A self-professed policy nerd, City Council candidate Billy Freeland says he didn’t get into politics for the thrill of the horse race. He’s always been interested in solutions; and through his experiences as an attorney and member of Community Board 8, he feels as though he has a pretty good idea of what those solutions to fixing the city’s most urgent problems might be.
“I’ve always been interested in this idea that we know what the solutions are ... We know what the solutions are to combat chronic homelessness, to improve our schools, to clean up our streets,” said Freeland. “And it’s always a matter, in my opinion, of having the political will.”
Freeland says his long list of policy goals – all outlined on his website – seem to be resonating with voters. In his weeks of petitioning to get on the primary ballot, Freeland said he heard a lot affirmation on his plans; and in a race without polling, he said voter input is really the only way to know if his message is breaking through.
In June, Freeland will find out exactly where he stands with voters when they cast their ballots in the Democratic primary. He is among the seven candidates vying to represent the UES and Roosevelt Island replace Council Member Ben Kallos, who is term-limited and running for Manhattan Borough President.
Freeland certainly has the traditional pedigree of a Council member: He’s received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Columbia University, as well as a law degree from NYU, and holds a seat on the community board. He would say these experiences amount to more than a resume, but a point of view. In his pro bono work, Freeland said he represented clients who were seeking asylum, wrongly prosecuted under the newly-repealed “Walking While Trans” statute, and a NYCHA tenant suing the city to make much needed repairs to her apartment. He said the work gave him a front-row seat to the injustices in the city, and at the community board gave him an education in addressing these problems in government.
“Those two experiences as an attorney and as a community board member, I think, are what really shaped how I think about what the city is lacking, where we’ve been failing and what we need to do going forward,” said Freeland.
The pandemic and the city’s recovery from it should remain the top priority of the Council, Freeland said. But beyond COVID-19, Freeland said he believes the most urgent issue he wants to address is an affordability crisis on three major fronts: affordability for tenants, small businesses and for families.
“We do not build genuinely affordable housing here on the Upper East Side, and we hardly build it anywhere in the city,” said Freeland. “Most of what we call affordable housing is not actually affordable for people.”
Taking power away from developers and building affordable housing for working class and middle class families in the district would be a starting point, Freeland said. He said he’s committed to building housing for people experiencing homelessness, and to give people the tools to fight off evictions so fewer people become homeless. His “big idea” in this area is establishing a universal right to counsel for tenants. He said right now the right to counsel only applies in certain cases and if the client falls at 200 percent or below the federal poverty line. Freeland would expand that access.
For small businesses, Freeland proposes either repealing or reforming the commercial rent tax in order to help keep small businesses alive and ebb the epidemic of vacant storefronts. He said the Council could also use the zoning code to support small businesses and prevent big box stores and national banks from pushing out small mom and pop shops. A vacancy tax, Freeland suggested, could deter landlords from “jacking up” the rent on small business tenants and subsequently pushing them out.
“We have a tax code that benefits landlords who can have an operating loss from that store from being vacant, while small businesses are suffering every day just to get by,” said Freeland. “I think a vacancy tax would put pressure on landlords to hopefully help small businesses be able to stay. And where that place is kept vacant, at least then we raise revenue, to have a legacy small business support fund to help our local mom and pops.”
Free Child Care
To address the affordability crisis for families, Freeland says the city needs to achieve universal childcare. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to expand free universal 3K, but Freeland says the next step has to be building toward a program where families with children under three-years-old who fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty have access to free child care. He said he will release a plan modeled after a proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign that would cap the expense of child care at 7 percent of a family’s salary. On the Upper East Side, child care cost starts at $30,000.
“We’re letting these families fall in a gap where the city’s not supporting them,” said Freeland. “[Universal child care] would be revolutionary for families in New York City, which is historically unaffordable for families, particularly families with young children.”
Beyond policy, Freeland says his campaign is embracing a politics of joy and authenticity. He cited this approach in explaining why he was the only candidate at a recent forum to name the opposing candidate he would rank No. 2 on his ballot (he named Rebecca Lamorte, specifying that she would be his choice if the election had been held that day) when he votes in June, and why he has links to the other candidates’ websites on his own site.
“People can campaign and legislate and govern and respond to constituents with a smile on their face, and a sense of at the end of the day, we are a community, we’re all in this together, that whoever wins this election is going to be the city council person for all of us. We’re all trying to build a better community,” said Freeland. “’I’ve never liked it when politics has felt very zero sum. And so now that I’m actually a candidate, I get to opt in to a politics that I think more joyful, more authentic ... and that’s the kind of campaign I want to run.”
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“We do not build genuinely affordable housing here on the Upper East Side, and we hardly build it anywhere in the city. Most of what we call affordable housing is not actually affordable for people.” Council candidate Billy Freeland