UPPER EAST SIDE — Ben Kallos once seemed like a long shot to replace Jessica Lappin as the Upper East Side's City Council representative.
But after handily beating scandal-plagued Assemblyman Micah Kellner and Community Board 8 member Ed Hartzog in the Democratic primary, Kallos sailed to victory by securing almost 60 percent of the vote in the general election.
Since then, the 32-year-old former chief of staff to Assemblyman Jonathan Bing hasn’t had much time to reflect on the ups and downs of his campaign.
He’s been busy working on the progressive platform on which he campaigned and preparing to convince his constituents and fellow councilmembers of some big ideas — including shutting down the controversial plan to build a marine transfer station on the East Side and reducing the cost of a CUNY education.
“I think the largest challenge that we face as a city is moving from this 'tale of two cities' toward unity and getting buy-in from residents that we can do better and that we will do better,” Kallos said. “And that investing in our youth and our seniors and our residents will give us the best possible returns.”
DNAinfo New York sat down with Kallos at his new district office on East 93rd Street to discuss his top priorities for the neighborhood.
You were raised on the Upper East Side?
I was born in Florida. When she got divorced from my father, my mother moved us to the Upper East Side, to 88th and York. What was there at the time was a marine transfer station. I remember the slicks of garbage from the garbage trucks that idled outside of my building, not being allowed to cross York Avenue on my own because my mother was concerned that a garbage truck might hit me. And I remember Carl Schurz park not being the nicest park in the neighborhood because the garbage ended up there.
So that’s a no to the marine transfer station then?
The reason I ran was to stop it. I’m on my 10th day on the job and I believe that we’ve already started to build a coalition of at least 10 councilmembers that agree with me that a children’s park is not the ideal location for a marine transfer station, and that a residential neighborhood is not the location we should be using.
Mayor de Blasio has come out on the other side of this issue. Do you anticipate this being a big point of contention?
I think what’s important is addressing his concerns. His concern is environmental justice. The larger community’s concern is environmental justice. We have to make sure that any solution we propose that does not include the marine transfer station at 91st street addresses environmental justice concerns so that everyone is doing their fair share.
What are some of the other big issues you’re hoping to address in your district?
Day One: seats in schools. We have a comprehensive education agenda. It started during the primary with a commitment to pre-K. There are 275,000 children in New York City who are eligible for subsidized or free pre-K, and less than 90,000 children get that. We’re going to be joining the mayor and others to make sure that we get universal pre-K.
Children who have universal pre-K do better in life, and parents who can send their children to full day pre-K can work full-time. They can pay taxes. A parent earning $40,000 a year pays $8,000 in taxes. Pre-K costs $7,000, so that’s pretty much a $1,000 win for the city.
The proposal to pay for universal pre-K is to increase taxes on income above $500,000. You’re in one of the wealthiest areas in the city. How do you plan to sell this idea to constituents?
I think that folks have a misperception of the Upper East Side, at least of the part that I represent. We have a lot of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled tenants. These are the people who made the neighborhood what it is today and made it so desirable. We still have a lot of middle-income people. In fact, a lot of them identify as low-income. When Rhinelander Nursery, which was funded by the Children’s Aid Society, was looking for a new space, a lot of parents in the district reached out to me saying, “Without Rhinelander, we can’t afford this.”
Even if somebody can afford to spend $40K per year on pre-K and nursery, they shouldn’t have to. Having more availability for those who qualify for subsidized and free pre-K means that the price will be going down for everybody.
Moving away from pre-K, tell us about your CUNY tuition proposal.
In New York City, we have a brain drain. We have the best schools in the state, the country, the world. People come here and then they go to the Southwest. We’re spending money to educate people and then they are leaving.
The thought process is, let’s give CUNY students loans and for every year they stay in New York City afterwards, we will forgive 10 percent of their debt. If a CUNY grad wants to leave, that’s fine. They’ll pay their loan and we’ll get our money back. If they stay, we’ll get our money back in taxes over the course of 10 years. There will be some people who make more, some who make less, but it will average out.
Funding for CUNY comes from both the city and the state. Will this have to be approved at a state level?
The reason I focused on refundable debt is in order to do it through the city and not involve the state. The city of New York has the ability to spend its money however it wishes. It would be a matter of setting the money aside, securing it against payment and offering it in much the same way as Sallie Mae does.
Seniors are also a big part of the population of your district. What are the main goals you want to focus on for that population?
The issue is keeping seniors healthy and independent. That means a commitment to senior centers. During the campaign, when they wanted to close senior centers at NYCHA, the Stanley Isaac’s Senior Center, I testified along with community groups and DC37 and many others. We were able to keep it open.
I believe we spend about $100,000 per year on Stanley Isaacs, to feed seniors there. They serve dozens if not hundreds of seniors. To put one senior in a nursing home is $15,000 per month, or over $150,000 per year. So, it’s about making sure that there is somebody to help people to see where their dollars are going.
The theme that I’m sensing here is investing money up front to prevent larger costs in the future. What do you say to people who are concerned about the city’s spending?
We do the math for people. Instead of just saying, we should do this because it’s the right thing or we should do it because it saves us money, we actually try to give examples of saying, $100,000 takes care of several dozen if not a hundred seniors or that same hundred dollars takes care of a piece of one senior in a nursing home. Or a couple thousand dollars takes care of after-school activities, or that same money takes care of a portion of one child being in juvenile hall for one month.
I’ve been accused of being a wonk, and it’s true. So we focus on framing arguments in language that everyone can understand and that even the most fiscally conservative Michael Bloombergs of the world will agree with.
The lack of green space in the neighborhood is well known. Do you have thoughts on how to improve that?
Chief among our priorities is preserving what we have. So that means stopping the marine transfer station so that our green space remains usable and safe and healthy. During the campaign, we opposed the conversion of existing park space into luxury high-rises. We testified against the conversion of a playground into a high-rise. The zoning change did unfortunately go through. I wasn’t elected yet, but we look forward to fighting those fights.
We hope that the new MSK-Hunter building that was recently approved will help support improvements to the esplanade — not only where it’s currently supposed to go, which is a park in the 60s, but also along the whole esplanade. We’re open to working with the community, benefactors of the community, as well as the hospital corridor to take responsibility for the esplanade. The West Side has a park from tip to tip. The East Side should have the same. I’ll be working with State Senator Liz Krueger, City Councilmember Dan Garodnick and others to make sure that we do get the park space that we need.