Readers outside the Big Apple would be wrong to dismiss this election as having merely local significance. New York has long served as a seedbed of civic and ideological innovation; policy approaches and political movements that begin in New York — from the broken windows model of policing embraced by former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to Occupy Wall Street and the democratic socialism of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — do not stay in New York. So it’s worth paying close attention to Gotham’s political future.
The question Adams faces is: What should that future look like?
A year ago, as the George Floyd protests rocked the five boroughs and as New York’s City Council voted to shift $1 billion from the NYPD budget to other initiatives, the activist left seemed ascendant. But now, as the city endures a 38 percent year-to-date increase in shootings and an unemployment rate far higher than the national average, New Yorkers are clamoring for policies to restore law and order and restart economic growth.
Moreover, the city can no longer take for granted that people from around the world will pay any price to live here. The work-from-anywhere lifestyle ushered in by covid-19 has coaxed newly mobile professionals out of America’s costliest cities to more affordable environs. In New York, the pandemic exacerbated existing trends, accelerating domestic out-migration and further slowing immigrant inflows. The city won’t empty out, but it may become poorer and less economically vibrant.
If Adams is to succeed, he’ll have to attract and retain ambitious workers by focusing obsessively on making the city safer, richer in opportunity and more affordable.
Adams’s most urgent challenge is the dramatic deterioration in public safety. An overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, regardless of color, class, or partisan affiliation, favor maintaining or increasing the police presence in their own neighborhoods. And for good reason: Rigorous academic studies find that greater police presence reduces crime. With officer attrition on the rise and the city missing two academy classes in 2020 because of covid and efforts to defund the police, recruiting and retaining good police officers must be a top priority — a process that will entail substantial financial investments, possibly modeled after the military’s practice of giving better pay and opportunities to recruits with higher levels of education. Outreach to improve the relationship between police and minority communities is also a must. If New York doesn’t get crime under control, decline is inevitable.
At a time when families with children are reconsidering their commitment to urban cores, New York also needs higher quality schools. Where de Blasio focused on redistributing seats at the city’s most academically selective middle and high schools, the next administration must increase the number of good schools and the number of seats within them, regardless of whether they are charters, traditional public schools, independent private schools or religious schools. To that end, Adams should urge state legislators to remove the cap on the number of charter schools permitted in the city and remove de Blasio-era restrictions on siting charters in underutilized Department of Education buildings.
Third, to ensure a robust economic recovery, the next mayor must usher in an era of housing abundance. Even after the pandemic, New York remains exceptionally unaffordable by national standards. Removing regulatory obstacles to market-rate development is the only way to ensure reasonable rents. Failing that, the city will stunt its own economic potential: Whatever recovery does occur will precipitate another housing crunch that deters further employment growth. Adams has a number of options, including permitting accessory dwelling units, rezoning antiquated manufacturing zones for residential development, or petitioning the state to amend the Multiple Dwelling Law that effectively caps the size of residential buildings in the city.
Finally, New Yorkers must confront looming fiscal challenges. Long before the pandemic, the de Blasio administration granted significant pay increases, some retroactive, to city workers without securing meaningful concessions in return. He also dramatically expanded the city workforce. Rather than use the recent infusion of $15 billion in additional federal aid to ease the transition to a more sustainable budget, de Blasio has promised further increases in the city payroll. At a minimum, his successor must seek meaningful productivity gains and bring New York’s pension and health benefits in line with those of federal and state workers, before ballooning budgets lead to tax increases or service cuts that make the city even less attractive.
Unlike the Democratic candidates who vied to be tribunes of the activist left and lost, Adams positioned himself as a pro-business, pro-charter pragmatist who aimed to reform the NYPD, not defund it. Dismissed by critics as a machine politician devoid of creativity or conviction, he now has an opportunity to prove them wrong. By embracing these reforms, Adams can revitalize a metropolis battered by crime and the pandemic — and, in so doing, chart a path forward for other recovering cities across the nation.