By Carol Tannenhauser
To run for the New York City Council, you must be 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, live in the district you’re representing, and not be a draft dodger.
At 26, Zack Weiner meets all the requirements. He grew up on the Upper West Side, well after there was a draft to dodge. He currently lives here with his parents and two siblings. Before entering the race he was a “moderately successful” indie screenwriter and filmmaker.
West Side Rag: Are you having trouble getting people to take you seriously because of your age?
Zack Weiner: Definitely. I’ve had people explicitly say, “I’m not voting for you. You look way too young.” I’m happy they stop to tell me. That way I have a chance to tell them a little about me. I feel very prepared. I’ve spent the past year exhaustively studying the issues and a lot of the legislation. I read almost everything Helen Rosenthal wrote. But it’s totally fair for people to say that.
WSR: No fairer than for them to say someone is too old to run. What made you decide to get in the race?
ZW: It was January, 2020, right before the pandemic hit. My friend Joe and I had gotten more into politics, because of national events. What got us interested here was the empty storefronts. We thought they seemed like a layup being missed: there was all this money on the table, all this valuable empty space. We thought we’d get involved on the community board level, so we went to a meeting and were shocked. I imagined it would be like Parks and Recreation, the TV show, with everyone engaged and interactive, but it wasn’t; it was stonewalled. The topic was parking meters, and everyone was very upset. They just moved through it procedurally. When it ended, no one was happy and no one felt listened to. It clicked for me that we had to shake things up. At that point, it seemed like more of a long shot, because people were not as interested in local politics. This was prior to the Lucerne controversy, which really animated the voter base.
WSR: Where do you stand on The Lucerne controversy?
ZW: The placement of the Belleclaire and the Lucerne so close to each other was always going to be a mistake. I think it was also an incredible bureaucratic failure, which I believe our elected officials were implicated in. Services were not being provided. Three homeless people died in the Lucerne. The average for other shelters during the pandemic was one. Their party line is that treatment is perfect inside the hotel, and it’s not. Their rhetoric overall has not been around treatment, and the rhetoric coming out of WestCo, if you read their letters, a lot of it is about treatment. That’s what the people going through homelessness I’ve spoken to say they want first.
WSR: Where do you stand on the spectrum between WestCo and Open Hearts?
ZW: I believe in moderate as a brand. I’m in between Open Hearts and WestCo, but frankly, I’ve spent more time and I’m closer to the leadership of WestCo.
WSR: Segueing to street homelessness, what are your thoughts?
ZW: I don’t think any good-hearted person disagrees that every homeless person in New York City should have shelter. In fact, the law of the land is that if you’re homeless and you want a bed in New York City, you get one. The vast majority of people who are homeless on the street, who are unsheltered are choosing it, because they don’t like the shelters or they’re often untreated for serious mental illness or drug addiction. The first step is to talk about treatment and what could be provided them in that regard, and to start building an infrastructure that’s headed that way.
WSR: You know that people have the right to refuse treatment?
ZW: Riker’s is the largest mental institution in New York City right now, and a lot of that is people who get arrested, who are mentally ill, and get sent to jail. We do have a system in place that pays attention to people who don’t want treatment: Kendra’s Law. It was named for a woman who was thrown in front of a train by a man experiencing a schizophrenic break. Kendra’s Law authorizes the court to mandate treatment for people who are a danger to themselves or others. A major proponent of it is the man who killed Kendra, who went to jail and was treated. He says, “I wish to God I had Kendra’s Law before I was the reason for it.”
The good thing is this isn’t a budget issue. It’s a policy issue. We actually have more funding available than we have had in a long time. Just Thrive NYC alone, which is meant to treat mental illness and addiction, has close to a billion dollars in funding. But the mandate driving Thrive is all screwed up, and there’s not a lot of accountability. The lion’s share of the money is being devoted to the general population, instead of the seriously mentally ill. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on anti-stigma and educational campaigns. If we could redirect a large portion of that to the treatment of the homeless and seriously mentally ill, it could make a massive difference.
WSR: Talk about retail vacancies, the reason you initially decided to run.
ZW: People get very pessimistic about retail, but I’m optimistic. I think people are really going to want to go outside again. A lot of people say stores are never coming back; there’s going to be no such thing as stores. I don’t believe that. I know people like to be in stores. They’re going to have to be reinvented, and I would love to see the Upper West Side be the incubator.
Essentially, we’ve come to an impasse in the commercial real estate market. The landlords, entrepreneurs, and banks are all struggling to find a model that works so they’re able to fill these vacancies. We’ve conceived of a solution. In essence, it’s something called Startup Retail, which is a revenue-sharing agreement between entrepreneurs and landlords. The small business owner would pay utilities and a cut of their sales. They don’t have to pay any rent or startup charges. It’s actually very appealing to landlords, too, because they’re not making any money now, but on top of that their problem is, if they lower the rent, it can have severe mortgage consequences. So, a work-around is retail, with a shorter lease, that’s not lowering the rent value. Imagine telling an entrepreneur, you can start retail on Broadway, where you’re not going to have to pay any rent or pop-up charge. You just have to go in there, sell your stuff, cover the electricity, and give a cut to the landlord.
WSR: How do you feel about running against Gale Brewer? You know, you were about six years old when she was first elected to the Council.
ZW: (laughing) I actually hadn’t done that math. It is kind of daunting. She’s a really respected politician for good reasons. But Gale and I have policy differences. For me, it’s a matter of focus, strategy, and priorities. I’m hearing a lot of talk about what should stay, but, in terms of evolving I’m not seeing a lot of innovation. I think a lot of our policy differences — this might sound unusual — are not irreconcilable. I think there’s a lot of stuff we would agree on if we spoke about it or she read some of the stuff I wrote. One of the core problems is a reluctance to innovate, shake things up, and have the conversation be a little different.
WSR: By the way, whatever happened to your friend Joe?
ZW: He’s my campaign manager.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. It is the sixth in a series covering the candidates running for the District 6 City Council seat in the June 22nd Democratic primary.