“The presidential elections have made it hard for me to sleep,” says Council member Ben Kallos who is deeply disturbed by the national discourse.
“It is hard for me to believe that so many people in a country that I love are responding to some of this speech,” he said, referring to the hateful speech and incitement on the part of Donald Trump.
“My grandparents came to this country as immigrants… my wife is an immigrant. This is a nation of immigrants and the rhetoric around immigration is of huge concern to me.” He is concerned that “[a Trump presidency] would be a problem for Roosevelt Island which has one of the larger immigrant populations in my district, let alone the city.”
We sat down with the Councilmember to get his take on a variety of issues concerning the Island.
Governance and RIOC
Councilmember Kallos has positive feelings about new RIOC President, Susan Rosenthal. “Even in a place like Roosevelt Island, operated by RIOC and its Board, I found a lot of opportunity for working together. Whether it be on the 911 system, emergency preparedness, community response teams, the Tramway and the East-River ferry service which we were able to deliver; we found a lot of synergy and cooperation.”
Kallos is not so positive about the gentrification on the Island and throughout his district, saying it is one of the most challenging issues for him as an elected official. He is concerned about low- and middle-income people being displaced for warehousing, where apartments are just left vacant.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I even have places where billionaires are displacing everybody else; we have one in particular where the person is in his 80s and the billionaire is trying to get him out of his house so they can [erect] a 1,000 foot tower that will cast a shadow on Roosevelt Island.”
The council member believes in accountability. He says, “ultimately the Urban American portfolio of properties is an opportunity to preserve several hundred units of affordable housing on Roosevelt Island. I am disappointed that the city hasn’t stepped up that part of the portfolio. I am hoping that the DHCR (Division of Housing and Community Renewal) and its chair – who is chair of RIOC – are able to really step up and engage in preservation activities.
“Additionally, as part of the Southtown development, we are supposed to see affordable housing. There are additional buildings that will go up and I think we have to make sure that we hold them accountable and make sure there is affordability for residents.”
Kallos believes that with the new RIOC leadership, Susan Rosenthal, accountability gets a facelift; “I think very highly of Susan Rosenthal, she comes in from having been counsel. She held many people accountable and we wouldn’t have Universal Pre-K on the Island without her, so I think in partnership with DHCR, RIOC, and all the elected officials, we will be able to make sure that Southtown and Hudson Related meet the affordable housing requirements that they agreed to.”
He encourages residents in rent controlled or stabilized apartments, as well as those with LINK or section 8 vouchers to turn to public resources through Island representatives like himself, Assemblywoman Seawright, and State Senator Serrano who can assist by referring the tenants to organizations like ‘tenants and neighbors’ and pro-bono attorney organizations.
One key piece of the puzzle for Kallos is the PS/IS217’s Parent Teacher Association. He says,“the PTA has been great, but hopefully people in the community, whether their kids are there now, in the future, or have been there, can help and support the school. Based on the participatory budgeting securing over a million dollars for the school, I believe that the Roosevelt Island community can do a lot for PS/IS 217.”
The councilmember also sees Cornell Tech as a major component of education on the Island, “I hope that we can really work with Cornell Tech and the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC), to help support the school to give them the resources they need so they can compete.” He is working to secure more support for the school based on the fact that it services both Roosevelt Island and Queens residents, something that is unique in the city.
On the youth front, for tweens and teens in middle and high school on the Island, Kallos says they started the Police Explorers Program for 14-and-up teens in cooperation with the Public Safety Department and the 114th precinct. The program guarantees free college for those who commit to it and can then have a career as police officers post graduation. “I don’t know very many folks who have the opportunity at 14 to know that they can have college covered, if they are interested in that piece.”
He further urges people to apply not only to the Public Purpose Funds available from RIOC, but to apply for funds from his office; “we have been providing funding to various programs on the Island. If they are programs that haven’t applied before, they are welcome to apply now; they need to be a 501(c)(3). If they don’t have the same administrative capacities, we can provide funding through a fiscal conduit.”
Ultimately the council member is hopeful that through the new contract that is being put out at the Youth Center, more youth-aged needs will be met.
Businesses on the Island
Kallos was very disappointed to hear about the closing of the Main Street Sweet Shop, and had strong words to say about it, “In no case should a public benefit corporation have empty storefronts because they are waiting for higher rents.” He also acknowledges that there hasn’t been much revival in the business offerings on the Island. “The lease is managed by Hudson Related as part of a revitalization, but anyone on Roosevelt Island can see that we haven’t really seen as much as we had hoped for, and ultimately we can work with RIRA and RIOC to really ensure that the spaces are being utilized, even if it is through short-term lower-cost leases, until they are able to find better.”
Kallos hopes that Cornell Tech will be part of a business revival through jobs and jobs training, and is working with Cornell Tech to ensure cross-fertilization between their residents and business and those of the Island. “What I am hoping most is that the businesses that have been on Roosevelt Island for as long as anyone can remember and have been really investing in the Island, will be able to remain and enjoy the benefits of their long-term investment.”
On His Job and His Future
Councilmember Kallos believes in “citizen legislature” where citizens take on public service roles for a limited period and then go back to their private lives and careers.
He would love to see more people from various sectors joining public service in order to help rather than become career politicians. He loves being a council member for the on-the-ground work he does. With his 1st term coming to an end in 2017, he is eager to be elected to a second and final term as a councilmember and then head back to his career in law and software development. Stay tuned...