A Conversation With Bronx Borough President-Elect Vanessa Gibson

A Conversation With Bronx Borough President-Elect Vanessa Gibson

Real Estate In-Depth recently interviewed and posed “Five Questions” to New York City Council Member and former New York State Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson, who will be taking office in January 2022 as the new Borough President of the Bronx, succeeding Ruben Diaz Jr. who decided not to run for re-election after serving three terms.

Gibson currently represents the Bronx’s 16th Council District where she has advocated for affordable housing, low income families, seniors, LGBTQ rights, gender equity, employment access, and meaningful opportunities for our youth and is serving her second term of office on the New York City Council.

During the 2014-2017 session, Gibson served as Chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety, and has the distinction of being both the first woman and first person of color to hold this role. As Chair, she had oversight of the operations and budget of the NYPD, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the District Attorneys and the Special Narcotics prosecutor, and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Gibson has been a leader in school safety reform, championed criminal justice reform legislation, and is a vocal proponent of anti-gun violence programs.

Currently, Gibson is a Deputy Leader, Co-Chair of the New York City Council Women’s Caucus and the second Bronxite to Chair the Committee on Oversight and Investigation. She formally served as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Capital Budget from 2018 – 2020, where she helped oversee the city’s capital investments and changes to the capital process.

Upon being elected to the New York State Assembly in 2009, Gibson embarked an ambitious agenda to improve the quality of life of her constituents in the 77th Assembly District and residents throughout Bronx County. She led efforts to support more education on lupus, championed efforts to support public education, access to affordable housing, higher education at SUNY, affordable and quality healthcare, senior services and youth services. After serving two terms in the State Assembly, she was elected to the New York City Council in November 2013.

The Morris Heights resident s a life-long New Yorker, graduate of the city’s Public-School system, and an alumna of SUNY Albany (undergraduate) and Baruch College, where she received her MPA.

Real Estate In-Depth: The Bronx was the most hard-hit borough in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic with an unemployment rate that reached 25%. The jobless rate has since dropped to 12.4% as of September 2021 but is still the highest of all the boroughs in New York. What will you do to try and get more Bronx residents back to work?

Gibson: So, I appreciate the question and certainly am aware of the high unemployment rate that we are facing now as a result of COVID. One in every four Bronxites lost their income as well as their employment due to the pandemic. A lot of the jobs we lost in the Bronx are in the hotel and retail industries and as we rebound and return to normalcy, I do believe that many of those workers will eventually go back to work, but the question is when, because obviously it goes hand-in-hand with tourism, nightlife, Broadway, with sports venues and really everything we know and love about New York City coming back to normal. So, as Borough President I will work feverishly with the administration, with Eric Adams, on making sure we can find ways to create new jobs.

I think we have to look at the tech industry. We have to look at worker cooperatives. We have to look at ways that we can build out entrepreneurs and also support small business. If we provide them with tax incentives and other support, we can get businesses to hire more locally right in their own communities—our supermarkets, the grocery stores, the bodegas. I really want to make sure we are investing in the small “Mom and Pop” shops and merchants that have been really decimated during the pandemic.

I recognize that a lot of our larger employers are Montefiore, the health industry and the District Attorney’s Office. But, what we are now learning is not every Bronx resident wants to physically go back to work in an office setting and I think that is concerning for a number of reasons because people have been used to these two years now of working remotely, of doing a lot of things at home that we didn’t know that we could do before and we now can. So, I think there is a little bit of anxiety and hesitancy on many residents returning back to a work setting that is in an office with people and consumers and clients visiting. I think it is a lot of building that we have to do and a lot of partnerships working with the Merchants Association, our BIDs, the Chambers of Commerce, working with the administration to find ways to get Bronxites back to work.

Real Estate In-Depth: During your campaign, you stated that New York City Housing Authority tenants continue to face mold, rat infestation, leaks, malfunctioning elevators, poor lighting, a lack of security, lead paint and asbestos. You characterized NYCHA as “the worst landlord in New York City.” What must be done to turn around conditions in the city’s public housing properties?

Gibson: Public housing needs a serious makeover starting from the federal government to the state and local governments. We have to find ways to reinvest. We have to look at instituting more Section 8 vouchers for residents to live in public housing. But, from a local level, we have to make sure that NYCHA spends the money that we give it. This administration under Mayor (Bill) de Blasio has invested billions of dollars in NYCHA from new boilers, new roofs, elevators, facades, a lot of infrastructure. But, guess what, NYCHA is not spending the money and drawing down on the funds as expeditiously as it could. I think that speaks volumes to the capital process and the procurement process; what is happening from the point of the allocation to the actual groundbreaking. Do we have enough designers and architects? Do we have enough vendors that are actually applying for these RFPS (Request for Proposals) so they can be awarded contracts?

The contracting process needs to be seriously reformed, involving the (City) Comptroller’s Office. So, residents of NYCHA have been far too patient for too long. They are living with rodents, with rats, with mole infestation and it is just disgusting. And there was a time years ago when it was attractive to live in New York City housing. Since then we have seen disinvestment from the federal, state and local governments. In my own capital budget in my eight years on the (City) Council, I have invested my own dollars—$10 million to be exact—to transform my developments (in her district) because I know that if I wait for NYCHA things will not get done. I am the one putting the lighting, the LED lights, the playgrounds, the basketball courts and we’re putting in cameras and other security measures. So, we have to do a lot better, but I think that with the new administration, with a new regional administrator that we are getting in Alicka Ampry Samuel, I think we will see a lot of changes happening.

Real Estate In-Depth: Another key issue you identified in your campaign was the need for more affordable housing in the Bronx and you also said that you would work with partners in government to facilitate new construction that prioritizes veterans, seniors, youth aging out of foster care, grandparents raising their grandchildren and LGBTQ Bronx residents. How can you make this happen?

Gibson: I think you make that happen by building a coalition, by working with labor and the (building) trades industry. I am going to formulate a working group with Laborers Local 79 as well as mason tenders, electricians and carpenters because we want to make sure we are having conversations at the beginning of projects before they go through the ULURP process. We want to make sure there are guaranteed jobs, local hiring provisions, MWBE set-asides so that we can have local businesses apply and get access to these job opportunities. We also want to make sure formerly incarcerated men and women are able to get a lot of these jobs as well. We support prevailing wage and union wage and good-paying jobs that provide a real pathway to the middle-class. When we work with the Adams administration, we will be working with (NYC) HPD to look at the existing term sheets to see if there could be areas of improvement, programs like SARA (Senior Affordable Rental Apartments) and ELLA (Extremely Low-and Low-Income Affordability Program) that drive certain types of development. We support extremely low-income housing, but we also support mixed-income housing because we have a lot of two-parent households that are making incomes above minimum wage, but they are not wealthy. They are working class people that need affordable and quality housing.

I also am going to champion ownership opportunities. I want to build more homes because I want people to own property. I don’t think we should envision being tenants the rest of our lives and when you look at initiatives like Community Land Trusts, that is the way to build economic wealth and power in the Bronx. I am going to be championing that with Northwest Bronx, Nos Quedamos, and Banana Kelly and so many organizations that are on the ground that have been building in the Bronx for many, many years and now that we have the opportunities in economic development, I want to make sure that we are getting local jobs and MWBE apprenticeship opportunities and we are really creating the access middle class people will need to affordable housing, good jobs and sustainable living.

Real Estate In-Depth: During the campaign you said improving the Bronx’s low vaccination rate would be a top priority. According to city data, 69% of all Bronx residents have received at least one shot of the COVID vaccine, the second lowest rate of all five boroughs, and below the citywide average of 74%. What can be done to get more Bronx residents to take the shot?

Gibson: A lot of education and outreach and honestly, I need medical professionals of color to come into communities of color and talk to the residents. Many in the communities that I serve today, immigrant communities of color, there is a deep-rooted history around vaccinations and so many people of color are worried about side effects, they have underlying health conditions and they just don’t trust and believe in science. I support vaccines, I support mandates, I support any effort to keep people safe and healthy and I have lost too many people. The Bronx has the highest death rate due to COVID due to underlying health conditions like asthma, heart disease, obesity and diabetes to name a few.

So, what do we need. We need community-based health centers and we need a real community-oriented approach with cultural diversity and sensitivity, language access and we need to be able to have affordable, convenient locations in the Bronx where we can meet people where they are. The number one issue of why people are not getting vaccinated revolves around transportation—they can’t get to and from locations. So, we have to make it easy and affordable and meet people where they are in their own communities.

Real Estate In-Depth: There had been a significant amount of residential and commercial investment in the Bronx prior to the pandemic. Are investors returning to the Bronx and are there any specific projects of note you would like to point out that are either under construction or in the pipeline?

Gibson: Absolutely, there are a lot of capital projects that are now re-starting as a result of the pause during the pandemic. I am working on the Bronx Children’s Museum, the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. We have $100 million invested to transform Orchard Beach, specifically the Pavilion, we are expanding Metro North with four stations in Co-Op City, Morris Park (Hunts Point, Parkchester and Van Nest) in the East Bronx. We are also looking at a lot of development in the South Bronx; the old Spofford (former Juvenile Detention facility); La Central on Westchester Ave. and 149th St. We are opening community centers in the Northeast and South Bronx. There is a lot of economic development and jobs and a lot of opportunity. Unfortunately, a lot of construction and noise, but it is temporary pain for our long-term benefit. And I will be making sure that I am overseeing all of these projects as Borough President and working with the developers. I have a groundbreaking on Thursday (Nov. 17) on River Ave. for a development with more than 600 units of affordable housing by Mack Equities.

There is a lot happening and I am excited and I also look forward to expanding on that in other neighborhoods that don’t necessarily have a lot of affordable and moderate-income housing.

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