Tribeca Citizen | The Candidates 2021: Susan Lee for CD1 | #dating | #elderly | #seniors
This is the fourth in a series of short interviews with candidates along with their responses to a very long questionnaire based on reader questions. As these roll out, I will link to the posts on other candidates at the bottom.
As a Tribecan (in fact the only one running for the CD1 seat) born in Hong Kong and raised on the Lower East Side, Susan Lee sees herself as a bridge across many of this district’s constituencies. She doesn’t want to be pigeonholed in a district as diverse as this, she says, and bristles when she’s asked if she’s going to be a “Chinatown candidate.”
“I say, ‘Well, you can’t get away from this face,’” she says. “But identity politics doesn’t work for me. I am much more interested in the issues.”
A graduate of Brooklyn Tech (and then Barnard and then NYU for her master’s in public policy), she hasn’t left Manhattan since she arrived here with her parents as a 6-year-old in 1984. (She’s 42.) Her mother would go on to work in a sweatshop, her father in a factory, and they made sure their kids got the education they brought them here for. (On Saturdays, her parents would leave her at the Chatham Square Library while they did the grocery shopping, telling her if she read while they were gone she would get a slice of pizza. It made her into a big reader.)
She interned for Ronnie Eldridge in college, which first got her thinking about politics, and later was the volunteer coordinator for Margaret Chin’s campaign. Professionally she’s a grant writer for non-profits, and fun fact: she’s run 15 marathons in four years. Tokyo is the only marathon left on her list, but that will have to wait till next year.
She entered the council race late, but used her local network — and her parents’ — to meet the threshold just before the holidays. “My mom went to her friends to ask for small donations — everyone knew that ‘Ying’s daughter’ was running for the City Council,” she said. Her husband also canvasses for her every weekend and her father cooks dinner when she’s out late — leaving it at her apartment on Thomas packed in a thermos. “I’ve been blessed with so many supportive people in my life, that’s a lot of the reason I want to give back.”
SUPPORTING LOCAL BUSINESS
1. Do you have any solutions for protecting small business from the pressures of rising real estate costs? (tax abatements for landlords who keep mom-and-pop stores?)
There’s a careful balance in protecting and encouraging small business to succeed while also protecting the mom-and-pop landlords. A survey in January, showed that operating income for small property owners was down 22% while operating expenses increased by almost 11%. These mom-and-pop landlords are also small businesses and they are losing money. Some vacancies are a result of the shift in consumer shopping habits. I spoke with several toy stores in Tribeca and the owners said they are competing with Amazon and Walmart on pricing. One pet store owner told me that customers will come into her store to obtain information on a product but would end up purchasing from an online pet store because it is cheaper.
We should re-examine how property taxes are assessed on commercial properties and modify it to reflect the current economic downturn. Many small business property owners are behind on their tax payments. I propose a moratorium on the 18% late fee, and to work with struggling mom-and-pop property owners on a payment plan.
2. What is your proposal or attitude towards the future of Open Restaurants post-pandemic?
Open Restaurants has thrown a life-line to many restaurants in Tribeca during the pandemic. While it is a great program to help our neighborhood restaurants make up for some of the loses, we need to think about this initiative from a community perspective. On some streets, having sidewalk seating plus seating in the street work fine because both the sidewalks and the streets are wide enough for vehicular and pedestrian traffic. However, in some parts of the District, outdoor dining has created public safety concerns. Some outdoor dining enclosures are too big that emergency vehicles had a hard time maneuvering through the streets. There is also overcrowding on sidewalks which creates a hazard for pedestrians and those with limited mobility. On a Saturday afternoon I was walking along Elizabeth Street, it was so crowded that I had to walk on the street to pass through. I was left wondering “how would someone who is disabled or an elderly with a cane or a parent with a stroller navigate through this safely?”
I believe Open Restaurants is a great program and we should keep some aspects of it; however, we need to examine how this initiative affects the quality of life for residents. If the City continues with Open Restaurants post pandemic, I proposed establishing some guidelines such as structure size and hours of operation. I would imagine it to be similar to the sidewalk café process through the Department of Consumer Affairs.
3. Do you have any ideas for addressing retail vacancies?
Many of these store fronts are owned by mom-and-pop small property owners who cannot afford to pay additional cost to upkeep their properties; therefore, a vacancy tax would be ill advised. While performing outreach in the District, I’ve met with several small property owners who told me that they have tenants in their buildings who are in rent regulated units. In order for them to recoup the cost of renting out the regulated units, they need to charge their commercial space a certain rent in order to cover the cost of operating the building. We need to look at this issue and address it from various perspectives such as “mom-and-pop landlords” vs. real estate developers.
Incentives should be given to local small businesses ahead of national chains because the former do not have the capital or the resources to withstand an economic downturn. Empty store fronts are uninviting, conveying blight and danger and discourage shoppers from adjacent shops that remain open. To encourage small business revival, I propose cash grants from taxes collected so it can be reinvested in the local economy.
To further encourage potential store owners to open businesses in Tribeca and throughout New York, I will streamline permits and reduce fees for starting businesses. I will encourage pop-up stores for seasonal basis, which we have seen done in other parts of the District such as SoHo. When elected to Council, I will create a small business database to promote shop local/shop small.
4. Do you have any solutions for limiting the regulations and red tape required to both start and maintain small business?
As mentioned above, I would streamline permits and reduce fees for those who want to start and maintain small business in the City. Additionally, I support the current City Council’s bill that will ease code-violation enforcement and refund fines to small businesses dating back to March 12th. However, I would even go a step further and propose that we issue warnings for minor non-health or safety infractions in lieu of fines for first time offenders. Small businesses are the main driver of our local economy. They hire locally, they supply local tax revenues, they are places where neighbors gather to enjoy each other’s company. Small businesses are truly the fabric and backbone of our community. We must do everything we can to support it.
QUALITY OF LIFE
1. Do you have any solutions to the helicopter traffic that often plagues the neighborhood and others?
My first job out of college was at 125 Broad Street, blocks away from the downtown heliport. I would hear the flights coming in and out during the day from my office. Helicopter flights creates noise pollution that affects the well-being and health of the community. There have been numerous accidents in the City that warrant a ban due to safety concerns for passengers and those on the ground. I strongly believe helicopter flights in New York City should be banned and fully support Rep. Maloney’s bill to ban non-essential helicopter flights.
2. This neighborhood has been under construction for decades. Do you have any solution for making construction sites be better neighbors? (limiting hours, monitoring vibrations and hours, disallowing the blocking of sidewalks or streets) (and don’t say call 311)
It’s hard to conduct business at home when there is construction going on all around us. The current regulations allow construction from 7am to 6pm, which is when most of us work from home or when our children have remote learning. I would propose shortening the hours of operations from 7am to 4pm, so that young children can have quality “quiet” time before heading bed. Construction sites need to be good neighbors and provide safe egress for pedestrians. Oftentimes, there is no significant barriers of protection on the streets for pedestrians to safely use when sidewalks are closed. We are forced to walk on the streets sharing the roadway with vehicular traffic.
3. There is hardly a block in this neighborhood that does not have a sidewalk shed, some of which have been up for more than a decade. Do you have any solutions for requiring landlords to finish projects within a certain time frame so that they can be removed?
Currently, sidewalk shed permits are valid for 12 months or when the insurance expires whichever is shorter. Violations for sheds up passed their permitted period can be as high as $8,000. The permit period should be reduced to six months. If the work that is being done on the property takes longer than six months, property owners can apply for an extension for another 6 months. By breaking up the 12 month permit into two six-month permits will incentivized property owner to complete remediation work faster in order to avoid paying additional application and filing fees and also avoid the risk of having their requests for extension denied. Should the owner fail to apply for an extension. If the sheds are up beyond their permitted time, a penalty fee will be issued.
4. Garbage pickup seems to be at an all-time low. Do you have solutions for better street cleaning? And, many private buildings leave mountains of trash on the sidewalks waiting for pickup. Can this be regulated?
When elected to Council, I will make certain that sanitation pickups are not cut. One evening-during the early stages of the pandemic, my husband parked our car at the corner of Greenwich and North Moore Streets. The following evening, we went to retrieve it for a drive to Brooklyn to see my mother-in-law. As soon as we started the engine, the car was shaking violently. Since it was the evening, we didn’t want to chance it and get stuck on the highway with a broken car. On a Saturday, we had our car towed to the mechanic. He informed us that “rats had a party under our hood!” This episode taught us that reduction in sanitation pickup is a hazard to public health because dirty streets, unkept sidewalks and lack of trash removal invites rodents that carry diseases and cause property damage. Luckily, sanitation pickups have resumed to the regularly schedule days.
I know this story doesn’t address the concerns regarding mountains of trash on the sidewalks waiting for pickup, I will look into it when I am in office and hope to address these concerns.
6. The NYPD has consistently used its power to close public spaces and amenities, especially during the pandemic. Do you have a proposal for this issue?
As I walk around the District, I’ve noticed barricades erected in many municipal spaces: City Hall Park, the Courts on Worth Street, the area near 1 Police Plaza and our local precincts, to name a few. These barricades were initially put up as a response to the Black Lives Matter Movement then it was extended to the Presidential Election, and then it was further extended to the Inauguration. All these events passed without incident; therefore, I demand the NYPD to remove these barriers immediately so the public can reclaim the use of these public spaces. City Hall Park is a public space that should be enjoyed by residents and visitors. The barricades are uninviting and prohibits pedestrians from accessing the crosswalk from one side of the park to another. The same for the barriers erected around the Courthouses along Worth Street and around One Police Plaza. They create a barrier to access for pedestrians and hardship for those with mobility issues.
What are your thoughts on expanding pedestrian-only streets? Do you have other proposals that would address pedestrian safety?
I love walking around the District. It gives me a chance to think, unwind and sometimes recharge. I support the plan to make the Financial District pedestrian only zone. The streets in that area were not built for vehicular traffic. They are narrow and winding. I often see trucks drive up the curb in order to make a turn. If Financial District becomes a pedestrian only zone, we can expand the Open Restaurants/Open Streets initiative full time. I would encourage the expansion of pedestrian only zone to other neighborhoods in the District in consultation with local community boards.
THE HOMELESS POPULATION
1. Do you have any new solutions for addressing those people who refuse to go to shelters?
Housing the homeless population at hotels that cost at least $120 a night is not a solution to our homeless crisis. It certainly is not an effective use of government funding. Those who are chronically homeless, need supportive housing with wraparound services such as mental health, substance abuse counseling and healthcare and social services. When they are housed in hotels without any of these services, it poses a great harm to them and the public.
Last month, the CEO of one of the largest homeless shelter providers was arrested for bribery and kickback scheme. We cannot allow this abuse to continue. We need to hold private shelter providers accountable. I propose increase funding for Department of Homeless Services to conduct inspection of service providers more frequently.
2. The Financial District is also being asked to take on several new homeless shelters. What are your thoughts on residents’ opposition to this and their concerns?
I understand the concerns regarding several homeless shelters in the Financial District. Residents moved in with certain expectations. After 9/11, the Financial District suffered a downturn as commercial tenants moved out. Office buildings were converted to residential spaces and people began to make FiDi their home. They are the ones who made the neighborhood what it is today. Some moved to a neighborhood when it did not have grocery stores, child care, schooling and other services. And they took a chance because they saw FiDi had potential. We need to be accountable to the homeless population by providing them with supportive housing with wraparound services; while at the same time, we need to be accountable to residents who invested in making FiDi the wonderful neighborhood it is today. I do not agree that the unhoused are placed in hotels throughout FiDi.
Many readers feel there has been a rise in crime since the pandemic (and statistics support that) and not much has been done about it. What is your approach to community policing?
With crime rising, communities feeling threatened and alienated, and the police department feels under attack. We need community policing and public engagement to ensure the safety of New Yorkers while protecting their civil rights. I will work with stakeholder to redefine policing and reinvest in it to make it a success. I will demand greater transparency and accountability and will invest in recruitment and salaries to build diversity in the upper ranks of the NYPD.
Quality of life issues should be addressed. For minor issues like graffiti and other vandalism, officers should issue a violation without fine for first offense. For subsequent violations, a fine would be assessed. We need to re-evaluate the current bail reform. We need to give judges discretion in what they can and cannot require bail for. One recent incident involving an attack on an Asian undercover police officer, the suspect has at least 12 prior arrests while facing three hate-crime charges. The judge in this case let the suspect free without bail and said, “my hands are tied because under the new bail rules, I have absolutely no authority or power to set bail on this defendant for this alleged offense”. In separate incident, another suspect attacked an Asian mom and was free without bail only to reoffend again.
We would like to hear your thoughts on the status of affordable housing downtown and in our zip codes. What can be done to preserve it? What can you propose to create more below market housing?
Affordable housing is a chronic issue in New York City. We must invest in long-term solutions rather than band-aids or partial measures that fail to solve the problem. The 80/20 Program often yields “affordable units” that are out of reach for New Yorkers who truly need them. We need to demand MIH ratio closer to 60/40. I strongly believe the City and State must come together to identify government-owned parcels and work with developers to build 100% affordable housing units.
I live in 10013 and that zip code has been used to exclude Chinatown businesses from Hard-Hit Low and Moderate Income Communities Program (LMI) so I am keenly aware of how using one’s zip code as a determining factor for assistance is not very productive. 10013 encompasses Chinatown where many senior residents and immigrants live in rent regulated units. If the SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan goes through, this neighborhood will change forever. Developers may purchase these properties and build bigger and higher. I want to preface that I am not anti-development, I am for responsible development. When these rent regulated units are destroyed, they will not be replaced. Even though the SoHo/NoHo plan calls for MIH at 20%, it will not make up for the ones that may be lost due to the rezoning. It will be a net lost of affordable housing for the community.
The prolonged pandemic has exacerbated New York City’s housing crisis to emergency levels. The City must provide relief to renters, homeowners and mom-and-pop landlords who have experienced income loss during the pandemic. When the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act ends, large numbers of New Yorkers will face immediate homelessness. Many seniors rely on their rental properties for income and have not collected payments since March 2020. I will hold state elected officials accountable and ensure the Rent Relief Extension Program will benefit tenants of struggling mom-and-pop landlords ahead of real estate or hedge fund developers.
What solutions for seniors in housing, mobility and access to basic needs can ensure that downtown is a place that residents don’t need to leave as they age?
Seniors have poured their heart and soul into the neighborhoods they live in. They worked and raised their families here. With rising cost of living, it is very difficult for some to remain in the neighborhoods they helped build. I am running for City Council because I strongly believe we need to support elderly residents as they age. I will support naturally-occurring retirement communities where seniors can continue to live in their neighborhoods and work with the Department for the Aging to fund supportive-services programs at NORCs in the District. To address food insecurities, I will work with healthcare providers to identify patients with such needs and connect them with SNAP. To ensure that our seniors are living healthy lifestyles, I will increase community health programs that provide access to screening in low-income and aging communities. And to combat age-related diseases, I will develop public awareness campaigns to drive early detection of age-related diseases.
SERVING THE DISTRICT
Recently there have been some neighborhood concerns that have not received attention from local elected officials, such as the siting of Citi Bike stations. How will you communicate and deal with constituent concerns?
I will communicate with my constituents regularly through monthly newsletters. My district office will hold “Speak with your Councilmember” office hours twice a week to address constituent concerns. When I am not available, my district office manager will handle all constituent concerns. As demonstrated in my campaign, I strongly believe in speaking with residents to hear about their concerns and issues. We need to work together to create a district that works for all of us. I will also have several community liaisons. Our District is very diverse and have several distinct neighborhoods with their needs and concerns. Each liaison will work with the community and report back to the Chief of Staff regarding the issues of concerns.
TAXES — COOP AND CONDO FEES
Homeowners here are concerned about rising taxes on condos and coops – which is making it harder and harder to keep apartments here affordable. This also strains seniors on fixed incomes, forcing them out of their homes that they have owned for decades. We also see homeowners in other neighborhoods – especially single-family dwellings — paying much lower taxes for the same services. How would you address this inequity?
I will work with our State representative to raise the income threshold for the STAR program. Looking at the current threshold, many seniors would not be qualified.
Congestion pricing passed in the state legislature two years ago but its implementation has been held up. As councilmember will you urge the MTA and the governor to put it in place? Would you include carve-outs for downtown residents or other groups?
Congestion pricing is slowly becoming a reality. I want to make sure our district is prepared for it. While I believe congestion pricing is necessary, I believe that right now is not the time to implement it because of the hardship some of the small businesses are facing. These small businesses have gone through more than a year of hardship and it’s important for us to help them recover.
Just last week alone, I witness several hours of bumper to bumper traffic, along Grand Street, Canal Street, and Delancey Street just to name a few. We need to address this and I believe congestion pricing will alleviate this issue.
What proposals do you have (or are you against) for increasing bike lanes?
The number of cyclists has increase during the pandemic. As the weather warms up, the cyclists on the road will increase. I am not a seasoned cyclist; I would categorize myself as a beginner. I am afraid to share the road alongside traffic if there aren’t designated bike lanes. Kudos to those who do share the roads with vehicular traffic without designated bike lanes but that should never be the case. We need more designated bike lanes so cyclists can safely travel from one destination to another.
BOROUGH-BASED JAIL PROPOSAL
I do not support Borough Based Jail (BBJ) and closing of Rikers Island. Reform must be made at Rikers but simply dismantling it does not solve the institutional and structural issues there. We need to address those issues head on. Detainees are subjected to inhumane conditions that needs to be remedied through proper training for the correction officers. We need to renovate Rikers to bring it up to current standards. Some of those incarcerated have mental health illness that goes untreated. I proposed opening a mental health ward on Rikers to address this critical need.
Currently, we have approximately 5000 people in jail. Without bail reform, that number may be higher. The capacity for BBJ is 3300. This would mean that we need to get our jail population from 5000 to 3300 by the time BBJ are ready. I agree, we should not lock up low-level offenders in jail but I am concerned that of those 1700, how many of them are low level offenders and how many pose danger to the public?
I suggest that $9 billion proposed for BBJ be diverted to fund affordable housing, close the technological and resource divide in our education system, upgrade school infrastructures, and fund programs for seniors and the homeless population.
School choice for middle and high school presents parents and kids with means (and time) with more opportunities. We also have several schools in District 2 that give preference for children that reside in the district. What is your opinion on school choice?
Education is the foundation of a thriving society. I am a product of New York City public school system. My parents are firm believers that education is the biggest investment of your life because no one can take away your knowledge, it will only grow when the mind is challenged and nurtured. Our education system needs reform and I am committed to do the hard work necessary so that all our children will have access to quality education regardless of where they live. I support the use of SHSAT as the sole criteria for admission into specialized high schools, it is an equalizer, which gives students of low-income and immigrant families, a fair chance for advancement. I will expand the Gifted & Talented Programs throughout New York City. By doing so, it will provide quality instruction to high performing students beginning at a young age. It would also reduce the current disparities by preparing more students for success in the SHSAT and entrance into specialized high schools. We need to invest in underserved schools by expanding after-school programs and enrichment courses. Coming from the non-profit sphere, I’ve worked on numerous programs where public and private partnerships were crucial. We have Google and Facebook in NYC, I will work with tech companies such as these to address technology and resource gaps in our community. As our City reopens, I want to ensure that our students are returning to a safe environment. It is my priority that all schools provide social and mental health services to students as they return. Additionally, all teachers who want vaccinations will have access to vaccines and most importantly, our schools must have resources to provide well-ventilated classrooms.
PRESERVING HISTORIC DISTRICTS
What is your opinion on preserving historic districts?
District 1 is the oldest district in the City. There are many historical landmarks that make our district unique. Any rezoning and development plans must respect the area’s uniqueness. I do not support the Soho/Noho rezoning plan which does little to address the affordable housing issue when the mandatory inclusionary housing is only 20%.
I respect responsible development and am looking forward to the new plans from Howard Hughes to see what 250 Water Street will look like. Again, I want to stress that it is important to respect the historical districts in Lower Manhattan and develop in a responsible manner.
PARKING – PLACARD AND RESIDENTIAL
How do you plan to deal with the abuse of placard holders (real and fake ones)?
The area south of Canal Street is rampant with placard abuse, real and fake ones. Placard abuse increases congestion and poses a public safety risk. I would crack down on placard abuse. Oftentimes, those with placards get away with illegal and unsafe parking in front of fire hydrants, crosswalks, in bike lanes and sidewalks. Cyclists have to ride into traffic when a car is illegally parked in the bike lane. Residents with wheelchairs cannot safely navigate sidewalks and crosswalks when there are cars parked there. We need to look at this issue from the perspective of someone who needs to maneuver around vehicles that are illegally parked. What is convenient for one person should never be an inconvenience to many.
I support reduction in the number of placards issued and the use of a digital sticker since it is not transferable between vehicles. The Department of Transportation has the ability to scan a barcode and issue any vehicle illegal parked, they can certainly scan the digital sticker to verify that it is legitimate.
The issue with placard abuse boils down to lack of enforcement. We need to protect ticketing agents from retaliatory action by placard abusers. Placard parking are prohibited from “no standing’ and “no stopping” zones, fire hydrants, bus stops, travel lanes, driveways and “area where a traffic hazard would be created”. That’s the law and everyone should follow it! By eliminating placard abuse, we will reduce traffic congestion because businesses can get their deliveries at spots that are designated for trucks loading and unloading.
Do you have any solutions for residential street parking?
I really like the idea of residential parking permits used in cities through the country.
OTHER CANDIDATES FOR CD1