After a turbulent first year as mayor, Eric Adams sought on Thursday to refocus his agenda on the needs of working-class New Yorkers, vowing to make city streets cleaner, improve public safety and expand affordable housing and a jobs program.
By using his second State of the City address to outline a “working people’s agenda,” Mr. Adams seemed to be moving away from the crisis-response mode that typified his first year, signaling that New York City had sufficiently emerged from the broad effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The mayor identified four major areas for improvement — jobs, safety, housing and care — while redoubling his emphasis on targeting a common enemy of New Yorkers: rats and the piles of trash they feast on.
Mr. Adams announced several proposals: a citywide expansion of composting; support for a rezoning plan for Midtown Manhattan to convert offices into housing; and the expansion of an apprenticeship jobs program to reach 30,000 New Yorkers by 2030.
“We are on the pathway to a safer city, with more jobs and more opportunity,” the mayor said. “And we have laid the cornerstone for a new era of affordable housing.”
Speaking at Queens Theater in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Mr. Adams harked back to his campaign persona as a working-class candidate, noting that he grew up not far away in Jamaica, Queens, the son of a house cleaner.
Mr. Adams’s first State of the City address last April at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, where he had served as borough president, focused on public safety and the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
On Thursday, he suggested that the recovery was well underway, arguing that “the state of our city is strong” and pointing out that the city had added more than 200,000 jobs over the last year.
“We’re just getting started, and there’s no stopping the world’s greatest city,” he said.
Yet nearly three years into the pandemic, New York is still struggling to adjust to the upheaval wrought by the virus. The city’s unemployment is higher than the national average; many New Yorkers have not returned to the office five days a week; and the city is facing multibillion-dollar budget deficits in the coming years.
His first year as mayor was undoubtedly shaped by crisis — the pandemic, fears of rising crime and an influx of migrants arriving from the southern border. Much of the mayor’s public messaging reflected his law-and-order approach to governing, as did his actions — including sweeps of homeless encampments and a new plan to involuntarily remove mentally ill people from the streets — which have been met with mixed reactions from New Yorkers.
A group of protesters rallied outside the Queens Theater on Thursday calling on Mr. Adams to move quickly to close Rikers Island, where 19 people died last year after being held at the troubled jail complex. Mr. Adams has raised doubts about whether he will close the jail by 2027 as planned.
Mr. Adams has also faced criticism over hiring friends for lucrative city positions, directing painful budget cuts at schools and libraries, and presiding over a staffing crisis in city government that has slowed the work of critical agencies. Mr. Adams has grown increasingly frustrated with media coverage of his administration, and has bristled at pushback from left-leaning elected officials over his policies.
Some experts said that the mayor’s agenda lacked the sweep and depth necessary to help the city fully recover from the pandemic. Nathan Gusdorf, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, said that deeper investments were needed in public education, affordable housing and public transportation if New York was going to be a place where families could thrive.
“As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and head into uncertain economic conditions, working- and middle-class New Yorkers need large-scale investments from City Hall that will lower the cost of living,” Mr. Gusdorf said. “Not adjustments on the margins.”
The State of the City speech is an annual ritual for New York City mayors, but the shiny plans that are announced do not always come to fruition. In his 2016 speech, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a $2.5 billion streetcar line through Brooklyn and Queens that never got off the ground.
Perhaps the most ambitious of Mr. Adams’s proposals involves the rezoning of Midtown Manhattan to add affordable housing in an area zoned for manufacturing and office space, but details were scant. The mayor said that community engagement would begin in the next few weeks. Another plan, for the North Shore of Staten Island, would focus, he said, on “expanded waterfront access and flood resiliency, job creation and mixed-use development.”
John Sanchez, executive director of the 5 Borough Housing Movement, a group focused on expanding affordable housing, said that rezoning Midtown was an achievable goal. The city and state should coordinate and update rules that would allow for more affordable housing to be built in places like Midtown.
“We understand that real estate south of 96th Street is valuable, but we want to make sure that there are affordable units,” Mr. Sanchez said. “It’s not only good for the city, it’s also good for making sure we don’t have segregated neighborhoods.”
Mr. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul released a plan last month that called for converting the city’s commercial districts into 24-hour live-and-work zones, but the plan lacked key details such as funding. The two leaders have maintained a positive relationship and Ms. Hochul attended the mayor’s speech along with the lieutenant governor, Antonio Delgado. Mr. Adams singled her out for praise in the speech, calling her the “steady hand we need at the wheel right now.”
Keith Powers, a councilman who represents part of Midtown, said he was optimistic about the rezoning plan, and suggested that Mr. Adams’s second year could be even more consequential than his first.
“I actually think year two is an even more critical year, because it’s when you have your team fully formed, when you understand the lay of the land and what those challenges are,” Mr. Powers said. “The challenge now is when you add in a potential recession ahead, coupled with new fiscal challenges like the migrant crisis, that means that we have less resources to play with, so we have to be more creative.”
Mr. Adams continued his crusade against rats, saying he would soon hire a rat czar and framed the new composting program as a way to help make city streets cleaner and provide the rodents with less sustenance. The mayor also pledged to ensure that construction sheds were removed more quickly and to reconsider outdoor dining sheds, which he called “Covid cabins.”
“For far too long, New Yorkers were asked to accept things that should be unacceptable — crime, rats, trash, traffic,” he said. “When we allow quality of life to deteriorate, it is working-class New Yorkers that suffer the most.”
His plan to bring composting to all five boroughs by October 2024 was praised broadly on Thursday as a long-needed service for New Yorkers that would help the environment. Experts said they hoped that it would eventually be mandatory, as it is in other cities like San Francisco.
And Mr. Adams, a former police captain, did not abandon his focus on crime. He said he wanted to address a “recidivism crisis” by targeting 1,700 repeat offenders involved in violent crime — part of his insistence on revisiting the state’s bail reform law that has angered many of his fellow Democrats. The mayor also promised increased enforcement against unlicensed cannabis shops.
“If you think you’re going to come into our communities without a license, put our kids at risk and steal jobs away from people trying to do it the right way, you must be smoking something,” he said.