By Michael McDowell
Andrew Yang may be a newcomer to New York City politics, but—so far—he’s been leading many of the polls in the 2021 race for mayor.
Before his unsuccessful run for president in 2020, Yang founded and led Venture for America (VFA), a nonprofit which aimed to enlist recent college graduates in the economic revival of faltering cities — an effort that fell short of its goals. Prior to VFA, Yang was CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test preparation company that was acquired by Kaplan in 2009.
Yang has become widely known for his support of a universal basic income. He has proposed a scaled-back version of this idea in his campaign for mayor.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
WSR: It’s 2025 and Mayor Yang is running for his second term. What are his specific policy accomplishments?
AY: The single biggest indicator of my success is going to be whether our city is back on its feet, whether we’ve regained most or all of the 600,000 jobs that we’ve lost, and whether people are excited about raising our families in New York City. That’s my measuring stick.
WSR: One of your platforms is a direct cash grant program. In a city where infrastructure is falling apart and a lot of parents are still hesitant about sending their kids back to public schools, why is cash relief to the poorest New Yorkers such a central part of your campaign?
AY: Pre-Covid, New York City’s economy was expanding, but there were so many New Yorkers who were left behind even then. Now, as we’re coming out of the pandemic, there are so many New Yorkers who are suffering food insecurity, or are on the edge of losing their home. We can do better for people. No one should go hungry in this city. Keeping people in more secure, [more] stable situations is a win for all of us.
I’m committed to fighting poverty on multiple fronts. I’ve proposed an ambitious cash relief effort to alleviate extreme poverty in New York City. I’m also championing a People’s Bank, which will help the 11 percent of New Yorkers who don’t have a bank account right now and are getting exploited by check cashing firms and money lending storefronts get access to basic financial services, so it’s not as expensive to be poor. I think getting high speed internet to serve families that want it will help combat poverty. I think alleviating transit deserts in certain parts of the city is another way we can help. So there are a lot of things that we can do. But we have to be very deliberate about it.
WSR: In 2020, the city recorded 447 homicides, the most since 2011. As mayor, how would you address this?
AY: I believe I was the only mayoral candidate that called for sending 500 additional police officers to subway stations and platforms in response to some of the incidents. We need to make sure that our police are responsible and accountable and professional, but we also need them to be activated in enforcing our firearm laws and trying to get these crime rates going down and the clearance rates (those arrested and formally charged) going up.
I think most New Yorkers—on the Upper West Side and around the city—think that we’re capable of doing two things at once where the NYPD is concerned: helping to advance and evolve the culture and reform the department in certain ways, but also engage in bringing down these rates of violent crimes, particularly shootings.
I’ve suggested that new police officers should live in New York City, which would give them a better understanding of the neighborhoods that they’re serving and protecting. It would also mean that we have hundreds of off duty police officers living and commuting throughout New York City, every day, which would be very positive. We already require employees of certain agencies to live in New York City, so there’s no reason why we can’t do the same for police officers, given the nature of their duties.
WSR: Vacant storefronts were a concern in the neighborhood before the pandemic, and that concern has only grown since. Do you have a plan to address it?
AY: One way that we can help is by facilitating pop-up shops and pop-up restaurants that require short-term commitments on the part of either retailers or restaurateurs, who right now, frankly, could be leery of signing a four-or five-year commercial lease. You can [also] imagine what one of my supporters called ‘an Airbnb for storefront space,’ trying to connect opportunities with enterprising retailers or restaurateurs who want to give a particular location or menu a shot without committing to years and years of investment. This is the kind of measure that we should be pushing forward with, and this kind of effort would actually spur foot traffic, which would help everybody—including existing retailers.
WSR: Some people blame the struggles of small businesses on red tape and regulation; others say the government needs to level the playing field between landlords and small businesses with legislation like the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. Where do you land?
AY: We need to be a better partner to small business owners who are trying to get back on their feet right now. One thing that I’ve already declared is that we’re going to give people a [grace period] during my first year and not hit them with fines, because if you’re trying to reopen your doors, the last thing you need is a city inspector hitting you with a $1,000 fine—or worse—when you can least afford it. I think that’s going to be music to many small business owners’ ears. When I talk to small business owners, they tell me that the City only reaches out to them to ding them, and that’s not the right type of relationship, particularly when right now we need every small business that’s trying to make it to get every chance to do so.
WSR: Pre-COVID, some might say that one of the symbols of the inequality in New York was a proliferation of luxury towers. We have one on the Upper West Side: 200 Amsterdam Avenue on 69th Street, which made use of a “gerrymandered” 39-sided zoning lot. The lot looks like the Mars Rover upside-down. There has been a court case, and a judge initially ordered the developer to take down 20 floors; an appeals court has said no, the developers don’t need to do that. But at a basic level, is this acceptable developer behavior? Why or why not, and what would a Yang Administration do about it, if not?
AY: Well, you certainly don’t want to be in a position where after the fact you’re going to a building and saying that you need to take down 20 of 51 stories. Communities have to be more involved in this process from the get-go, and no one should be having to sue after the fact because of the features of a particular development.
Why is this building so tall? Because the developers thought that they could make more money trying to tack on as many floors as possible. We need a process that integrates community concerns to a higher level. Obviously a developer is going to be driven by financial incentives, first, first and foremost, [but] the process has to balance other types of concerns very early on.
WSR: Big picture question: The city has lost $10.5 billion in tax revenue from fiscal year 2020 to 2022. Unemployment was recently over 10 percent. You and the other mayoral candidates have ambitious plans that will cost a lot of money. You’re going to get a temporary reprieve because of the American Rescue Plan, but how are you going to pay for anything new when your first term will likely be about fighting to preserve what we have?
AY: What I’ve been telling people is that we have approximately two years to get the city back on its feet thanks to Chuck Schumer. We have to use that time as effectively and efficiently as possible, and not takes this situation for granted. There are very significant costs within city government that we at least have to examine and see if there are efficiencies that can be gained before the federal aid runs dry in about two years.
Imagine if you were a household and you knew you had a windfall coming in: it was going to last you two years, and then years three and four, times were going to be very tough. Everyone would would start preparing for years three and four now: they would be budgeting, saving, and trying to make sure that when the windfall ended they were in good shape. Our city’s in a similar situation. We need to be spending money effectively to try to reignite economic growth and regain jobs with full awareness that in year three we’re going to have to make ends meet, without any promises [of federal aid.]
WSR: Given how significantly real estate contributes to revenue in the city budget, how will the city deal with midtown, where many people are still not back in office buildings? Businesses need to decide whether to sign new 10-year leases while some people might be considering working remotely permanently.
AY: I talk to CEOs and they say that they’re eager to get workers back into the office. I know that some people reading this might not love to hear this, but organizations know that workers are more collaborative, innovative, and creative when they’re in the same environment. I’m going to suggest that this is good for workers, too, on a couple of levels. One is that it’s easier to have your job automated if you’re working remotely, and to it’s harder to get promoted over Zoom. Those things are kind of related. People coming back to the office is a must: Zoom is not the workplace of the future.
We have to support organizations that are bringing workers back, and we have to get kids back into schools for the same reason.
WSR: You mentioned schools. Are you a public school parent or a private school parent, and can you talk about that decision?
AY: Our older son is autistic, and he’s in a special needs school downtown. Our younger son is in public school on the Upper West Side. So we are public school parents, and we’re pleased with the situations that both of our sons are in. With the older son it was definitely a journey, and I feel for special needs parents as both a special needs parent and a public school parent. I’d love for our city to do more, because there are tens of thousands of families that have special needs children like Evelyn and I do.
WSR: District 3 schools—the Upper West Side and portions of Harlem—were the first in the city to change admissions policies to address segregation in middle schools. In terms of integrating New York City schools, are there any policies you favor?
AY: Most parents are the same in that we want to send our kids to a school near us that provides an education that we’re excited about and that reflects our community. That, to me, is the direction that we need to go in, in terms of just investing in schools that families are excited about in their communities. I think that if we can make it so that more schools are able to respond to our kids needs at higher levels, then we’ll also see schools that are more representative of the city.
WSR: Kim Watkins is a familiar name for many Upper West Siders, especially those whose children attend District 3 schools. What do you have to say to Upper West Siders who may find her story credible, and how will you reassure them that women will have a place in a Yang Administration? [Watkins is president of CEC3, the parent council that oversees local public schools, and she is running for Manhattan Borough President. In 2019, she wrote an op-ed accusing Yang of firing her from Manhattan Prep because she had just gotten married and he didn’t think she would work as hard as she had been.]
AY: My education company that Kim worked at, the management team was half women. The nonprofit that I founded was majority women—both leadership levels and the staff levels. My successor as CEO of that organization is a woman. I would never have been able to achieve anything in any environment if I hadn’t had incredible women working alongside me every step of the way.
WSR: Community District 7—that’s the Upper West Side—is home to the third highest concentration of seniors in the city. How will you mobilize seniors if they want to contribute to the city’s recovery, and how will your administration make life easier for seniors?
AY: I love this question in part because my my mom resembles this, although right now she’s been out of the city for a while. New York is a tremendous place for seniors, and a place that needs a lot of work for seniors. On the plus side, there’s proximity to culture and activities, and in many cases, family members and loved ones and friends. On the other hand, it’s tough to afford to live here, and sometimes getting around is not what it should be.
I talked to a woman who’s on the Upper West Side just the other day, and she said that she now is no longer riding the subway, or doesn’t feel comfortable doing so, and she said that it’s the first time in her entire life that she’s felt that way. That’s a terrible thing for seniors and for New Yorkers.
The way I would hope to activate seniors is to say that we have to make it so that you all feel safe and comfortable walking your streets, taking the subway, visiting your friends and family members, and if we don’t have that, then it’s going to be very hard to recover, and it’s going to be much harder to be excited about living here and raising our families here.
The second big aspect would be trying to make it so that housing is more affordable, on the Upper West Side and around the city. I’m committed to spending $4 billion a year on trying to develop, over time, hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units.
WSR: Many of our readers live in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). RAD and PACT are ongoing at NYCHA. Are you for or against RAD?
AY: I’m for proposals that residents of NYCHA are for, and so if there are people who believe that RAD is the right step forward for their community, I’m supportive. But it’s their home, and we should be listening to the residents first and foremost.
WSR: Probably the most contentious community meeting I’ve ever attended, believe it or not, was about bike lanes. The mayor exerts a lot of control over New York City’s streets. From bike lanes, to car share, to parking permits, how might a Mayor Yang regulate our streets?
AY: One of the joys of my days for a number of years was biking one of my boys to school every morning, so I’m a big believer in bikeability and walkability and mass transit. I moved to New York City as a 21-year-old student at Columbia, and did not own a car for 19 years, so, I got around the way most New Yorkers get around, which is by foot and by subway and by bicycle. I think that these things are core to the identity of New York City. People need to be able to come here and live their lives without owning a car. I’ve committed to making Open Streets permanent and financing it, or funding it, from the city. This is the kind of thing that will make our city more livable and appealing for many.
WSR: In 2001, then candidate Michael Bloomberg ran as the businessman New York needed to steer the city’s recovery after 9/11. How are you different?
AY: My gosh, we’re very different humans. I think right now a lot of New Yorkers want someone who will just help make their lives better. I ran a national campaign around fighting poverty, and I think I’ve got a different perspective on what’s going on than perhaps Mike did—it’s a different time. I will say that I appreciated the fact that Mike seemed to enlist people from different points on the political spectrum in his administration. I’d like to follow suit in recruiting people who just want to do great work on behalf of the city, and are going to be solutions-oriented.
WSR: Is there anything I missed that you’d like to address?
AY: I think the thing I would emphasize really is like, I think a lot of people can relate to my experience. I moved here as a student, and I’ve lived here, I’ve met my now wife here, we’re raising our two boys here, one of them goes to public school on the Upper West Side. I feel like there are a lot of folks who can relate to aspects of this, and I just want to get our city working better for us and our families. I can’t wait to get started.
Primary Day is June 22nd. It will be the first citywide election to utilize .
See all of our interviews with the candidates here.