Council Speaker laments NYC affordability crisis in State of the City speech: ‘We can and must do better’

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams took aim at New York’s skyrocketing costs of living in her annual State of the City address Wednesday and floated a handful of proposals she argued will help turn the tide on the problematic trend.

The speaker, whose Democratic Council majority has clashed intensely with Mayor Eric Adams on policy and budgetary matters in recent months, suggested the city government’s social safety net has been weakened under the mayor’s two years in office and drew a parallel between that and issues of affordability in housing, health care, childcare and education. The speaker, however, did not directly blame the mayor for the city’s troubles.

“A lack of capacity within our city agencies has undermined access to assistance that families could once rely on. This does not have to be our reality,” the speaker said before a packed Brooklyn Academy of Music audience that included the mayor. “We know our government can work because it has before. We’ve got to get back to basics — strengthen our city government to work for all New Yorkers.”

“We can and must do better,” she also said.

A persistent struggle for the mayor’s administration has been to process public benefits like food stamps and cash assistance within a legally required timeframe, an issue exacerbated by staff shortages at the city’s Human Resources Administration. The mayor, though, touted earlier this month that his administration has nearly cleared a backlog of tens of thousands of overdue public benefits applications thanks to reforms to the processing protocols.

Still, Human Resources Administration officials testified before the Council earlier this week that their agency has more than 1,000 budgeted vacancies. Other agencies have thousands more vacancies.

The speaker said a key starting point for the city must be to fill those vacancies.

To do so, she said the Council looks to establish a program in partnership with the City University of New York and DC37, the city government’s largest union, to “create pathways to careers and jobs in our municipal workforce.”

“This initiative will prioritize participants in CUNY programs to fill persistently vacant city job titles and provide students with the mobility and long-term security of a career in city government,” she said.

Though light on details, the speaker also said the program will include a separate track focused on hiring for seasonal jobs in city government, like the ones contained in the City Cleanup Corps initiative operated by the Departments of Parks, Sanitation and Transportation during the summer months.

“This program will also provide a track for seasonal jobs in agencies that help chronically underemployed New Yorkers, young people, and eligible asylum seekers gain opportunities to work and improve their employment prospects,” she said. “Our economic and job recovery has been uneven, and we must provide opportunities for people at every level to succeed.”

Beyond municipal hiring, the speaker echoed the mayor’s push for building more housing to tackle the city’s skyrocketing rents.

She didn’t announce any new initiatives on that front, but said that the Council will work with the mayor to adopt a citywide zoning law text amendment that his administration’s pushing to pave the way for more housing development across the five boroughs.

She also suggested the city can tailor the zoning amendment in such a way that would place new requirements on landlords as it relates to accepting CityFHEPS vouchers, which heavily subsidize rent for eligible low-income New Yorkers on open market apartments.

The reference to CityFHEPS comes as the mayor’s refusing to implement laws expanding access to CityFHEPS despite the Council overriding his vetoes of the measures last year. The Council has joined a lawsuit seeking to force the mayor to implement those laws.

Another path the speaker looks to take to build more housing is to incentivize development of apartments on top of public libraries in the city. Such efforts have drawn controversy in the past, including when the city pushed to build apartments on top of the Sunset Park Library in Brooklyn in 2015. A 174-unit affordable housing building is currently being constructed on land owned by the New York Public Library in Inwood, Manhattan.

Ultimately, the speaker agreed with the mayor that state lawmakers in Albany must this year replace expired tax breaks incentivizing affordable housing developments — an effort that failed during the 2023 session.

“It is imperative that Albany provides funding and tax incentives to help us achieve truly affordable housing and prevent New Yorkers from being priced out,” she said.