The switch saved money, which is good. But even without the financial benefits, it was the right thing to do.
That's how City Council Member Mark Levine describes his first-in-the-nation law guaranteeing New Yorkers a right to counsel in housing court. He was a lead sponsor of the legislation, which is rolling out over a five-year period. The law will cost $150 million a year eventually, but spending $2,000 up front for an attorney costs less than the average $40,000 a year needed to shelter a family.
“Honestly, even if it weren't for that, this is a question of justice,” Levine says in an interview at the table in his district office on West 141st Street, “and I believe that no one who is facing a life-altering judgment should have to confront that fate without an attorney.” He would like to see the right to a city-paid attorney extended to commercial tenants threatened with eviction proceedings.
Levine sees the legal aid legislation as a “game-changer for tenants.” He heralds the 37 percent decline in eviction rates, and argues landlords are bringing fewer cases in court.
“That's certainly my biggest accomplishment in my five years,” says Levine, who will be turning 50 this month. He won his District 7 seat in 2013 and again in 2017.
Levine, a graduate of Haverford College with a master's degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, began his career as a math and science teacher in the South Bronx. He's a longtime Washington Heights resident, married with two boys, 19 and 15. He and his wife, Ivelisse Suarez, have a “tri-lingual” home, starting with Spanish and including English and Hebrew. He says it's been “life-changing to learn another language” and maintains he would have no political career without the lingual dexterity. “It opens up a whole new world of understanding, of relationships, or professional opportunities, identity. And to be able to read the Torah in the original language is a profoundly powerful and spiritual experience.”
Bringing People Together As a candidate, he was able to knock on doors in his plurality-Latino district and then talk easily about issues to his would-be constituents. “When you remove the communication barriers, the opportunity for human connection is really profound,” he says.
District 7 ranges from Washington Heights to West Harlem to Morningside Heights to a piece of the West Side. While diverse, the region's different areas share common concerns. Levine says tenants face rising rents and overly aggressive landlords from 96th to 165th streets. Mass transportation is slow and streets can be difficult to navigate quickly. “It's been heartening to me to see the number of common interests in a district that's so diverse,” he says.
Political observers looking to the future wonder where Levine might work in the future. He's widely expected to run for Manhattan borough president when incumbent Gale Brewer is term-limited in 2021.
“I am very seriously exploring a campaign for borough president,” he acknowledges. The job is appealing, he says, because he could help shape what's built across the borough.
“Development should be consistent with the scale and character and history of existing neighborhoods,” he says. “I don't want to see 45-story glass towers going up in Morningside Heights ... [or] 100-story towers going up on 57th Street that are casting mile-long shadows into Central Park.”
Taking aim at teen vapingLevine says he's worried about the continuing loss of small businesses. “We are simply not doing enough to save mom-and-pop stores. The city has not mobilized adequate public policy response to this challenge,” he says, calling for a vacancy tax on commercial landlords.
Levine stresses he still has work to do in his council job. He chairs the council's health committee, and he wants to take aim at teen vaping, “a highly addictive substance” where marketers target young people with favors like watermelon twist.
When Levine first launched his council campaign, he told his family that his schedule would free up a little once he was on the council. “That turned out not to be true. It's a 24/7 job,” he says. “The intensity is even greater than I expected, but it's been for me a dream-come-true job because of the chance for impact, the opportunity to improve the lives of individual constituents — and the chance to shape the future of New York.”