Espinal’s district at forefront of affordable housing plan
In Public Service: Councilmember Pleased His Community Getting City Attention
Councilmember Rafael Espinal and the constituents in the East New York section of his district are pioneers.
East New York will be the first neighborhood to undergo a major re-zoning as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s grand vision to build thousands of units of affordable housing throughout the city.
“Our neighborhood is going to be the model. We’re kind of leading the way,” Espinal told the Brooklyn Eagle during an interview at the Eagle’s Court Street offices.
Espinal, a Democrat who was elected to the City Council in 2013, represents the 37th Council District. The district includes East New York, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Espinal said he and his constituents are ready for the challenges of re-zoning and are determined to see that the city gets it right. He has held at least 10 town hall meetings to date to give residents a chance to learn about the de Blasio administration’s re-zoning proposal. The most recent one took place on Sept. 16 at Blessed Sacrament Church on Pine Street.
Residents have expressed concern over the height of proposed buildings, according to Espinal.
“The city is looking to increase the height to 12 stories. There could be 12-story buildings all along Atlantic Avenue,” he said.
Espinal is confident that at the end of the process, the re-zoning will fit East New York’s needs.
If it doesn’t, he won’t vote for it when it comes before the City Council, he said. “The re-zoning can’t happen without my vote,” he added.
Still, Espinal said he believes that the mayor is on the right track in terms of wanting to increase the number of affordable housing units in the city. “The city is growing,” he said.
It’s fitting that the massive re-zoning effort, which will eventually take place in 15 neighborhoods across the city, is starting in his neck of the woods, Espinal said.
He proudly described his district as “a diamond in the rough.” Most of the residents are low-income people who take pride in their community. “It’s very special,” he said, referring to his district. You can raise your family there. The rents are affordable. Transportation is there,” he said.
Re-zoning will pave the way for the construction of new housing, but that isn’t the only change Espinal would like to see.
The councilmember is pushing for the establishment of an Industrial Business Zone. “I pushed for the Mayor’s Office to do an independent study on Industrial Business Zones,” he said.
The Mayor’s Office agreed and the study is currently underway.
“I would like to see 12,000 to 15,000 jobs created. My vision is to create thousands of jobs and for people to be able to walk to work,” Espinal told the Eagle.
Another proposal he is supporting is one that would create a Business Improvement District (BID) on Fulton Street. “BIDs are helpful. You get to know who your neighbors are.”
The BID would be approximately two miles long.
It’s about time the city pays attention to the gem that is the 37th Council District, Espinal said. “I felt we were kind of ignored,” said Espinal, who was born and raised in Cypress Hills. “As a kid, I used to have to go to Queens to use their ball fields. We didn’t have any ball fields in our neighborhood.”
His parents were immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “They came here and raised six kids,” Espinal said.
Espinal attended P.S. 108, Intermediate School 302 and Franklin K. Lane High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Queens College. In college, he starting thinking about how he could make a contribution to his community and sought ways to improve the lives of hard-working residents. “I was an adult literacy teacher for a year,” he said.
He got a job working for then-Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan, working the front desk in the councilmember’s office and wrote letters on the lawmaker’s behalf. But Espinal said that at that time, he was “not thinking this was going to be a career.”
Dilan had other ideas, however.
Dilan talked to Espinal on many occasions and encouraged his political ambitions.
Through that encouragement, Espinal realized that he could make a life in politics. He aspired to be Dilan’s chief of staff. When he got the job, “It was the happiest day of my life,” he recalled.
He loved running the office, helping constituents with their quality of life issues, and representing Dilan at public meetings.
Working as the chief of staff job also made him think about his future. “I knew how the political system worked. I thought about running for public office,” he said.
Opportunity knocked on his door. Darrell Towns, who was the assemblymember representing the 54th Assembly District, resigned in 2011. Espinal decided to run for that seat. He won a special election. He wasn’t a stranger to voters. “My parents had roots in the neighborhood. They were really well known,” he said.
In addition, Espinal had established himself by representing Dilan at community board meetings. “People had a sense of who I was,” he said.
He enjoyed the Assembly, but two short years later, he opted to run for the City Council seat.
“The Council is a more active body,” he explained, adding that he could have a more direct, hands-on relationship with the community as a councilmember. “It’s a grass roots kind of thing. You’re solving people’s pothole problems and providing immediate relief,” he said.
On the Council, there is “more access in directing funds to the local community,” Espinal said. “You have more control.”
As one of the few people to have served in both the Assembly and the City Council, Espinal reflected on the differences. In the Assembly, “things move a lot slower.”
That’s partly because the Assembly is in session only from January to June. “Time is compressed. In the Council, everything is spread out,” he said, referring to the fact that the Council meets throughout the year.
But he did note that in the Assembly, “there is more camaraderie among the members.”
By contrast, “Councilmembers are at City Hall and then they go right back to their districts,” he said. “There’s not as much hanging out together.”
In Albany, members are far away from home and far away from their families, so they tend to gravitate to each other.
As a councilmember, “I feel blessed,” he said.
The 37th Council District “has the most Dominicans in the city,” he said, adding that it’s a demographic that is leading to tremendous growth in local churches. The Spanish-languages Masses in the neighborhoods are packed, he said.
Espinal’s district office is located at 786 Knickerbocker Ave. His office staff deals with a lot of constituent questions on immigration issues and affordable housing. “We also get a lot of job inquiries,” he said.
On the Council, he serves as chairman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs. “We deal with small business and protection of consumers,” he said. As chairman, he works to maintain a balance between the needs of business owners and the rights of consumers.
While Espinal agrees with de Blasio on many issues, he opposes the mayor’s proposed ban on horse carriages. The horse carriage industry is an important part of New York City, he said. “It’s part of the historical fabric of the city. And it’s already heavily regulated by the city.”
He has gotten push-back from the Mayor’s Office on the horse carriage issue, he admitted. But he stood firm.
His devotion to his job and the hours it entails has left little time for a personal life. Espinal is unmarried. “I get teased a lot,” he said. He has been dubbed the Most Eligible Bachelor in Bushwick.
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