NEW YORK—Council member Mark Levine was elected to New York City Council to represent the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2013. His district on the includes portions of Morningside Heights, Manhattan Valley, Hamilton Heights/West Harlem, and Washington Heights.
What was your biggest achievement in 2013?
Council member Levine was overseeing his community funded financial institution in Washington Heights that provides bank services to people with very low income. He started the project out of his apartment in the 90s and called it the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union, which now has over 5,000 members. Many of the members have never had a bank account before, and didn’t know where to turn for money.
“Northern Manhattan has a large low-income immigrant community that could not get access to traditional bank loans so they were turning to loan sharks,” he said.
The union also provides financial literacy training. He spent eight years full time on the project. He also founded The Barack Obama Democratic Club in northern Manhattan, an issue-oriented group. Levine wanted to make politics accessible to locals, whether it be issues of affordable housing, policing, parks, or mass transit.
“The policies which determine our lives in all those areas are made down in City Hall,” he said.
What will you be focusing on this year?
The major crisis in his district is the lack of affordable housing.
“This is a problem that goes from 96th Street to 165th Street,” he said.
Most of the units in the area are rent units and the landlords have been aggressively pushing long-term tenants out, because they can then exploit loopholes in the regulations and hike up rent prices to market-rate.
“Tenants are being called into court on bogus charges, all sorts of intimidation,” he said.
He also wants for every tenant to have access to an attorney, since less than 10 percent of tenants show up in the housing court with attorneys, compared to over 90 percent for landlords.
“Tenants sometimes get intimidated, scared, they just take a buyout,” Levine said.
Levine said that with the new administration, the plan for creating more affordable housing is to push for the inclusionary zoning code, where new developments need to include affordable units.
In his new role as the chair of the Park and Recreation Committee, Levine will focus on bringing a park to every neighborhood in the city. “The disparity is quite shocking,” he said.
What are some of the issues your constituents are concerned about?
In his district, constituents raise questions about a variety of different immediate issues, but the most recent concern on everyone’s mind is about pedestrian safety, especially after three pedestrian deaths in nine days on 96th Street and Broadway.
“It’s quite remarkable how it has galvanized the community and public opinion,” Levine said.
The issue will need to be addressed on multiple fronts and he will try to enforce traffic laws, rethink street design, and make legislative changes like lowering the speed limit.
Levine’s neighborhoods are also facing a slew of environmental challenges, because of the two bus depots which are major sources of fumes.
“Because we’re near the George Washington Bridge, we’ve got an incredible number of trucks welling through our streets,” he said, which results in increased number of asthma cases.
There’s also a notable lack of fresh produce, and organic food. “I want to change that,” Levine said.
If you had a coat of arms, what would it be, and why?
Council member Levine would use a subway train, and a tree.
“Mass transit is the lifeblood of New York City and the lifeblood of my district,” he said. “But a city without its green spaces would be a very depressing place, and a very unhealthy place” he said.
Levine calls the public parks the “lungs of the city,” which is why he asked to be the chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee.
Epoch Times is interviewing members of the 2014 New York City Council to find out what their biggest achievements were last year and what they hope to accomplish in this one. For a list of all council member articles in this project, click here.