De Blasio presents his plan to save the city’s middle class

De Blasio and Andrew White. (Dana Rubinstein)
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“New York’s middle class isn’t just shrinking, it’s in real danger of disappearing altogether," warned Public Advocate Bill de Blasio today, in a speech at the New School focusing on affordability.

"Without a dramatic change of direction—an economic policy that combats inequality and rebuilds our middle class—generations to come will see New York as little more than a playground for the rich, a gilded city where the privileged few prosper and millions upon millions of New Yorkers struggle each and every day to keep their heads above water," he said.

De Blasio is running from the left in an increasingly crowded Democratic mayoral primary.

While he frequently invokes this tale of two cities argument during debates, today was the first time he fleshed it out into a full-fledged policy speech.

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The timing was probably not coincidental.

Anthony Weiner is now a candidate. Like de Blasio, Weiner is a white male from Brooklyn, and like de Blasio, Weiner intends to run on an argument that New York is becoming too expensive for ordinary people. (Before declaring his candidacy, Weiner re-released a lightly amended version of his 2005-era policy book, "Keys to the city: 64 ideas to keep New York City the capital of the middle class".) The conventional wisdom, which is not unreasonable, is that there's only room for one such candidate in a Democratic run-off.

"On Wall Street, life couldn't be better," de Blasio said today. "Just this week, the Dow Jones Industrial average set a new record, breaking 15,400 for the first time in history. ... On the Upper East Side sits one of the nation's most expensive private homes, a 12,000 square foot $125 million penthouse. Private high schools charge tuition that's higher than most private four-year colleges. There are even restaurants that offer diners the option of a $1,000 caviar pizza and, for the same price, a 'Golden Opulence' sundae for dessert."

"All told, almost five percent of our city's population can call themselves members of the millionaires' club," he continued.

Ultra-luxury condo sales, he said, are on the rise.

In 2009, New York City had 33 condo buildings with units selling for more than $15 million a pop. This year, it has 54 condo buildings that meet those criteria.

Then there's the rest of New York.

"It's a city where anxious parents whisper about making that month's rent while their children sleep in the next room," said de Blasio. "Where a single mom prays each night that her daughter gets picked by the local pre-kindergarten lottery, in hopes that she gets the early education that could transform her life. Where a job seeker walks more than a mile to find an open library with internet access to post his resume."

He pointed out that one in five New Yorkers lives in poverty, and when you include people earning less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold, it's 46 percent.

"Let me say that another way," said de Blasio. "Nearly half of those who live in our city are at or very near the poverty level."

The population in the city's homeless shelters, he reminded the audience, is at record highs.

And citing a study conducted by the Partnership for New York City, a business group, he noted that the city's job growth is primarily happening in low and high-wage sectors, but not in the middle.

He distributed, and cited, a recent New Yorker data-visualization project that showed income differentials by connecting census-tract data to a subway map. 

De Blasio went on to propose a raft of solutions to what he termed an "inequality crisis", focusing heavily on education and small business development in the outer boroughs.

He said that as mayor, he would lessen the burden of tickets and fines on small businesses. He would reduce the sort of real-estate tax abatements awarded to Manhattan landlords and the sort of economic development incentives awarded to businesses like Fresh Direct, and redirect that money, which he thinks could amount to as much as $250 million a year, to the City University of New York.

He would enhance science, health and engineering programs at CUNY to enable city students to fill jobs in the booming health care and tech industries, two sectors that he said are "dominated by workers who aren't from New York."

He would create loan programs to foster Brooklyn Navy Yard-style economic development hubs elsewhere in the city.

"Finally, we must recognize that the best economic development policy is a living wage job with good benefits that allows people in our neighborhoods to spend and invest in their own community," he said.

To that end, he called for a new living wage bill for workers in "medium and large-sized" businesses that get city funds, and pre-K programs financed by a new tax on the wealthy,

Following his remarks, Andrew White, the director of the New School's Center for New York City Affairs, asked what had changed since former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer first ran a tale of two cities mayoral campaign in 2001.

"I think until recently there was an assumption that one way or another, there was a pathway of opportunity," said de Blasio. "And only in recent years has that begun to fray so deeply that people now worry consistently across neighborhoods about whether they'll even be able to live in their own neighborhoods any more."