The idea of a blend of different communities, the idea of new immigrants finding homes there — that hasn’t changed. That is the same. The groups have changed. The welcoming hasn’t changed. The settlement houses that exist on the Lower East Side have been home – whether it was my father who came from Russia and learned English in the 1920’s on the Lower East Side in one of the settlement houses at night — whether it’s an Asian immigrant who came in 20 years ago, a Latino immigrant who came in over the course of time — Italians or Irish who came to the Lower East Side — They all found help and welcoming. That hasn’t changed. Compared to the rest of the country that’s a significant thing… When I moved to the Lower East Side, my parents, it was in a development built under federal funding to clear slums. Grand Street was a truck depot. There was a red light on FDR Drive at Grand Street… The point I’m making is the more we change the more we stay the same. Whether you had Ratner’s or Gertel’s or Garden Cafeteria — and now you have a variety of different restaurants and different ethnic groups.

Last year at about this time, we watched as Silver relived his past glories on the basketball court at Luther Gulick Park, on Willett Street.  During the shoot-a-round (part of an effort to attract funding for the park’s restoration), he shared one of the more traumatic anecdotes from his young life — a scuffle on the swing set that left a scar under his chin.  I asked what other childhood memories stood out:

I played basketball there in Gulick Park every Sunday, every Friday afternoon after school. That was the place. At the Educational Alliance, before they had the big gym, I played on the roof. The ceiling was about 11 feet. You learned how to shoot line drives at a basket up there. I was a drop-out at Henry Street music school. My mother enrolled me in piano lessons when I wanted to play the trumpet. They told her until I was 13 they wouldn’t let me play a wind instrument but I should learn music and play piano and then I found out there was a league at the Educational Alliance, basketball, at the same time, and I never went to Henry Street. This was my youth, right down there.

Silver concluded our interview talking about his constituents on the Lower East Side and throughout his ethnically and economically diverse district:

I think I’m privileged to represent them. I really believe that and I appreciate it more often than I can express. People do not understand that I can walk three blocks and see so many constituents at one time. I tell the joke (when an Assembly member) tells me how big (his/her) district is, If they get in the car and drive all day they don’t get to the other side of their district. “I said I once had a car like that, too.”  The reality is, I tell them, I could probably walk the length or width of my district in about 25 minutes, from east to west or north to south… To meet 500 constituents I could probably walk one block — stand on one street corner for a half hour. That’s unique here. I have one of the smallest geographic districts because it goes by population. It’s a different dynamic than a lot of other people can appreciate… I get people who say they remember my mother pushing me in a carriage, people who were at my bar Mitzvah.  Some issues (raised by constituents) are realistic and some are not realistic. From someone pointing to a broken street light and asking what I’m going to do about it in an arrogant way — to someone talking about real issues or real problems with state agencies. This office handles so many of them… That’s all in the nature of what I was elected to do. I never lose sight of the fact that the people who elect me are the people in the district. You can’t be the speaker unless you have a district to represent.


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