The Race to Gracie Mansion: Interview With NYC Mayoral Candidate Dianne Morales


Nonprofit exec Dianne Morales has pitched herself as the progressive option for mayor.

Morales, a 53-year-old Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, native and single mother of two kids, got her start as a temporary special education teacher in the New York City public school system, while waiting tables in an Italian restaurant at night. She attended Stony Brook University for her bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn two master’s degrees in education, from Harvard and Columbia.

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She rose into the upper ranks of the city Department of Education and helped launch its Office of Youth Development and School-Community Services, where she served as chief of operations from 2002 to 2004. Morales went on to become a founding member of preschool education nonprofit Jumpstart, and later was executive director of youth development organization The Door from 2005 to 2009. For 10 years, she was the executive director and CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, a social service organization linked to nonprofit developer Phipps Houses. She resigned the post shortly before announcing her candidacy for mayor in February 2020.

Commercial Observer was able to get the busy candidate on the phone recently to discuss her housing and land use priorities. The following interview is condensed and edited for clarity.

Commercial Observer: So, how would your housing platform differ from the past eight years of Mayor de Blasio’s housing strategy?

Dianne Morales: In so many fundamental ways. My platform really starts off by making the declaration that housing is a human right. And we don’t shy away from the urgency and the immediacy that comes from that, or from the act of centering the needs of those that have been disproportionately underserved. We’ve got to recognize that when our neighbors don’t have housing or are struggling to pay rent, that it has a ripple effect on all of us. And we’ve seen that in the pandemic. And we’ve seen the interconnection of all of that.

So, we really need to focus on lifting everyone up and bringing our most marginalized, vulnerable communities to the center, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it also benefits everybody. So, we’re talking about guaranteed housing for all that would emphasize providing permanent, affordable housing for everyone. Move away from the shelter system, move away from a system that prioritizes and centers developers in their profits, to investing directly first in communities, and giving communities a leadership role at the table in terms of the creation of housing.

Also, really doing that in such a way as to equitably distribute where that housing is, and utilize, unapologetically and boldly, other existing resources, rather than relying solely on new construction, and some sort of arbitrary number that gets declared. I think we really need to focus on prioritizing the availability of housing for folks, rather than this mixed platform and strategy that’s been used by the current administration.

I see. And what neighborhoods would you rezone, if any?

So, the interesting thing is that the zoning process itself is broken, and we need to fundamentally recreate how we do this. There’s been an overemphasis on rezoning in low-income neighborhoods in a way that has contributed to displacement. And we need to pivot to using strategies that really work to produce deeply affordable housing and in the communities, and wealthier neighborhoods need to also develop truly affordable housing.

I’m supportive of stopping all the massive rezonings until we fix the broken [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process. Right now, in terms of upzoning SoHo, I think we need to pause that as well. Because we really need to sort of re-examine the entire process by how this has happened.

So, I think we need to look at things in such a way that we are prioritizing and elevating the voices of local communities, but really doing that within the larger context of how resources and services are allocated and distributed citywide, so that we were looking at it through a lens of balancing those things, and really addressing the deep inequities that currently exist.

OK. And, if elected, would you change the mandatory inclusionary housing policy? And, if so, how?

I think, right now, the mandatory inclusionary housing policy leaves too much value on the table. It’s relied heavily on finding these private partners to produce, quote-unquote, affordable housing that really is not affordable to the majority of New Yorkers. And I think we need to move toward a model that enables the city to get a lot more deeply affordable housing than it does currently — and at little to no cost, as opposed to the massive sort of subsidies, and tax, and tax breaks that we’re providing currently to developers.

So, I think that we really need to look at both the communities, where we’re doing this, and at what that process looks like, because we haven’t required enough affordability. And we haven’t done enough to move the needle on the real challenge in terms of the housing crisis in New York City.

And would you push to reform the city’s property tax system, which has long been considered outdated by both owners and tenants?

The system right now is, it’s extremely flawed. And it creates an undue burden on certain low-income communities, where the people are sort of house rich, but cash poor. And that just perpetuates and further deepens inequities. I think we can’t keep just creating commissions and task forces to look at this; they are generally like a genuine distraction and a waste of time. I’m really interested in taking a deeper look at the land value tax model; and I really want to take a look at how we transform the property tax system in a way that is much more equitable in terms of where neighborhoods, or who the people are, from an equity lens.

We can’t reform racism. And this is one of the systems that the city operates within, a type of housing that is rooted in structural racism. We have to kind of take a really hard look at everything that we do through that lens, and really focus on addressing the racial and class inequities that are currently at play in such a way that that will level the playing field and preserve revenue for the city, while, at the same time, prioritizing protecting the owners who are struggling the most.

What steps would you take to address the city’s homelessness crisis? And, as an addendum to that, how would you grapple with the current shortage of shelter beds and many neighborhoods’ resistance to new shelter construction and shelter conversions?

Right. So, again, I think we need to declare housing as a human right first. And, in that recognizing that homelessness is a human rights crisis, that means one that we can solve with political and moral courage. That includes first moving away from the shelter-industrial complex, and moving to investing the $3 billion a year that we currently are spending in that on the sort of creation of permanent affordable housing. So, we need to move away from that.

We need to increase vouchers and rental assistance. We need to increase or extend the rent and eviction moratorium, because those are people that are increasingly housing insecure. And we can’t further exacerbate the homelessness crisis by not addressing the current crisis at hand, which is the one of COVID-19 and economic instability for people.

And that also means providing some sort of relief or support to small homeowners in particular, so that their homes are not in jeopardy as a result of their renters not being able to pay their rent. And, then, I think, we also need to take a hard look at our existing vacant spaces and create a plan to address those vacant spaces, whether we’re talking about commercial spaces, abandoned spaces, or office spaces or storefronts. And create a plan to convert those spaces into housing for people, so that we can actually begin to really address the homelessness issue, whether we’re exercising eminent domain or whatever other tools at our disposal, in order to tap into those properties and convert them to permanent housing.

I’ve talked about the creation of a deputy mayor position that would consolidate all the sort of citywide housing issues and initiatives, rather than the current system that has homelessness in one bucket and sort of other housing issues in another, which has, I think, just enabled those things to become isolated and exacerbated when it’s all really interconnected. So, I think we need a deputy mayor that will coordinate a citywide effort to address housing and opportunities and access for that as well.

The last thing I’ll say on this is recognizing that all of these issues disproportionately impact Black and brown folks, whether we’re talking about homelessness or housing insecurity.

Do you have a position on the citywide hotel special permit, which many in the real estate industry believe will be a death knell for new hotel construction in New York?

I think we have had a proliferation of new hotels in New York City in recent years. And I think that has had an impact on communities and neighborhoods, and just the general environment. So, I think we need to take into consideration the rest of the city, the areas surrounding these businesses.

Going back to kind of the local priorities versus the citywide context as a whole, I don’t think hotels should currently outnumber other businesses, or cultural centers, or homes for that matter. I know visitors come to New York for what we have to offer, but a significant part of that is our entertainment, our food, our arts, our culture, our people. And we’ve got to make sure that we’re protecting and supporting those things in order to ensure that this city is recovering. The reality of it is that, right now, we have an abundance of empty hotels. And we need to look at what’s going to happen with those spaces before we really look at expanding or building new construction, new hotels in the city.

Sure. Kind of on that note, New York City has long struggled to create enough housing for low-income New Yorkers. How would your housing strategy address that problem of providing housing for people sort of in that lowest income bracket, earning less than 50 percent of area median income?

Yeah. I mean, I think one of the first things goes back to sort of what I’ve mentioned before, is that the first thing, in terms of my strategy, would be to move away from the tax breaks and subsidies that we currently provide to large-scale housing developers, luxury housing developers, for-profit housing developers, and move to provide those resources directly to the community. I’m a big believer in social housing, and the idea of investing in communities through local, nonprofit affordable developers and community-based partnerships, so that we are focusing on building housing that is really affordable. And that is not bolstering this whole sort of sector of the real estate industry that is not serving us well to begin with.

But I also think one of the things we have to recognize is that [the New York City Housing Authority] is right there, and it is something that we have divested from for a really, really long time, and yet, provides the largest share of the most deeply affordable housing in the city. That sort of ongoing divestment and neglect is, in my mind, criminal. Because we also know who the residents are there, right? And I think it’s important for us to preserve and protect it and reinvest in it. And so, I would be looking to redirect all of the existing revenue streams that are currently being directed in other ways in the city to both this sort of social housing model, and the upgrading and preservation of NYCHA, with a real focus on building deeply subsidized housing, which is the social housing model, in partnership with trusted local organizations.

I also think we need to use all existing public land to build affordable housing. It should be 100 percent of the housing on public land; we should move away from selling public land to private developers. And really reinvest the dollars that are currently being spent in these ways — including the creation of a city land bank, so that we could acquire and repurpose distressed properties, and parking lots, and vacant land.

Sure. And, for my last question, where was your first New York City apartment? And what was it like?

Wow. So, my first apartment was a basement apartment in Flushing, Queens. And we had two windows. My bedroom, though, was on the inside. So, I had no windows whatsoever. It was awful. I could sleep 16 hours, because there was like, I just had no sense of like, what daylight was or anything. Needless to say, I think we didn’t make it a full year in that place, because it was just so hard. Like, literally you had to walk down into the basement to get there. And my roommate had the bigger room with one of the two windows, and I had the one on the inside with nothing.

So, it was depressing. I mean, it kind of countered the whole idea of freedom and having my first place on my own, by just not being a place that I wanted to spend a lot of time in.