Progressives concerned as Eric Adams takes helm as New York mayor

January 3, 2022
Gloria Oladipo
The Guardian

For many New Yorkers, the inauguration of Eric Adams as the 110th mayor of New York City – and only the second Black person to serve in the position – has evoked a range of feelings, from excitement at the possibility of change to confusion and concern.

Adams’ rise through city and state politics was fairly typical. In addition to serving as a New York police captain, he was the Brooklyn borough president and a state senator. But he remains an unconventional, even enigmatic figure. There are questions surrounding his home address and curiosity about his plant-based diet, but information about his actual policies remains scarce.

“Where Eric Adams has thrived, in many ways, is in really failing to lay out a vision,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families party. “His transition has been defined by personality, less [by] an agenda for the city.”

Progressives and advocates working across multiple sectors have voiced concerns at the slow emergence of Adams’ plans and priorities, and worry about positions he has taken including increasing the use of the heavily criticized “stop-and-frisk” policy and resurrecting plainclothes police units.

Adams’ ascent comes at a crucial time in New York history, as the city seeks to emerge from the pandemic and the economic and social chaos that has come with it.

New York’s ballooning homelessness crisis, primarily caused by a lack of affordable housing, is one of the largest issues Adam must contend with. In 2020, more than 120,000 people, including children, slept in the New York municipal shelter system, with homelessness reaching the highest levels since the Great Depression.

Covid presented additional challenges, spreading rapidly among homeless populations.

Advocates have widely supported Adams’ priority of increasing permanent, affordable housing in a city which has some of America’s most expensive rents. But many have raised concerns about Adams’ main plan: converting 25,000 hotel rooms into permanent apartments, noting zoning and conversion requirements many hotels do not meet.

Public housing, managed by the New York Public Housing Association, is another area where Adams has faced pushback. Adams supports privatizing public housing units as well as selling air rights above public housing units. Activists have said such actions, presented as an opportunity to raise capital for blighted buildings, are ineffective and that oversight for private landlords when it comes to addressing housing issues like mold and lead paint would become even more difficult.

“His focus is going to be on his big-money donors. That’s been his track record all along. That’s not a secret,” said Fight for NYCHA core member Louis Flores.

“We expect him to continue down that road, and for public housing that he’s going to support policies that benefit the real estate development industry at the expense of the public housing residents.”

Despite ambiguities around some of Adams’ plans for addressing homelessness, some experts are hopeful delays in appointments – and Adams’ reputation for flexibility – could be an opportunity for his administration to receive input from community leaders on how to address the crisis, including through the creation of a deputy to oversee homelessness and affordable housing.

“Having a bit more of a deliberative process is ultimately going to be more impactful than coming out on day one with an ambitious target for the number of units of affordable housing that should be created that might not actually have the impact of reducing homelessness and housing insecurity,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.

Proposed changes to policing are another point of tension.

Adams, who has described assault at the hands of an NYPD officer as inspiration for joining public service, has faced criticism for his plans to resurrect controversial plainclothes units, an anti-crime department in the NYPD involved in a number of shootings, and increase use of stop-and-frisk, a policy critics have condemned as racially discriminatory.

While Adams and his newly appointed NYPD commissioner, Keechant Sewell, the first Black woman to lead the department, have supported these policies and vowed to use properly trained, “emotionally intelligent” officers, progressives have argued that previous training attempts have failed, with many officers continually excused for misconduct.

“What does the emotional intelligence of an officer matter if he’s got you up against the wall, patting you down,” said Kesi Foster, a lead organizer with the nonprofit Make the Road New York and a steering committee member with Communities United for Police Reform.

Simone said: “The ways to solve unsheltered homelessness is not through policing and pushing people from one corner to another.”

Other policing initiatives Adams has sponsored have met criticism, specifically when it comes to New York’s troubled jail system.

While Adams has publicly supported closing down Rikers Island, a jail with notoriously poor conditions where several people have died in pre-trial custody, he has also promised to bring back solitary confinement to Rikers, reversing a previous ban on a practice many experts have called “inhumane”.

Adams has publicly opposed bail reform measures, meant to curtail pre-trial detention but rolled back, citing debunked claims that releases have spurred increases in crime.

“Changing the bail bill is not going to achieve the outcome the mayor wants. We’re hoping that we can convince him of that during his tenure,” said Marie Ndiaye, supervising attorney of the Decarceration Project at the Legal Aid Society.

“Getting wishy-washy on bail reform is pretty scary because there’s a pretty linear correlation between the rollbacks and the jail population increasing,” said Sara Rahimi of the nonprofit Emergency Release Fund.

In general, advocates contend there is more to be learned about Adams as more appointments are made, but given his comments so far, many are approaching the mayor-elect with caution and timid hope of being able to advance progressive policy.

“Cautiously optimistic and cautiously pessimistic all at once would be the way to go there,” said Ndiaye.

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