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De Blasio's First Town Hall Meeting in WaHi Drew Mostly Friendly Feedback

By Jeff Mays | October 15, 2015 9:33am
 Mayor Bill de Blasio took a victory lap Wednesday night, boasting about his tenant protection policies during his first town hall meeting at a Washington Heights school, a marathon session where he answered questions for two hours.
De Blasio Takes Questions For Two Hours During His First Town Hall Meeting
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Mayor Bill de Blasio took a victory lap Wednesday night, boasting about his tenant protection policies during his first town hall meeting at a Washington Heights school, a marathon session where he answered questions for two hours.

The focus of the event was tenant issues, and Washington Heights was chosen because it has the largest cluster of rent-stabilized apartments in the city, officials said.

Hosted by area Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, the town hall — in front of a mostly friendly and admiring crowd — was part of a larger effort by City Hall to place the mayor directly in front of constituents.

De Blasio began doing more radio shows and taking questions from the public following a poll in August that showed him with the lowest approval rating ever of his mayoralty.

The mayor wasn't visible enough and opinion of him was being damaged by an ongoing public feud with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a vicious public relations battle with Uber, experts said.

Alternately sitting on a stool and pacing at the center of a large circle in the gymnasium of Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics, de Blasio appeared at ease surrounded by about 250 area residents and several of his commissioners.

The mayor touted his plan to provide free lawyers for city residents with landlord issues, his initiative to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade, and the first rent freeze in the history of the Rent Guidelines Board.

"The difference now...is you have the full weight of City Hall behind you, on your side," de Blasio told the crowd.

The mayor answered questions about affordable housing, reminding the crowd that their new leases must abide by the ruling of the Rent Guidelines Board and telling anyone who was being harassed by their landlord to call 311 so they could be put in touch with free legal services.

Much of the crowd was complimentary of de Blasio and his policies. The mayor received a standing ovation when he entered and several rounds of applause throughout.

But De Blasio still got some tough questions.

"What is affordable? What we need is low-income housing for it to be affordable for people on my block," said a man who asked the first question. The city recently announced the addition of an "affordable" group of studio apartments that rent for $1,900 in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, where the market rate price for such a unit is only $1,300.

De Blasio explained to the man concerned about affordability that the bulk of his affordable housing plan targets families who earn between $20,000 and $40,000 annually.

Jeanie Doubnau, a scientist who has lived in Washington Heights for 50 years, said she was concerned that de Blasio's affordable housing plan would attract too many market-rate tenants to the area and change the face of the neighborhood by driving up rents.

"Stores are closing because landlords say soon we will have higher-income tenants and we'll be able to charge more expensive stores higher rents," Doubnau said.

The mayor told Doubnau that market-rate housing was a necessity in his plan because it allowed for more affordable units to be built and he didn't want to "lie" to residents about that.

Doubnau wasn't convinced.

"There are ways to find the money to build more affordable housing but then he'd have to fight the real estate lobby," said Doubnau, who added she planned to fight any rezoning of her neighborhood.

Another man asked de Blasio about his stance against the deportation of Haitians from the Dominican Republic, angrily saying that the mayor owed Dominicans an apology following his public statements calling the move a "racist," "illegal" act.

"The issue now is tenant rights," said Rodriguez, who did not let the mayor respond to the man.

The mayor received positive remarks from the crowd. One woman held up her Municipal Identification and said it was working, prompting de Blasio to whip out his own card and explain that he used it when he was carded as he tried to buy a beer recently. De Blasio also touted universal pre-K.

Ayisha Oglivie, a technology and marketing trainer who asked about a tenant issue involving her landlord, said she felt the town hall showed that de Blasio "respects our community."

"We get to hear directly from him versus what a public relations or news person or even someone from his cabinet says on his behalf," said Oglivie, who, like many in the crowd, was able to speak to city employees who tried to help with her problem.

Moldavia McAlpine, a teacher at a religious school, said de Blasio should host more town hall meetings so he could "listen to the voice of the people."

City Hall officials say that additional town halls are in the works.

"You have a partner, you have a friend, you have an ally at City Hall," de Blasio told the crowd as he wrapped up.