Another election cycle is upon us! This year, thanks to a recent New York State Supreme Court decision, the primary elections have been split into two. The first will take place on June 28, where folks across the state will cast their ballot for their chosen assembly member. Incumbent Emily Gallagher, who was elected in 2020, now faces her first ever challenger with Paddy O’Sullivan. We spoke to the assembly member about Good Cause eviction, how to modernize the labor movement, and what fiction can teach us about life under capitalism.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments during your time in office?
I have really been delivering for the community in the ways that I promised I would. I secured $75 million to complete Bushwick Inlet Park which you know has been waiting for revenue since 15 years [ago]. I also secured $40 million to improve safety on McGuinness Blvd and have been working with the DOT to have really open and transparent and engaging opportunities for residents to weigh in. Over 2000 residents have actually weighed in on what they want to see. We’ve also established the first vaccination site in North Brooklyn.
I also went in knowing that there was a lot of abuses of power in state government, and I was one of the first voices to call out against Governor Cuomo’s tactics and his sexual harassment and the fact that he was covering up nursing home deaths and using his downtime to write a memoir. We ended up being able to impeach Cuomo, and I think the government has been functioning with more transparency. We still have a long way to go, and that’s something I’m still working on, but I do think that there’s been an improvement in communication and bold progressive policies being taken on by the state.
I also really worked hard as part of the Invest in Our New York campaign during my first year in office to push for us to end the age of austerity in Albany and to actually begin creating a more equitable tax system that taxed higher earners and brackets of wealth that have never really been taxed before in our state. We actually did achieve a change in the tax structure so that millionaires would be taxed at a higher rate, and it had no backlash. The folks who work in that bracket were willing to pay those taxes happily, and it really enabled us to fund, for the first time, our state education system.
There was a lawsuit in the 1990s asking us to put more money into public schools — this was the first time we were able to fully plan out to pay the amount that was settled in that case…We actually had a surplus of revenue because of these taxes. Revenue is something that I’m focused on for the state, because there are many, many extremely high earners. We have some of the highest levels of wealth in the world living in this state. We need to help fund the essential programs that the working people in this state need to survive and to thrive, right? That’s become a cliché, but to me it really means having opportunities to live a full, safe, and secure life. And I think that is something that really motivates me in the state legislature, to secure those things for your average people, like me.
As you know, a lot of people in the neighborhood are struggling with skyrocketing rents, price gouging, and limited housing stock. I know you’re a supporter of Good Cause eviction, which didn’t pass in the most recent legislative session. Could you talk a bit more about that, and how that would affect our district?
Good Cause eviction was the kind of piece of the 2019 Tenant Protection and Stability Act that passed which included so many of the rent stabilization adjustments that have really made housing better for so many of our constituents. Our neighborhood is 82% renter and the majority of those people are paying a median rent between $1500 – 2500 a month, and that’s really quite a lot of money, and quite a lot of income to give during the pandemic and in this time of inflation as well. But Good Cause eviction would allow a right to remain for tenants who are rule-abiding and are good partners in the contractual agreement of a landlord and a tenant.
Right now, the system does not protect tenants who are not living in rent stabilized buildings with a right to remain. So what that means is that all across the state, if you are not living in registered rent stabilized building, which are really just in the NYC area, your landlord has the right to change your rent at whatever level they want, or to give a no cause eviction, so just to say “You know what, I’m actually not gonna renew your lease, and I’m gonna rent it to someone else at a different amount” or “I’m going to turn this building into a single family home that is a mansion for other people.” Good cause eviction would allow people who own and live in their building to still make the same choices about who’s living in their building, but it means that if you’re living in a smaller building or a newer building that is not rent stabilized, you would be able to negotiate a lease, and there would be a rent increase that would be based on the cost of living and general adjustments of the market. But it would not allow just a random amount of money to be charged.
So basically, at the market that we’re at right now, a 7-9 % increase might be considered a reasonable rent adjustment. What we’re seeing in the district is people having 50% rent increases, 100% rent increases, which means thousands of dollars added to people’s rent. We’re seeing adjustments of $500. That is really much more than any earner can just absorb in a few months’ notice, and it’s causing an enormous housing crisis in our city.
I am a strong supporter of this because I believe that housing is one of the basic tenets of safety and stability, and I know that it is one of the fundamental things we need to live. And we need people to be able to remain in community, with the place that their children are going to school, where they work, where their family is, where their friends are, where the community groups that they participate are in, and it’s really important to have communities for mental health and for public safety. I really believe that people need to be able to stay in their homes. The horror stories I’ve heard from our own district have just been heartbreaking, and it’s something really troubling to tell people, [when] almost every day someone tells me “I just got a $500 rent increase, is this legal? What can I do?” And as the law stands, there’s nothing we can do. But with Good Cause eviction, they would have a limit on the amount that could be raised that would still mean that the landlord could take care of their building, or even if the landlord needed the apartment for their own personal use, they’d be allowed one unit for that.
That’s not what we’re seeing happen, and one of the things that’s so important about this is [that] thinking statewide, so many cities do not have any kind of tenant protections at all. And this would really provide for folks who are living in communities in Syracuse and Buffalo and Rochester and in the Hudson Valley, where there’s maybe a renewed interest in gentrifiying communities, purchasing buildings and replacing the population that lives there, and that’s a really big problem for the state. We need our working people, we need the security of community, and Good Cause eviction would deliver that.
I’ve been a champion of this bill since before I got into office. I really believe that people have the right to a community and to stable housing, and I think that there’s been quite a lot of misinformation spread by the Real Estate Board of New York. The bill is only three pages long and it’s quite straightforward, and I really invite anyone to read it and take a look and see that this is fair and just for all of the people who would be participating in the transaction.
Part of being a democratic socialist means putting labor issues at the forefront. It seems like we’ve been seeing a lot of labor fights around the city, with union organizing at Starbucks and Amazon, and a long-running strike in our own backyard with the United Metro Energy workers.
What are some other steps we can take to uphold workers’ rights and strengthen workplace protections?
One of the things that I’ve really been working on in tandem with many of my colleagues is really looking at the modern situation of what labor is, and how workplaces operate. One of the big issues, especially around Amazon and other big technology-based companies is they have removed the human part of human resources. At Amazon, people are hired and fired by apps. They are not having actual contact with people with whom they can actually have accountability. So we really need to be thinking more creatively as we legislate about how do we protect workers in a world where the boss has been put behind a computer. It’s really kind of like a dystopian nightmare, in my opinion.
The other thing that I’m really excited about with what’s happening now with organizing especially at Amazon and Starbucks and around other major corporations is that we have to remember that the people who are a company are the workers. It is the people who are doing the work, and serving the people, and creating the product, and selling the product, and dealing with the customers, that is what a company is, and those people have a right and a stake in the company that needs to be recognized beyond as interchangeable parts and replaceable labor. And the fact that so many people are taking on these corporations, that we’ve been told are too big to unionize, and winning is very inspiring. We’re in a time right now that’s very challenging. We have a lot of really hard social issues to be dealing with, and to see people standing up and exercising their rights for unions, it’s really motivating people to look at — and I think this is in part with the Great Resignation — people have really started to say “This is my life.” A core belief of mine is that we were not born to chase money, and to become a good worker. We were born to experience life, to have joy, and connection and access to nature and access to education and to participate in society, but not be consumed by capitalism. I really think that this union movement that we’re seeing right now is outstanding and what we need at this time.
I went to the Amazon rally that happened about a month ago. I got to meet Chris Smalls, who’s a hero of mine, and I’ve gotten to talk to several of the baristas who are organizing Starbucks locations, including one in our district. All of them have been describing situations that I recognize because I used to teach labor history at the Tenement Museum. And these are the exact same kinds of abuses that we saw at the early 20th century that led to the union movement that we have today. So we’re modernizing the union movement, and my job as a legislator is to listen to those who are in these movements and find out what do we need to codify to make things safe, fair, and equitable for workers. I’ve been also working with Teamsters who are doing the United Metro Energy Corporation (UMEC) protests. When the protests began, we came out with some legislative ideas…such as the idea of creating a law that the City can’t contract with companies that have active strikes happening, because right now, the City government is contracting with UMEC, and they’re on an active strike and have a clear labor abuse. They’re not following the terms of the union’s agreement there, and they are bringing in other workers to work at levels that are not acceptable. So I’m really looking for opportunities to put those things into law.
On the ground, I want to be a resource for workers who are looking for information, for employers who want help in making sure that they have what they need to provide a safe and equitable workplace. We’ve been working a lot with the small businesses in the district, and we’re very close with the Save Our Storefronts movement. I’m on the Small Business Committee, so I’ve really been working to try to push forward the protections that we need for small business owners as well.
I also carry a bill that would put the right to strike in the New York State constitution. Currently, everyone has the right unionize, but not everyone has the right to strike, especially public employees, and that becomes a big problem because as we’ve seen with the City budget cuts around schools, teachers are really being put in bad situations, and we really need everyone to be able to go on strike. There was the whole dust up with municipal workers not having really good protections with COVID, being asked to go into the office for arbitrary reasons, and fighting to have that changed. We’ve also seen unionization in the City Council. I have a feeling that unionization of workers in the state government is necessary as well. So I’m really here for anybody who wants to connect with union organizers or to talk about what their rights are, because this is a core foundation of this society that we built to function under capitalism. And we need to make sure that it’s up to date and that everyone is prepared to stand up for themselves.
Transportation issues, such as Open Streets, implementing bike lanes, and improving the G train, have been somewhat contentious in our neck of the woods. What is your vision for how access to transportation should look like in North Brooklyn?
Well, I think the ultimate goal, and there’s going to be growing pains on the route to this goal, is to have really efficient, reliable public transit. It requires that the bus route is very important in North Brooklyn. It requires us to have less traffic. My office is on Manhattan Avenue, and not a day goes by where there’s not some kind of dramatic honking, car, truck, and bus standoff. The reality is that cars have gotten so much bigger that we really just don’t have room on the streets for the kind of cars that are being bought and sold right now. There’s actually some legislation about that in Albany, because very large trucks and SUVs and Jeeps are much more dangerous too. If you get hit by one of these tall, big vehicles, you will get hit in the head and the chest, whereas if you normally get hit by a car, you get hit in the hip. You’re much more likely to die if you get hit by one of these huge vehicles….I really do wanna see more space on the roads for people walking9, people riding a bike, people using a moped, or a smaller kind of electric vehicle.
I think that it’s also really so much part of the fight for a green future for our city. So I think we need interconnected safe pathways for pedestrians and for people who want to use other forms of transportation. I have a car, and I drive it quite often, but I do know that it puts me in a different state of mind, when I’m driving a car. For some reason, it’s a very kind of aggressive activity. If we can clear space for a more functional public transit system, and for more peaceful forms of transportation, that would be just fantastic.
It’s good for accessibility, because folks who need to ride in a car, they shouldn’t have to suffer from congestion and all of these other things that happen in traffic jams. I think it’s good to make that space for people who truly need that kind of transportation. I think also having safer streets means fewer injuries, which will result in less catastrophic mobility disabilities that happen from that. It also makes more room for different kinds of mobility. It would be nice if wheelchairs didn’t have to go into the street to go down the road. So often, I see people on motorized scooters or wheelchairs having to go into the road, because there’s not enough room on the sidewalk, the sidewalk is not well maintained, and it’s dangerous for them to ride on, and I think that by widening the space for pedestrians, we are creating a much more universally accessible transportation byway. My goal is to really make streets safer for everyone who participates.
It also means that we have to think differently about what the future looks like. [Regarding climate change,] all the impermeable pavement that we have, because of the systems of transportation that were built, is really bad for our community in particular because we have a major storm water issue, and we have a lot of flooding. This is something that my office has really been taking head on, and we have a series of water quality bills that we’re working on, but the reality is that we need to lessen the opportunities for flooding which means that we need more permeable surfaces. That means more grass, more rain gardens, more walkways that have porous materials. For us to also prevent what may be our imminent demise of being underwater, we really need to be working on lessening that kind of surface.
There’s so many reasons for us to shift towards a different system of transportation. And I totally get that this kind of change is a lifestyle change and when we’re not electing to make that ourselves but the system is pushing us to make that change for us, that that can be really uncomfortable, and I totally understand where people are coming from when they become upset about these things. But I do think that working together and having an open mind and thinking about our entire community and the success of our community working together, all roads lead to a different vision of what the streets and what transportation looks like.
It’s your dream day off, but you have to spend it all in this district. Where are you going, what businesses are you hitting up, and what kinds of activities are you doing?
Well, you know, many of my days off are spent in the district anyway. That’s why I ran for office, because I love this place. I think I would start off with obviously sleeping in a little bit, so getting up at 9. I would definitely start with getting brunch at Esme (999 Manhattan Ave). I love Esme, especially because I know that they’re a good employer, and that they’re very locally focused and minded. I love their food, especially their pancakes. I would relax a little bit there. Then I would probably head over to Record Grouch (986 Manhattan Ave), look through the records. I love that place so much that I got married there! I just love the owner. That actually was born out of another business that I loved in the community that was called Eat Records. It was such an amazing little coffee and record shop that was here in, like, 2006, and it was like a real community space.
I’m sure there’d be a ton of events going on, so I would check that out. I would probably in the afternoon also go into Williamsburg, go to Book Thug Nation (100 N. 3rd Street), look at the used books, and then go to McNally Jackson (76 N. 4th Street), look at their books. I really love both of those stores.
Then maybe I would go over to Grand Street Park, get some sandwiches from that little sandwich spot that’s over there. I’d go sit, look at the water, have a little picnic. Then I would probably go to a play or a show. I would love to go to National Sawdust (80 N. 6th Street) or Music Hall of Williamsburg (66 N. 6th Street), see a show, and afterwards get ice cream. Or if the show’s not happening, I would go to Nitehawk (136 Metropolitan Ave) and see a movie, and then I would go get ice cream at the gelato place that’s on Berry Street, and then I would ride a Revel around the neighborhood, have a little joyride, and go home. Hang out and watch some Mary Tyler Moore reruns.
Speaking of bookstores, what have you been reading recently that you’ve enjoyed?
The last book that I read that I loved was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. That book was awesome. I’ve kind of been in mourning since then because it’s hard for me to find a book that I love that much.
I love the way she wrote it; I was laughing out loud, it was really relatable, and I really felt like it was such a good example of relationships we have that are never really celebrated but they’re so formative.
Maybe we should form a North Brooklyn Book Club!
Oh yeah, that would be really fun! I really like reading history and political and cultural books, but during session, it’s so stressful [that] I really needed an escape. It was really nice to find a fiction book that I actually was into and enjoyed. I love to read theory all day, but with this job, I need something else to retreat to.
The other book I would recommend is Temporary by Hilary Leichter. Very relatable about working in the gig economy.
You know, what book I also really enjoyed was Convenience Store Woman [by Sayaka Murata]
I loved that book!
That was a really good kind of criticism of capitalism because this person is so judged by a job that she enjoys. It’s totally fine. It’s the kind of classism we encounter around the work that we do. That is something that I have a lot of memories of all my life before I had this job. People would be like “Why do you have three jobs?” or “Why are you working in a store?” “Why are you teaching after school, why don’t you get your teaching degree?” It’s like, people have certain expectations of the kind of work that you’re going to do, and when you don’t meet those expectations, because you’re following your heart, a lot of times you get criticism, especially from family.
Anything else you want readers to know about you?
I’ve only been in office for a year and a half, and I’ve already delivered quite a lot of material improvements to our district. I’ve also built great relationships at all levels of government, and I think I have a great team that is really open and available for constituent services. We are fighting for a better future for every single person who lives here. That means safe housing, a safe kind of passage to work at home, a safe workplace where you’re respected and you’re earning what you should, and you are treated like a person. That means also access to mental health care, to health care in general, and to a fair system of justice. I really believe that all of these things are what impacts public safety, and I know that it can be difficult to take the time to adjust to new ideas and new systems, but we have actually had so much success in our last two years.
We have a vision for the future, and it is a combination of community work on the ground, and legislative in Albany. We are building a team in Albany of other legislators who believe these same things. New York has a really bright future, and I know that when we are at the threshold of major change, that is when the backlash really comes in strong. So I just want people to believe that these are the changes that we can make together, and the doom and gloom that we’re hearing on the news is not always congruent with reality. The news makes money off of suffering and misery, and it’s most important for us to remember that we keep each other safe, and we have to work together to make a future that works for all of us. And that’s what my office is focused on.