Brooklyn Boro

Levin says homelessness tied to income inequality

In Public Service: Councilmember Says More Affordable Housing Needed

November 12, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Councilmember Stephen Levin says raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would be a good start to helping residents. Photo courtesy of Councilmember Levin’s Office
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Stephen Levin was a junior at Brown University when the Sept. 11 attacks took place 14 years ago. The devastating event that killed nearly 3,000 people, including many young people, made him think about his life.


“I knew I had to figure out how to contribute in a positive way,” Levin said.

He took a strong interest in social justice issues and that led to politics.

Levin worked on the re-election campaign of then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez of Brooklyn. “I did a lot of the jobs nobody else wanted to do,” he recalled. The tasks included making copies, fetching coffee and answering phones.

His lack of ego impressed Lopez, who also served as chairman of the Kings County Democratic party at the time.

In 2009, when David Yassky, who was the councilmember representing the 33rd Council District, decided to vacate the position to run for city comptroller, Levin decided to make the leap into politics and run for the seat. Lopez supported him.

The diverse council district includes parts of Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill, Vinegar Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Greenpoint, where Levin lives. Levin grew up in Plainfield, N.J. and moved to Brooklyn several years ago.

Levin won the Democratic Primary in September of 2009, beating out six other candidates, and went on to win the general election that November.

In both his primary and general election campaigns, he employed the same work ethic he had used when he was working on Lopez’s re-election campaign. He knocked on doors to introduce himself to voters.

And he prepared ahead of time. “The primary was in September. I started knocking on doors in February,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle during an interview in his district office at 410 Atlantic Ave.

In a charming touch, there is a shingle hanging outside the office. Constituents can easily find him as they walk up Atlantic Avenue.

In addition to Yassky, among the former councilpersons for the 33rd District have been Hon. Abe Gerges (retired) and Ken Fisher. “We had a little forum at Brooklyn Law School of all the people who represented the district. It was really fun in a way,” Levin said. Levin had fun comparing notes with his predecessors.

Levin said he loves representing his diverse district. “Each of the communities has a strong geographical identity,” he said.

He said he enjoys the city’s Participatory Budgeting process, in which everyday New Yorkers get to vote to decide how some $1 million in budget funds are spent in their districts.

“Everyone comes together,” he said.

Levin, who easily won re-election in 2013, serves as chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. The committee has oversight over several city agencies, including Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services, Administration for Children’s Services, Department of Homeless Services, Office of Immigrant Affairs and charitable institutions.

As General Welfare chairman, Levin has had a close-up view of the de Blasio administration’s policies on homelessness. He defends the mayor on the issue, despite the fact that many New Yorkers have complained that the problem appears to be increasing and that more and more homeless people are on the streets.

“The de Blasio Administration has actually been very good on the homeless,” he told the Eagle. The mayor increased funding for programs to help the homeless. “He also increased funds for Legal Aid services,” the councilman said.

At the end of the Bloomberg Administration, there were approximately 53,000 homeless people in New York, according to Levin. The Bloomberg Administration left de Blasio with the homeless problem “and left him with zero infrastructures to deal with it,” he said.

“The numbers have been declining a little bit,” Levin said. One demographic is bucking the trend, however. The number of single adults who are homeless is increasing. “That statistic continues to rise,” he said.

Levin said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stated that the state is providing funding to help the city tackle the problem of homelessness and that the city needs to step up and provide more funds, according to Levin. “But the city has put up a lot of funding over the last year and a half,” Levin said

Homelessness is a complicated issue, Levin said. “A lot of it has to do with the lack of affordable housing and income inequality. Homelessness got really bad over the last 10 years,” he added.

It’s expensive to live in New York, he said. “The cost of living keeps going up and wages are stagnant,” he said.

There are solutions, however, he said.

“We need to build as much affordable housing as we can,” Levin said. “And rent regulations need to be strengthened.”

Levin also believes that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would be a step in the right direction.

But while he advocates for the city to build affordable housing, Levin said the city also needs to pick the sites carefully. In addition to building more housing, the city should also be thinking about where people who live in the new housing will work.

“I wish that we had, as a city, focused on light manufacturing and commercial areas on the waterfront, from the [Brooklyn] Navy Yard up to Greenpoint,” Levin said, adding that it would provide jobs for New Yorkers.

Key parts of Levin’s district will be undergoing major changes over the next few years.

A large residential-retail development called Greenpoint Landing is in the planning stages on the Greenpoint waterfront. The plans for Greenpoint Landing were made before Levin took office.

An 11-acre site on the Williamsburg waterfront that formerly housed a Domino Sugar refinery is going to be developed as a large residential complex that will house thousands of people.

Domino Sugar closed the refinery in 2004. Much of the maneuvering over the site took place before Levin took office. However, the pieces started to fall into place in 2013, when the property was bought by Two Trees Management.

Jed Walentas, a principal of Two Trees, came up with a plan to build high-rise residential buildings as well as providing office and retail space. His plan, which includes hundreds of units of housing, won the approval of the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Another major development, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the 85-acre waterfront park that stretches from DUMBO to Brooklyn Heights, is one that Levin is eyeing carefully.

A proposal to build residential towers in the park to fund the park, covered extensively in the Eagle, has pitted local residents against the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, a nonprofit entity responsible for planning, building and maintaining the recreation area.

Under the agreement between New York state and New York City that forged the way for the park to be built, the maintenance of the park must come from private funds.

The income from development projects in the park, including residential buildings, would help pay for the maintenance of the park, according to Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp.’s website,

As the local City Council member, Levin is a member of the board of directors of Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp. He told the Eagle that he is becoming increasingly concerned about the rising costs of maintaining the park. “The costs keep escalating. I need to know more about that,” he said.

The waterfront park is built on a series of 13,000 wooden pilings, and Levin said he has been told the pilings are deteriorating. But he suggested that maritime experts from other cities be consulted to see what solutions were employed in those cities. “What’s our real menu of options?” he asked.

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