By Michael McDowell
Shaun Donovan has an impressive resume, but is it the right resume for New York City?
Donovan served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama Administration, where he also served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Previously, Donovan was Commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development during the Bloomberg Administration.
Donovan has also spent time in the private sector, as managing director of FHA lending and affordable housing investments at Prudential Mortgage Capital Company, where he oversaw a $1.5 billion housing portfolio.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
WSR: Unlike the other candidates in this race you have high-level experience in the federal government. Why do you want to be mayor of New York City?
SD: Because it’s the best job in the world to be mayor of your hometown! I love this city, and I owe New York everything. I am both the grandson and son of immigrants. My father grew up in Costa Rica and Lima, Peru, and came to New York and found opportunity.
But what really made me a public servant is, I watched homelessness explode on our streets, and as a child growing up it made me angry. How could it be that we would allow—in the wealthiest city on earth—people to sleep on our streets? I saw the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn literally burning to the ground, and that was what lit a fire in me to go to work on behalf of the city that I love.
I started volunteering at a homeless shelter in college, and when I finished school I came back to work for a nonprofit that was literally rebuilding those same neighborhoods I’d seen burning as a kid. That started a 30 year career on the frontlines of housing and homelessness, of economic and racial justice, and through all of that, I learned to lead through crisis after crisis. I was Housing Commissioner in the city in the wake of 9/11. When the worst housing crisis of our lifetime hit, President Obama asked me to keep people in their homes and rebuild the economy. When Sandy hit our shores, he asked me to lead the recovery, and even when Ebola and Zika struck, I ended up side by side in the Situation Room with Dr. Fauci, making sure that emerging global health threats didn’t become pandemics that cost tens of thousands of our neighbors their lives. I really want to serve this city that I love at a time of crisis and I think I’m prepared in a way that no other candidate in this race is to help bring the city back.
WSR: You were at The Lucerne [hotel on 79th Street that is being used as a homeless shelter]. Why?
SD: Well, first and foremost, because I’ve been working to solve homelessness my entire career, and I believe that every community needs to be part of the solution and make sure that we are finding homes for our neighbors who are homeless. That’s what made me a public servant to begin with: seeing homelessness explode in our city. I want to be very clear that the right answer to this problem is not shelters in hotels, it’s housing. It’s permanent housing, and supportive housing.
Street homelessness and our individual shelter population in the city has more than doubled since Mayor de Blasio took office. We have more homeless people in this city today than since the Depression. We have more homeless people in New York City right now than could fill Yankee Stadium, and it’s outrageous [because] we know how to solve homelessness. It’s outrageous that we have a mayor who’s been unable to lead on this issue. I’ve been all across the city talking about homelessness because I fundamentally believe that we need change, and we need a mayor who understands that you’re never going to solve homelessness with just homeless programs, because it is an issue of more than shelter, and what we really need to do is reimagine our right to shelter in the city as a right to housing.
WSR: Many of our readers live in New York City Housing Authority, from Douglass to Amsterdam to the Brownstones. Are you for or against RAD?
SD: First of all, no one in this race understands the way I do that public housing is the single most precious affordable housing resource we have in New York City. More New Yorkers live in public housing than live in Atlanta, Georgia, and I’m the only candidate with a real plan that would get us the $40 billion that we need to rebuild public housing. No one is better prepared to work with Washington, work with Secretary Fudge, to be able to get us both the resources and the plan to fix public housing.
I do believe RAD should be part of that solution. But I want to be very clear: Mayor de Blasio has created deep confusion and uncertainty about RAD. He’s made it seem like it was a privatization program, when it is not. I am absolutely committed to keeping public housing permanently public, and ensuring, unlike any other candidate, that we have a real plan to fix it. We will need Section 8 resources to be able to do that—to get to the $40 billion—and we need a mayor who has a real plan to do that, and to save public housing.
WSR: Some readers are concerned that the city has begun to slide back toward the “bad old days.” Last year, the city recorded 447 homicides, the most since 2011. Whether or not you agree with that assessment—“the bad old days”—what are you going to do to ensure that the city doesn’t slide, and how will you address what appears to possibly be a big increase in shootings?
SD: I grew up in New York City in the 70s and 80s. My mom lived on the Upper West Side. I’ve seen what happens when crime gets out of control, and it is bad in New York and getting worse. We cannot have a mayor who would let us go back to the days of the 70s and 80s. I fundamentally understand that every police officer in the city should have two missions: to stop violent crime and guns, and also to create true respect with every New Yorker, particularly in our black and brown communities.
As part of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, I worked with leaders around the country to create both safety and respect. I know that it’s possible. What I would do is reduce what we’re asking the police to do in areas that aren’t related to guns and violent crime, and really focus them on those issues that New Yorkers are most worried about. At the same time, I would work very closely with the Biden Administration and with a national coalition of mayors and governors to stop the flow of illegal guns into our city. We’re not manufacturing them in New York. We’re not selling them at stores in New York. They are coming in from rogue gun dealers in other states, like Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and the only way we’re really going to stop the flow of illegal guns [into the city] is to have a mayor who could build partnerships with Attorney General Garland, who I know. I know his whole senior team well, I worked closely with them in the Obama Administration.
I’m the only candidate who has a broad range of endorsements from mayors around the country, and I am the only candidate who can really effectively build that national partnership to stop the flow of illegal guns into the city.
WSR: Vacant storefronts were a problem in the city long before the pandemic. What are you going to do about all of the empties?
SD: In the short run what we need to do is fill our vacant storefronts with arts and culture, with pop-up restaurants. We should do the same thing in our public places, and really send a signal to every New Yorker—every New Yorker that’s here, and every New Yorker that’s left—and to everyone around the world who has been locked in their Zoom box for a year and is eager to get back out, that New York is coming back to life, that we are New York again, that we are fun, that we are alive.
I went to a performance in a storefront called Jewel Box that really showed the power of art. It was a joyous night connecting with New Yorkers, celebrating our artists and our performers, and that’s possible all over the city with the right leadership, and I think it would be a powerful part of sending a signal to New Yorkers and to the world that we’re back. I would actually do that as part of a worldwide campaign, using our artists and performers, to let the world know that that we’re back, and to help rebuild our economy and our spirits as well. I’ll never forget as a kid the “I Love New York” campaign, and we need a new “I love New York” campaign at this moment.
In the longer run, we really have to create all the tools that will ensure our storefronts are coming back with retail, particularly retail that people want to buy in person. This pandemic has accelerated the trend we had already seen toward online retailing, and we need to make sure we’re really building the investment in destination retail for things that people will always buy in person. We need to be creating the tax incentives, the zoning incentives, the entrepreneurship financing funds that I have proposed, and ensure all the tools are in place to get our storefronts occupied and reopened.
I would make a broader investment in what I call “15 minute neighborhoods.” Most people love the Upper West Side because it always was a 15 minute neighborhood: you could find anything you needed for a life of opportunity within 15 minutes of your front door. A key part of the 15 minute neighborhood strategy is investing in our retail corridors, creating the kind of quality of life and safety that’s critical for them, but also creating the incentives, the partnerships with business improvement districts and chambers of commerce, that will ensure we have strong, healthy, and thriving retail corridors as well.
WSR: Community District 7 is home to the third highest concentration of seniors in the city, who could be a real resource in terms of institutional knowledge and time if they happen to be retired. How would you mobilize seniors who wish to contribute to the city’s recovery, and how would your administration care for seniors?
SD: I’m the only candidate who has a real plan for aging New Yorkers. This is an issue I’ve worked on my whole career, as part of housing. Really making sure our seniors can contribute begins with ensuring they have affordable housing, but also housing that makes sure they can stay in their communities, whether that means finding ways to help them retrofit their homes to stay in their homes, or whether it’s creating Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, that include service coordinators and activities that really enhance quality of life.
It also means focusing on every single aspect of life in New York. I have an “aging bill of rights” for the city, that ensures that every single agency in city government would be focused on the issues that our seniors care most about, whether it’s transportation and accessibility—and on the Upper West Side, that’s a huge issue, in terms of elevators and access to public transportation.
To your point, our seniors have so much to give to the city, and so we have a whole set of plans that ensure that we’re doing more to invest in both the work opportunities, including part-time work that would be available, as well as volunteer and community organizations that are such a central part of ways we can activate our seniors, and make sure the city benefits.
WSR: Schools question. Are you a public school parent or a private school parent, and can you talk about that decision?
SD: I actually have two kids that are in college, and so don’t have any high school or younger age kids at this point.
WSR: When you were a K through 12 parent, was it public school or private school?
SD: So, my kids, when I went to D.C. to serve in President Obama’s Cabinet, they did go to private school, actually with President Obama’s kids.
WSR: The Upper West Side is home to some of the wealthiest New Yorkers as well as some of the poorest, and many in between. What is one policy action you’re going to take as mayor that will improve the lives of all New Yorkers?
SD: Every New Yorker I talk to is concerned about what’s happened to quality of life in New York City. We’ve talked about pieces of that, but fundamentally safe streets and clean streets, ending homelessness, improving our schools, bringing back our arts and culture, all of the things that really make New York unique, and make it a livable city, a city that we all love, has to be a key focus for the next mayor. I fundamentally understand that in the modern economy talent decides where to live, and companies and capital will follow. Unlike our current mayor who has demonized and divided New Yorkers, who has made the private sector the enemy, we need to make sure that we are building quality of life in every community around this city for every New Yorker, if we’re going to really ensure we not just repair and rebuild the city, but reimagine it as a city that works for everyone. That’s going to take a mayor who can really roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Fiorello La Guardia used to say there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash, and unfortunately we’ve had a mayor these last eight years who thinks everything is political and ideological, and doesn’t really care about the day to day things a mayor needs to do to make the city work for everyone. That’s the issue I’m most concerned about that will affect the lives of every single New Yorker: bringing back quality of life to New York City.
Primary Day is June 22nd. It will be the first citywide election to utilize ranked choice voting.
See all of our interviews with the candidates here.