The New Face of Downtown

| 16 Feb 2015 | 11:00

Corey Johnson won the September primary and is already thinking about how he will serve District 3 next year in the council

Corey Johnson cannot slow down. After winning the Democratic primary in the city council race for District 3, representing Chelsea and the West Village, Johnson is running virtually unopposed in the general election, but he's even busier now than when he was actively campaigning. People in the community are clamoring to get their issues onto his radar before he even wins and takes office. Before he dashed off to a community board meeting, Johnson stopped for a BLT and a chat with Our Town Downtown last week to talk about his priorities come January, when the lower West Side will have a new representative in the council for the first time in 12 years.

You've served on Community Board 4 for eight and a half years and have been the chair for the past two and a half. How have you seen the neighborhoods change over that time?

You don't spend eight and a half years on a community board because it's sexy or full of praise and adulation; you spend eight and a half years on a community board because you care about the community. I think the best training that I could ask for is spending time on the board working on all of the issues from the bottom up at the grassroots level.

This district has seen an enormous amount of change over the past five to 10 years, from the defeat of the West Side stadium to Hudson Yards rising out of its ashes, to re-envisioning the Javits Center, to rezoning 11th Avenue up in Hell's Kitchen for residential use, to hopefully creating a world class train station at Moynihan Station, to doing a huge amount of affordable housing, to preserving the High Line, to expanding Hudson River Park ?I think the district is going to see even more change in the next five to 10 years.

A lot of your ideas about affordable housing would require action from the state legislature in Albany. As a council member, how would you work on these issues and secure state cooperation?

I'm a huge proponent of rent regulation and rent stabilization, and I hope we strengthen it in 2015 [when it's up for renewal] but that's not up to the city council, that's up to Albany, so I plan on going up to Albany and lobbying members of the legislature on behalf of tenants in New York City.

But some things the city council can do is ? there is a huge amount of the affordable housing stock that was built in the 1970s and 1980s, many of those build were built with taxpayer dollars.

We have a $78 billion budget, the largest municipal budget in the U.S. and our budget is our list of priorities. We should appropriate funds out of our budget to actually build affordable housing.

You've mentioned working with developers and strengthening requirements for building lower income and middle income housing in new developments.

Not all development is bad. The issues is that in New York City, many times developers are allowed to build significant projects that have a huge amount of density and there isn't real community giveback.

Other cities like San Francisco and Seattle require people, whether it's as-of-right or not as-of-right, to do mandatory set asides. They require people to do x amount of affordable housing, x amount of public open space, x amount in classroom seats, x amount in community facility space ? New York doesn't do that. And the only way to change that is to modify and revise and our city charter to include those type of things. It's projected that in the next 10 years, New York's going to add another 800,000 people to our population. We'll be nearing 9 million people. Now where are they going to live, and what's that going to do to essential services? We need to keep up with it.

Your district has the highest number of new cases of HIV and AIDS in the city. You've also been open about being HIV positive yourself. Is this going to become a more prominent issue, regarding rights and healthcare for people living with HIV?

I hope so. It is an incredibly personal issue and it's an issue that doesn't get enough press attention and discussion, and I think part of the reason why it's so important to talk openly about HIV is that it's a vicious cycle of stigmatization which silences people. And the more we talk about how we can prevent HIV, it's deeply important. Comprehensive sex education, condom distribution, needle exchange, all of these things are part of that, and then on the other side is taking care of people who have HIV and who are not getting the treatment they need, who don't have access to affordable healthcare or don't have access to medicine or who are struggling to get housing. It's a dual pronged conversation on the prevention level and the treatment level.

What will be your top priorities when you start your first term?

The first order of business is coming together as a council and enacting significant council reform and rules reform that relates to the discretionary member item process, how bills get drafted, budget allocations, how committees can operate, empowering individual council members, making it easier for bills to be heard by committees and by the council.

The way the council is set up currently, the speaker has almost total control over everything. I think that there is a movement afoot from the progressive caucus to make the council more democratic.

For my district, the three most important issues are protecting existing affordable housing and tenants, working to build more truly affordable housing, for mixed incomes; getting more good public schools for the district - we have severe overcrowding, and having 32, 33 third graders in a classroom is not acceptable; and third, continuing the fight, partnering with the community, for a full service hospital for the lower west side of Manhattan.