This is the first installment of Gothamist/WNYC’s “Grading De Blasio” series, which assesses the mayor’s performance during his tenure.
Eight years ago Mayor Bill de Blasio came to power, representing a dramatic leftward shift in New York City politics. As the successor to the three-term billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-Independent, de Blasio took over City Hall in 2014 on the promise of ending the so-called “Tale of Two Cities,” the Dickensian metaphor for income inequality.
To that end, he notched some early policy victories that helped working-class New Yorkers: universal pre-K, a fight to raise the minimum wage, the creation of IDNYC, and rent freezes for rent-regulated tenants. These and other measures arguably had an impact in his fight to reduce income inequality, remaining a consistent theme throughout his tenure. A recent analysis of data showed that New York City’s income divide narrowed from 2014 to 2019, defying a national trend and reversing four decades of flat or rising income inequality.
Even with gains made toward fixing income inequality, many of the city’s historic failings continued to be glaring under his watch: the dilapidated state of public housing, racial and socio-economic segregation in city schools, disproportionate policing in neighborhoods of color, and transit deserts in the outer boroughs.
As with every mayor, he faced circumstances outside his control. He had to contend with diminishing federal support, a political ally-turned-arch nemesis in now former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and entrenched NIMBYism. There were also his own political missteps that included questionable fundraising practices, a failed presidential run, and a failure to hold police more swiftly accountable for abuse.
Frequently pegged as a poor manager, de Blasio bolstered his legacy in his final two years in office with his handling of the pandemic. While he was slow to grasp the full gravity of the situation, demonstrated by his reluctance to close public schools, he later assembled a team that set up a massive testing structure and rolled out a successful vaccination effort.
Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College who wrote a book about the mayor, argued that for all of his aspirational rhetoric, de Blasio proved to be more of a pragmatist than most people expected.
“He was seen as a real raging left-wing ideologue, which he doesn't turn out to be as mayor,” Viteritti said. “Depending on what your expectations are, you’re going to be pleased or you’re going to be disappointed.”
With that in mind, we begin the series by examining three key policy areas de Blasio shaped that impact all New Yorkers in some way—education, housing and transportation—and how much more equitable he made these services for all New Yorkers.
When de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, his top policy priority was to make pre-K free for all public school students. That promise became a reality in 2014.
The de Blasio administration increased available slots for pre-K programs for 4-year-olds from 19,000 to more than 68,000 in two years. Now, officials say, there are more than 70,000 seats, with a slot available for any student who seeks one. The administration has also expanded preschool seats for 3-year-olds. Early this year de Blasio said the city would use federal stimulus funds to make 3-K programs available to all students by 2023.
There have been some flaws, including a pay disparity between teachers at city-run sites and nonprofit operators contracted with the city, and a shortage of seats for preschoolers with disabilities. But for many New York families, the availability of the free pre-K program has been a tremendous boost, garnering praise for helping shrink the equity gap.
“Bill de Blasio's monumental accomplishment was to advance the age of entry for free public education in the nation's largest city,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow with The Century Foundation, a progressive policy think tank group. “That single change has transformed the lives of young children and families in ways that will benefit them, and benefit society, for decades to come.”
Eight years after de Blasio declared it a cornerstone of his campaign, President Joe Biden has made free preschool for kids ages 3 and 4 a top priority of his administration.
Despite the mayor’s pledge to end a “Tale of Two Cities,” the nation’s largest public school system remains deeply segregated. A report released in June from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA looked at data from 2018 and found that 70% of city schools are “intensely segregated,” down only slightly from 72% in 2010.
De Blasio took initial steps toward bold desegregation efforts. He called for the elimination of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, (SHSAT), which is the sole determinant for entry into some of the city’s most coveted and competitive public schools. Every year, only a small number of Black students score high enough on the test to gain admission, despite making up a quarter of student enrollment in public schools.
Listen to Mayor Bill de Blasio speak about his education legacy on WNYC:
To address that inequity, de Blasio proposed eliminating the test and admitting top performers from middle schools across the city instead. But the mayor failed to engage constituents in his plan, including Asian immigrants who say their children work hard to earn slots and depend on the schools for opportunity. Following sustained criticism and protests, de Blasio admitted he had failed to gather enough support for his policy change, and abandoned the proposal.
Other diversity initiatives also lagged. With fanfare, de Blasio convened a task force, called the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), to address segregation, while the group released recommendations in August 2019, de Blasio only adopted some of the measures, such as eliminating middle school screens and promising an overhaul of gifted and talented programs, at the tail end of his administration. It is still unclear whether his plans will remain in place through the close of his mayoralty and into Mayor-elect Eric Adams’s tenure.
However, during de Blasio’s tenure, dozens of individual schools and multiple districts devised their own desegregation plans, efforts the administration supported through the distribution of planning grants, and some have succeeded in diversifying student rolls.
“If you put de Blasio in the context of every single mayor in New York City, who basically did nothing, he has overseen more public discussion around integration and allowed for district-based or school-based diversity initiatives to flourish,” said Matt Gonzales, director of the integration and innovation division at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
But Gonzales said he credits local school leaders and communities with that success more than the mayor himself. “He has done some good things,” he said. “But on issues on integration he’s been a big disappointment to me.”
A major aspect of de Blasio’s education legacy also includes his stewardship of the school system through the pandemic. Some critics continue to fault the mayor for moving too slowly to close schools in March 2020 amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, de Blasio and then-Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza were among the earliest and most prominent leaders nationwide, when, in early July 2020, they announced schools would reopen that fall through a hybrid remote and in-person plan.
The stuttering reopening process was plagued by miscalculations, delays, and closures -- causing at times a sense of chaos with tremendous stress for educators and parents. While the city made a massive investment in smart tablets for remote learning, it took months before all students were equipped with the devices they needed to attend school online. The mayor’s agreement with the teachers union barring principals from requiring instructors to teach both in-person and remotely on the same days exacerbated staffing shortages. But New York City also showed that schools could operate relatively safe last year, serving as a model for other school districts across the country and paving the way for the full-scale reopening this fall.
More Affordable Housing & Rezonings
De Blasio announced an ambitious plan in 2014 to address the city’s ongoing affordable housing crisis with the creation of hundreds of thousands of below-market rate units spearheaded through rezonings and developer deals. He successfully passed mandatory inclusionary housing, which required private developers to build a certain number of affordable housing units in newly rezoned areas.
His 2017 Housing New York 2.0 plan targeted the creation or preservation of 300,000 affordable units by 2026 using roughly $17 billion in public financing and $83 billion in private investment.
By the end of 2021, de Blasio will likely have reached 200,000 affordable units, outstripping Mayor Ed Koch’s record of 190,000 which occurred over three terms.
But the plan, premised on a mixed-income model that privileged for-profit developers, came under scrutiny for not building enough units for the city’s neediest. A Community Service Society (CSS) report released early this year showed that de Blasio’s housing plan met less than 15% of the needs of New Yorkers who were most at risk of becoming homeless, those defined as extremely low-income, or a family of four making less than $36,000.
“That's where the real need was,” said Sam Stein, a housing policy analyst at CSS who authored the report. “And that’s where the housing plan falls short.”
Similar criticisms were lobbed against the mayor’s choice of rezonings, which were mostly focused on low-income neighborhoods and became a stalking horse for gentrification and developer speculation. In several cases, residents and activists rose up against the mayor, initiating protracted legal battles that ultimately fell short.
Only last year did the administration succeed in moving forward with two rezonings in more affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods. Last month, the New York City Council approved the rezoning of Gowanus, the biggest rezoning to date that is expected to yield 8,000 housing units, of which 3,000 are expected to be affordable. De Blasio anticipates the City Council to approve the rezoning of Soho and Noho—his ninth large-scale rezoning—before he leaves office.
Still, housing experts often credit him for appointing a tenant-friendly Rent Guidelines Board that approved three rent freezes during his mayoralty, impacting 2.3 million New Yorkers in rent-regulated apartments. His administration approved the nation’s first right-to-counsel law, giving income-eligible tenants free legal representation in Housing Court for eviction cases. According to the mayor’s office, the law has helped 100,000 New Yorkers.
Listen to Mayor Bill de Blasio reflect on his housing legacy on WNYC:
Nicholas Bloom, an urban policy professor at Hunter College, argued that the criticisms of de Blasio’s affordable housing record mostly stem from shifting progressive priorities that placed equity at the forefront.
“The ground rules changed,” he said. “Now it was a question of who are you serving and is there enough equity in the affordable housing programs to justify the expense and the time?”
Amid the shortage of affordable housing for the poorest, homelessness began to soar. By 2018, there were more than 63,000 people sleeping in a homeless shelter every night, a 19% increase from 2014. Homeless advocates blamed the rise in homelessness under de Blasio on the shortage of units for the homeless in his affordable housing plan, which they said reflected a siloed approach to homelessness and housing.
This year the city’s shelter population fell back under 50,000, although experts attribute much of the drop to the halt in evictions during the pandemic.
In 2019, de Blasio unveiled a plan to end street homelessness by expanding capacity in so-called safe havens, shelters with fewer rules, but the effort was criticized for having police play a social service role. The mayor later scaled back NYPD involvement, but protests continued over the removal of encampments and homeless individuals from subways.
There has been progress on some fronts. The mayor won praise for phasing out the use of 360 hotel and cluster sites, privately owned units which were often mismanaged and costly for the city. In their place, de Blasio sought to open 90 new shelters across the five boroughs, despite fierce opposition in many cases, like a shelter that opened this year on Billionaires’ Row. There are now 99 shelters that have been announced or sited. Of those, 50 have opened.
And in 2019, under pressure from homeless activists and the City Council, de Blasio reached a deal that would require certain developers who receive city funding to set aside 15% of their rental units for homeless New Yorkers.
The long troubled condition of the city’s aging public housing stock worsened into a full-blown crisis during the de Blasio era. Decades of disinvestment by the federal government coupled with mismanagement have contributed to a staggering $40 billion repair backlog. NYCHA’s problems peaked in 2018, when a lead paint scandal resulted in a federal probe that found authority officials had misled residents and government officials. The city was eventually ordered to hire a federal monitor and pay the agency at least $2.2 billion over 10 years.
Ironically, de Blasio had early on in his tenure sought to develop a plan to rescue NYCHA. He committed more city funding to NYCHA — as much as $4 billion prior to the federal agreement — than previous mayors. He also notably ended required payments by NYCHA to the city for police and sanitation services, which had been costing the agency over $100 million a year.
Meanwhile, the city accelerated efforts to squeeze more revenue from public housing through a federal program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which provides federal funding and access to credit for private management companies to take over the day-to-day management of units. But the latter has proven to be controversial, with some residents and housing activists opposed to what they argue is the privatization of public housing. A separate effort to partner with private developers to develop underutilized land on NYCHA properties stalled.
The idea of offering half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers didn’t originate from the de Blasio administration, but it seemed like a slam dunk cause for the “Tale of Two Cities” mayor who pledged to reduce income inequality. Public transit had become increasingly unaffordable to a quarter of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty level, and this was a relatively low cost program the city could implement without approval from the MTA or state. The Community Service Society (CSS) argued that for $200 million, the city could help 800,000 New Yorkers access mass transit.
In 2017, de Blasio suggested he’d be open to the Fair Fares program if the state approved a millionaires tax to pay for it.
In 2018, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson firmly supported Fair Fares and insisted it be included in that year’s budget, arguing New Yorkers can’t live “stable lives if you can’t afford subway fares.”
After back-and-forth discussions, the mayor agreed to fund the program.
“Despite being inextricably aligned with his pledge to make New York City a more equitable place to live and work for New Yorkers at the bottom of the economic ladder, it took Mayor de Blasio far too long to actually support the Fair Fares initiative,” David Jones, president and CEO of CSS and served as a member to de Blasio’s 2013 transition team, wrote in a statement. “While the de Blasio administration deserves credit for publicizing Fair Fares, the real credit belongs to Speaker Johnson and the City Council for supporting and funding the program from the beginning. Today, a quarter of a million New Yorkers are enrolled in Fair Fares. We can be proud of that.”
And it’s the MTA’s current acting chairman, Janno Lieber, who has recently pushed for expanding advertising about the program to boost enrollment. He’s even suggested raising the income eligibility requirements, by basing need using New York State’s poverty rate over the federal rate. This could allow thousands of more people to qualify for the program.
When de Blasio began his first term it wasn’t a given that he would be as progressive on transportation as he claimed to be on social issues. During his campaign, he questioned whether there had been enough community outreach before bike lanes were installed in some neighborhoods, and offered to move them. He also referred to Janette Sadik-Khan -- the former transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg credited for launching Citibike, removing cars from Times Square, and installing 400 miles of bike lanes -- as “radical.”
But the mayor also ran on a campaign of eliminating all traffic deaths by 2030, through the Vision Zero program. After he was elected, he announced plans to double the number of cyclists in the city by expanding Citibike and installing more bike lanes.
There are roughly 530,000 daily bicycle trips in New York City now, compared to 380,000 in 2013 before he took office. When de Blasio started his first term there were 300 miles of bike lanes. As of 2020 there are 1,375 painted bike lanes, and 546 miles of protected bike lanes, with more being installed before the end of this year.
According to an analysis by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, the new protected bike lanes--made up of a physical barrier between vehicular traffic and the bike lane--weren’t evenly distributed throughout the city. More than half of the protected lanes are in Manhattan, 27% in Queens, 16% in Brooklyn, 5% in the Bronx, and just 2% in Staten Island.
“Over the past eight years, DOT completed transformational bike lane projects, like on Queens Boulevard,” Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, wrote in a statement. Harris complains though that the type of street redesigns, known as traffic calming, which include changing traffic lights so pedestrians get a head start before cars or removing parking spaces at intersections to improve visibility, didn’t happen frequently enough.
“Too often, we found ourselves going to vigils instead of groundbreakings because of the slow pace of progress and lack of political will to scale life saving programs,” Harris said.
The DOT notes it completes about 100 street redesigns a year.
Citibike hadn't even been around for a year yet when de Blasio began his first term. At that time the service had 332 stations, with 6,499 bikes available and 1,170 annual members. As of the end of October this year, there are 13,570 annual members, 1,493 stations, with a total of 23,472 bikes, becoming one of the world’s largest bike share programs under de Blasio’s tenure. While Citbike is privately funded, the city and Department of Transportation choose and sign off on where to put new docks, making it possible for the program to expand across the city, particularly in transit-starved neighborhoods.
While city-operated ferry service didn’t begin on de Blasio’s watch, it was greatly expanded. It went from a service making seven stops along the East River to a service that runs six different routes, including one to Governor’s Island. The service relies on steep subsidies to operate since revenues have not kept up with covering operating costs. A 2019 report by the Citizens Budget Commission, the latest available report examining the NYC Ferry, found that for every $2.75 a rider spends to ride the ferry, the city pays $9.73.
And by 2019, it became clearer who was using the ferry service: 64% of riders were white with a median income between $75,000 to $100,000, according to a 2019 survey by the city Economic Development Corporation, which manages the services. Two years ago, the city comptroller found the average income of a subway rider was $40,000, while the average income of a bus rider was $28,455. In 2019, the first year that all six ferry routes were running, the city earmarked $53 million to subsidize the ferry service. And it cost the city about $9 per user, nearly 10 times the rate that subway riders’ trips are subsidized.
While the city has reduced the hours of ferry service, due to drops in use during the pandemic, and postponed an expansion to Staten Island, it’s still costly for the city to continue to subsidize, according to a recent report from the Citizens Budget Commission found.
“The City has not taken steps to adjust fares or routes, and they plan to go ahead with costly expansions, which will increase the need for subsidies going forward,” Sean Campion with the Citizen Budget Commission, wrote in a statement.
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of new shelters that have opened under the mayor's homelessness plan. Of 99 planned, 50 have opened so far.
Over the next few weeks, Gothamist/WNYC will assess de Blasio’s legacy by looking at the ways his administration met and failed expectations. Coverage will focus on public safety and policing, democracy, climate change, Vision Zero, and his first large-scale rezoning. We also asked everyday New Yorkers to weigh in on and grade the mayor’s performance.