Below is a re-post of my City Council office's final government newsletter. The original can be found at BenKallos.com.
I wanted to take this last opportunity to thank you for the opportunity of a lifetime and send one final report on what we’ve been able to accomplish together over these past 8 years.
As New York City faces Omicron, our top priority is a recovery from this pandemic that can only come from a government that is transparent and accountable. Despite closing our physical office during the height of the Pandemic, we continued to serve you by phone and online before re-opening in person. Our monthly newsletter never stopped, First Friday moved to Zoom (and our parks), and we even held a virtual State of the District to keep residents informed.
Just as we have done every year since I have been in office, we continue to report to you with a comprehensive list detailing over 140 issues we have worked with residents and local leaders to fight for or win over the past 8 years. We’ve summarized them below in a narrative and listed them out in a table of contents you can skim. If you want to learn more, just click the link for more information than you or anyone else probably wanted in our full 175-page final report. Thanks to our partnership, we’ve accomplished so much more than anyone could have ever imagined.
Even before becoming a new father, education has always been a top priority for me, that’s why we’ve focused on expanding pre-kindergarten, school seats, school buses, the homework gap, gifted and talented, youth programs and jobs, as well as youth hunger.
When children were being turned away from our neighborhood schools, even though we were surrounded by new construction, there was no new budget for school seats, so I wrote the law to force transparency and won funding more than $93 million for 824 new local school seats. When the Mayor promised “universal pre-kindergarten” and didn’t give the Upper East Side any seats, we worked together to add more than 1,000 seats. When the Mayor began offering pre-kindergarten to 3-year-olds, but again left the Upper East Side out, we won Universal 3K for our district and the entire city for 2021. My daughter now attends the city’s free pre-kindergarten program, and I couldn’t be prouder.
We've invested $69 million rebuilding our schools, $25 million on STEM education, and building new gyms and green roofs for schools. We listened to parents to help schools open safely during the pandemic and launched a new French dual language pre-kindergarten. We carried legislation that we passed into law for students to offer LGBT support in schools and for parents to put GPS tracking on every school bus along with stop arm cameras to keep our students safe.
With the digital divide exposed by the pandemic, we introduced legislation to guarantee every student a laptop with digital textbooks that aren’t racist and outdated and even proposed desegregating online learning.
As a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, I fought to expand equity and access to the city’s best schools by proposing legislation to offer every student the exam together with free preparation.
We won funding for Summer Youth Employment as we fought for Universal Youth Jobs. We co-sponsored legislation to offer every child who needs it free summer camp, and then the Mayor did it. As a student who was too ashamed to stand on the poor lunch line, I am proud that we moved breakfast after the bell, won free school lunch, and fought to end youth hunger by serving dinner as part of universal after school.
We’ve been focused on jobs and our city’s local economy by expanding world class academic centers, helping small businesses and nonprofits, bridging the digital divide, offering retirement plans to the private sector, and proposing to give government benefits automatically.
We cut the ribbon on a new half-billion-dollar campus expansion of Rockefeller University and the brand new Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island. With new expansion, we will be repurposing old space to grow jobs right here at a new biotech incubator at Rockefeller University, which we’ve been working on since my first day in office.
At the height of the pandemic we fought for outdoor dining and won, then co-sponsored the law to make outdoor dining permanent, and authored the law to make it easier for new businesses to open with a sidewalk cafe. We even proposed legislation to offer funding to help businesses retrofit for improved ventilation and accessibility. As Chair of the Contracts Committee, I have fought to increase the share of our City’s contracts that goes to businesses owned by women and people of color and restored Asian-American professional services providers to the program. I also secured $120 million to fully fund non-profits and proposed raising wages for non-profit workers doing business with the city for a worker-led recovery.
During my first campaign I promised to take on the digital divide, and we won affordable high-speed internet for low-income New Yorkers and put forward proposals for Internet to be included in every apartment in New York City with a universal Internet guarantee so that everyone can work or learn from home.
In one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, in a country where we pay farmers not to farm, hunger isn’t a question of resources, it is a question of distributing resources, which is why I continue to push my legislation to make government benefits barrier-free with Automatic Benefits. I wrote the law to offer retirement accounts to workers who don’t have them at no cost to employers with Retirement Security for All.
Parks are more important than ever as we seek refuge from tiny apartments that weren’t built for a pandemic. Working alongside Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney as Co-Chair of the East River Esplanade Taskforce, we have now secured $920 Million for a resilient waterfront. We also secured $30 million for parks throughout the neighborhood including $9 million for a new Ruppert Park, $10 million for St. Catherine’s Park, a $3.4 million renovation of Carl Schurz Playground, a $2.9 million expansion of Sutton Place Park, and $1.65 million for a new pool, river overlook, and basketball courts at John Jay Park, $1.7 million for a new comfort station at 24 Sycamores Park, $1 million for Honey Locust Park, and reopened Clara Coffey Park. We’ve worked to secure funding for a conservancy for almost every park in the neighborhood and even opened indoor tennis for free or low-cost access year round. We also made our parks safer with $1.4 million in security cameras for hard to patrol parks and passed a law authored by kindergarten students to ban toxic pesticides from being sprayed in our parks.
Affordable Housing & Over Development
As a lifelong tenant, I know firsthand that even with thousands of vacant apartments, the affordable housing crisis persists.
We were able to build or preserve 1,000 affordable housing units in the neighborhood and 6,000 units citywide as a land-use subcommittee chair. We’ve also won four rent freezes for one million rent-regulated tenants. I wrote the law to stop illegal short-term rentals and get those units of housing back on the market. When a whistleblower shared that real estate developers were getting billions in tax breaks without offering the affordable housing they promised, I wrote the law to get hundreds of thousands of affordable homes back on the market. My law has already gone into effect and you can find affordable housing and apply right now at HousingConnect.nyc.gov.
We continue to fight overdevelopment that is displacing rent-regulated affordable housing and threatening our communities. We managed to stop the march of supertall buildings for billionaires into residential neighborhoods by winning the first of its kind rezoning. Following that momentum, we closed the mechanical voids loophole in residential districts and even won a proposal to make voids illegal in commercial districts that includes Billionaire’s Row. We forced a developer to fix a cynical 4-foot-wide lot they created. We beat the Mayor’s plan to build luxury housing on public housing land instead of the affordable housing we need. Then we beat the Jetsons tower on stilts. I even kept my promise to vote “No” on the Blood Center’s proposed Longfellow Commercial Tower.
With all the construction everywhere and all the noise that came with it, I wrote the laws to count every life lost on a construction site and to turn down the volume on after-hours construction noise.
In New York City there are more homeless children in our shelters than single men—together with their families they make up two-thirds of our homeless population. That’s why I co-founded the Eastside Task Force for Homeless Outreach and Services (ETHOS), getting faith-based organizations, nonprofits and City agencies together to build and support more services for the homeless in the neighborhood. Together we’ve opened supportive housing for women and children, a new supermarket style food pantry, and won a near-unanimous resolution in support from Community Board 8 to build a new Safe Haven, all within blocks of where I live, and I couldn’t be prouder. With more vacant apartments than homeless families, I’ve proposed renting or buying vacant apartments to end homelessness for families.
Big money has had a stranglehold on politics, leading to a corrupt government that has failed to serve the people. One prominent example is corrupt politicians saying they will do something about the affordable housing crisis while raising all their money from real estate developers. That’s why I think elected officials should follow my lead by refusing big money from real estate, corporations, and lobbyists and why I wrote the new full public matching campaign finance system that matches every small dollar you give with 8 public dollars so candidates can run the right way and win. The new system worked, with more candidates running and refusing real estate money,, and we will have a City Council that is majority of women for the first time in history.
Our government was so corrupt when I started that I had to write the laws to make it illegal for Council Members to earn outside income from people with business before them and to ban the Speaker’s “lulu” slush fund, used to buy Council Members’ loyalty, too. We amended the Charter not once, but twice, winning reforms at the ballot to pave the way on campaign finance along with term limits and urban planners for Community Boards, as well as limiting the revolving door for elected officials who become lobbyists. We even investigated the Rivington scandal and scrutinized $380 million in no-bid software contracts.
We need to make it easier to vote. That’s why I authored laws to let you request your absentee ballot online and make sure it is counted. I also wrote the law to let you register to vote online, which was blocked by a corrupt Albany legislature.
As a software developer we used an agile approach to pass laws to put the city record and law online and put forward proposals to make government work better with a smart city, a new office of digital services, adopting open source and collaborative software purchasing, APIs for government services, and even putting legislation online for comment.
You should know where your tax dollars are going, which is why we’ve had participatory budgeting and why I wrote the law to put the budget online. I used that law to find $15 billion in fat to trim from the budget.
Public Health & Safety
Over the years we've focused on public health with laws to improve access to healthy food and take on diseases.
We've worked to connect New Yorkers with the benefits they need automatically. We took on the obesity epidemic by making happy meals healthy. I also wrote the law to create the Office of Food Policy, carried legislation to adopt good food purchasing, and passed the law to establish an Office of Urban Agriculture so we can grow our food right here.
We’ve taken a balanced approach to public safety with reforms to policing and keeping military-grade robots off our streets, adding cameras to hard to patrol parks, a new mobile command center, and our bike safety program.
We’ve been proactive in responding to public health threats. I wrote the law to stop unnecessary deaths from Legionnaires' disease. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, the first thing we did was try and help our city and state secure hospital beds, which were in huge demand early on. We succeeded and were able to open 550 new hospital beds in the district. We also launched a supply clearinghouse, and we continued distributing masks, sanitizer, and food.
Getting around our district has improved immensely over the past eight years. Thanks to the vigilance of Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, we finally opened the Second Avenue Subway. We also won new transit options including ferries (with an expansion), bike share, faster buses through Select Bus Service, and even renewed the tram. We used Bus Time data to secure new buses and improve service. As part of Vision Zero, we asked residents where our most dangerous intersections were, invested in infrastructure to make our streets safer and launched a bike safety program that made it safer to be a pedestrian. We made the 59th Street bridge safe for pedestrians and cyclists to cross, funded snow plows for bike lanes and pedestrian intersections, and secured funding for dedicated bike lanes for the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges.
I believe in climate change and evidence-based governance. That's why I authored and passed a resolution making New York City the largest city on the planet to declare a climate emergency and overhauled our city’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing program to direct $20 billion in City spending to save the planet. The following year, the Mayor adopted our ban on the sale of single-use plastic bottles in parks. Through Grow NYC we funded Fresh Food Boxes and green markets, to offer locally sourced sustainable farm-fresh produce to thousands of residents in the district. I spent years fighting to expand composting, only to see it canceled by the Mayor, then we won the fight to bring it back. I helped pass the law to reduce the carbon footprint of dirty buildings, build green energy infrastructure right here like Renewable Rikers and most recently the city announced $191 million for offshore wind. Taken together, we will have a recovery that puts climate first.
Quality of Life
Cleaning up doesn’t just mean corruption in government, it also applies to the neighborhood. We fought hundreds of miles of scaffolding, some of it almost old enough to vote, with legislation to force repairs so it comes down quickly. We even put a new, covered trash can on every corner and worked with Wildcat to keep streets clean.
As you can see from this report, we have accomplished a great deal in eight years and have left New York City a better place to live than when we started. There is still much work to be done, and I wish my successor Julie Menin a great deal of success. You can still reach me at email@example.com and you will be able to reach her at JMenin@council.nyc.gov. Thank you again for the honor of representing you for the past 8 years.
Yours in service,
BY THE NUMBERS
Introductions: 183 Authored, 51 Passed into Law (28%)
Resolutions: 27 Authored, 10 Adopted (37%)
All Legislation Sponsored: 2,142 Sponsored, 1,401 Passed (65%)
City Council Attendance: 98%
Constituent Service: 15,792 cases
Petitions: 8,816 signatures
Events: 291 with 8,652 registrations
Reusable Bags Distributed: 4,900
First Fridays & Ben in Your Building: More than 100
Free Legal Clinics: 2,400+ Hours
Masks Distributed: 30,000+
Surge Capacity Secured: 550 beds
Food Pantry Distributed: 2,000 households
Funding for Esplanade: $920 million
Fair Student Funding: $1.6 billion
Funding for New Schools: $92.85 million
Funding for Non-Profits: $120 million
STEM Funding for Public Schools: $17.5 million
Participatory Budgeting: $11 million
From the Graphic
1,932 School Seats Secured or Funded for the Neighborhood
568 New Trash Cans on Every Corner
98 Years of Waiting Ended by Opening the Q Train
79 New Buses
46 Ferries a Day and 2 Ferry Stops
Ranked Best Law Makers 1st and 2nd Term by City & State
- Added More Than 1,000 New Pre-Kindergarten Seats for the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island Along with Better Pay for Teachers
- 3-K for All Expanded Citywide to include Upper East Side
- 824 New K–8 School Seats Secured for the Upper East Side
Youth Services and Hunger
- Took on Youth Hunger with Breakfast after the Bell and Free Lunch
- Fought to End Youth Hunger with Universal After School Complete with Dinner
- Won Summer Youth Employment Funding and Fought for Universal Youth Jobs
- Won Universal Summer Camp
- Equity for Specialized Schools and Free Test Prep
- Launched Dual Language French Pre-Kindergarten
- Passed Gender Sexuality Training Law Authored by Middle School Students
- 5 Annual Public School Student Art Show at Sotheby’s
Homework Gap and Online Learning
Investing in Schools
- $24.75 Million Invested in Schools: STEM, Green Roofs, Playgrounds, and Laptops
- $69 Million Spent Rebuilding Award-Winning Public Schools
- $8.2 Million Building Retrofit and New Open Space for P.S. 77 and P.S. 198
- New $6.5 Million Gym for Eleanor Roosevelt High School
- $2.5 Million Play Roof for P.S. 151
- $1.75 Million Green Roof for P.S./I.S. 217
- $1.4 Million Maker Space and Dance Studio for East Side Middle School
- New $600,000 Hydroponics for P.S. 183
- New $212,000 Library for Eleanor Roosevelt High School
- New Gym Secured for P.S. 151 and P.S. 527
- New School for Children's Academy
- Got Remote Learning Centers (Learning Bridges) Off the Ground
- Secured School Nurses for a Safe Reopening
- Opened New $7.8 Million Library for Roosevelt Island
- $2.5 Million Renovation for East 67th Street Library
JOBS & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- Won Affordable High-Speed Internet for Low-Income New Yorkers
- Internet as a Utility Introduced to Help Close the Digital Divide
- Universal Internet Guarantee
- Opened Rockefeller University’s New Half-Billion Dollar Campus
- Rockefeller Incubator
- Opened and Collaborated with Cornell Tech
- Opened the Tata Innovation Center
- Opened a “Big” Hotel on Roosevelt Island
Government Benefits & Retirement
Private and Non-Profit Sector
- Won Outdoor Dining
- $120 Million Secured to Fully Funding Non-Profit Human Service Providers
- Proposed a Worker-Led Recovery by Raising Wages for Human Service Workers
- Representation of MWBE in City Contracts
IMPROVING AND CREATING NEW PARKS
Investing in Parks
- Secured $927.5 Million for a Resilient East River Esplanade
- $80 Million for John Finley Walk
- $10 Million for St. Catherine’s Park
- $9 Million for Ruppert Park Playground
- $3.3 Million Reconstruction of Carl Schurz Playground Completed
- $2.9 Million Expansion of Sutton Place Park
- $1.7 Million in Renovations for John Jay Park
- $1.7 Million for Twenty-Four Sycamores Park
- $1 Million for Honey Locust Park
- $1.4 Million for New Security Cameras in Hard to Patrol Parks
- A Quarter Million Dollars to Support Our Conservancies
Opening and Improving Open Spaces
- “The Girl Puzzle” Monument Unveiled on Roosevelt Island
- Unveiled the FDR Hope Memorial on Roosevelt Island
- James Cagney Place Recognized as Official Pedestrian Plaza
- Clara Coffey Park Reopened
- Free Summer Tennis and Discounts Secured at Sutton
- 100 Opportunities to Play in Our Parks
AFFORDABLE HOUSING & OVERDEVELOPMENT
- Forced Affordable Housing Back on the Market
- Stopping Illegal Short-Term Rentals
- More than 1,000 Affordable Apartments Built or Preserved in the District
- 6,000 Affordable Homes Built or Preserved on City Land
- Won Four Rent Freezes and Three Historic Lows
- Protected Quiet Side Streets from Overdevelopment and Won Mandatory Affordable Housing for New Neighborhoods
- Ended Downsizing of Seniors into Studio Apartments
- Opened New Free and Affordable Art Spaces with ChaShaMa
- Tenant Safety Protection Laws
- Rezoned Sutton to Stop Supertalls
- Won Citywide Rezoning to Close Voids Loophole
- City Planning Proposed Removing Voids from Billionaire’s Row
- Fought Gerrymandered Zoning Lots
- Defeated Tower on Stilts
- Lowered the Volume on After-Hours Construction Noise
- Safer Construction with Law to Count Every Life
- Reformed the Board of Standards and Appeals
- Defeated Mayor’s NYCHA Infill Plan at Holmes Towers
- Voted Against Longfellow Commercial Tower Proposal by the Blood Center
- Opened Up Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS)
HELPING THE HOMELESS
- Co-founded the Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services
- Welcomed Supportive Housing for Women and Children to the UES
- Welcomed New Supportive Housing to the District
- Opened A New Food Pantry for the Upper East Side
- Supported a “Safe Haven” for Homeless New Yorkers on the UES
- House Homeless Families in Vacant Apartments Now
Campaign Finance Reform
- Authored the New Public Campaign Finance System to Get Big Money Out
- Weakened the Influence of Special Interest Money in Politics
- Eliminated Outside Income and Legal Bribery
- Charter Revision 2019: All Five Questions Passed
- Charter Revision 2018: Won Term Limits for Community Boards and Urban Planners
- Online Voter Registration and Voter Information Portal Laws
- Absentee Ballot Tracking Implemented by the Board of Elections
Management and Budget
- Opened the City Budget to the Public
- Focused on Better Management
- Millions for the Community Voted for by Residents in Participatory Budgeting
- Demanded Answers on the Rivington Nursing Home Scandal
- $15 Billion in Cuts to Trim Fat from the Budget
- Scrutinized $380 Million in No-Bid Software Contracts
- City Record and Law Online
- Councilmatic Makes City Council More Transparent Than Ever
- Smart City Legislation
- Free and Open Source Software Legislation
- GovAPI Legislation
- Opening the Legislative Process to Comments Online
- Tech “Moonshot” Division Proposed for City Government
PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY
- Healthy Happy Meals Law
- Created an Office of Urban Agriculture
- Established the Office of Food Policy & Fought for Good Food Purchasing
- Fresh Food Box
- Legionnaires’ Disease Prevention Law
- Coronavirus: Opened New Beds, Expanded Testing, Gave Away Masks, and Distributed Meals
Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
- Opened 2nd Ave Subway
- Select Bus Service for M79 and M86 with Automated Bus-Lane Enforcement
- Bus Time Data for Faster Service
By Air & By Sea
- Ferry Service for the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island Secured
- Roosevelt Island Tram Approved for Another 50 Years
Bike & Pedestrian Safety
- Bike Safety Program Got Results Improving Safety
- Brought Bike Share to the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island
- Won Dedicated Bike Lanes on Queensborough and Brooklyn Bridges
- Bought Snow Plows for Bike Lanes and Pedestrian Intersections
- Made Our Most Dangerous Streets Safer for Pedestrians
- Declared A Climate Emergency
- $20 Billion in Spending to Save the Environment
- Revitalized the Waterfront Management Advisory Board
Eliminating Toxins and Reducing CO2 Emissions
QUALITY OF LIFE
- Inspect All Scaffolding to Keep Pedestrians Safe and Planning to Take Down Unnecessary Scaffolding
- A New Trash Can on Every Corner
- Cleaned up the Neighborhood with Wildcat Service
- Improved Quality of Life Enforcement
- Fought the Marine Transfer Station
- Taking on Loud Vehicles with Automatic Noise Enforcement