No stranger to monumental challenges, the Big Apple has weathered many crises in recent decades: its near-bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, the tidal wave of narcotics and violence that peaked during the 1990s, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and the financial impact of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.  

But the effects of COVID-19 have been unique, ranging from several surges of hospitalizations and deaths— which exposed wide disparities in the health care system—to the uncertainty that the Omicron variant has placed on timelines for economic recovery.  Recent cancellations of some Broadway performances, along with other dampers on tourism, come only months after some declared that New York City is finally open for business again.

In anticipation of the January 1, 2022 changing-of-the guard in government—from mayor to city comptroller to City Council members—a new NYU Wagner initiative, NYC 2025, solicited policy ideas to offer to the city’s new leadership. Wagner’s collection of 21 papers, and counting—which have all been posted on the graduate school’s website—reflect the project’s guiding sense that whatever fears the headlines may fan, the city’s future still depends on collaboration and the implementation and management of well-planned, whole-government approaches. As Wagner’s dean, Sherry Glied, noted in the project’s overview, “the continued economic growth and fiscal health of New York City can no longer be taken for granted” 

The project’s non-partisan papers are the subject of public forums with such civic-minded entities as the Union Theological Seminary and the Association for a Better New York. The papers are also being discussed with Mayor Eric Adams, City Council members, the comptroller and borough presidents. Included in these policy briefs from NYU academics and other experts are specific recommendations such as converting newly vacant hotels to housing for the homeless, hiring community health workers for neighborhoods impacted heavily by COVID-19, and aligning technological roles that are currently spread haphazardly across the government to create a “digital org chart.” Each of the papers acknowledges existing constraints to achieving these and other goals, thus lighting a realistic path to implementation. The categories of the proposals are: “City Contracting,” “Health,” “Housing,” “Economic Development and Finance,” “Transportation,” “Mobility and Innovation,” and “Community Development and Institutions,” which includes a paper on reforming criminal justice and policing. 

As the proposals continue to grow and be scrutinized, NYU News asked the project co-leaders—Martha Stark, clinical professor of public service who formerly worked as the city’s finance commissioner, and Thad Calabrese, associate professor of public and nonprofit financial management—to discuss the effort and what they’re discovering in the process.

What was behind your mission to originate NYC 2025 back at the end of 2020?

Calabrese: We wanted to look at ways in which the next group of elected officials could make a difference.  Many on our advisory board were concerned that the city might lose a small but important category of local taxpayers—upper-income professionals. Some sensed that the political class had become too confrontational toward private business interests.

Stark:  We definitely wanted to attract papers that went beyond traditional economic development ideas alone, such as tax cuts and targeted tax credits, recognizing that the business community and the government were looking to become more sensitive to those overlooked or ignored in prior periods of recovery. So, our major objective was to contribute to the discussion about the necessity for an inclusive recovery as well as one that is environmentally sustainable.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember just how bad the local economy was as soon as COVID-19 hit in March 2020. How grim did things get?

Calabrese:  New York City found itself at the epicenter of the pandemic. By one estimate, 12,000 to 17,000 New Yorkers succumbed to COVID-19 by May 2020—an unimaginable loss of life, with an incredible number of individuals needing intensive care. Another measure: transit ridership fell to one-tenth of what it had been. Perhaps a third of all small businesses closed, especially those that competed with international businesses with no physical presence in town. The office buildings of Manhattan emptied out.

Stark: The closing of the public schools alone took a financial toll—school parents’ productivity suffered. And many New Yorkers simply abandoned the city—by one early estimate, 70,000 left in all, causing a $34 billion loss in total city-based income. Rents actually fell. That trend has reversed, while temporary or permanent departures by residents have unfortunately grown.

A number of the papers look at the collision of the city’s long-time shortage of affordable housing with the effects of the pandemic.

Stark: There’s no question that housing for families and singles is crucial to New York City’s success. The pandemic’s effects made this unmistakable. We asked our authors for actionable steps to move New York toward addressing this fundamental problem. Just one example came from Wagner professor Ingrid Ellen of NYU’s Furman Center, who outlined how the city must develop a more effective emergency rent assistance program and foreclosure prevention program, especially given the dramatic rise since COVID in those New Yorkers behind on their rent. Her layered suggestions requiring intergovernmental coordination and collaboration with the marketplace go much further.

Which of the proposals are unlikely to get the most attention, even though they’re important?

Calabrese:  The way the city contracts with nonprofit service providers is one example. It is largely undiscussed in the media, yet remains critical to the city’s success. Payments to nonprofit service providers are typically insufficient and late, and the government processes for obtaining contracts don't lead to the best organizations securing them. Also, urban mobility needs to be positioned to evolve and change. Sarah Kaufman of the NYU Rudin Center, for instance, recommends more “bike boulevards”—roads with room for two- and three-wheelers like scooters—as well as reduced fares for off-peak riders with low incomes. And a paper on “social infrastructure” by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg recommends the city expand and update its library branches. He and other contributors ask us to see the needs of those with lower incomes as a chance to build citywide inclusion and economic resilience.

If just some of the proposals were implemented soon, what positive changes would we see?

Stark:  I believe that we’d see a more accurate measure of poverty and greater responses to rent shortfalls, food insecurity, and other household-level challenges. We’d also see stepped-up efforts to create a tax environment that encourages people to choose the city as a place to live and do business, which is so critical for the short- and long-term; a far more diverse criminal justice system suffused with mental-health and youth development professionals; and new ownership opportunities and affordable-rental options. 

What gives you some hope for an inclusive and lasting turnaround?

Stark: We’ve been reminded through this project that New York City harbors advantages many other large cities simply do not have. It is the home of so many small and large universities, along with many finance, tech, and other important industries drawn to our deep pools of maturing skills and talent. Because large sectors of our economy tend to be high-paying, the spinoff benefits to restaurants, the arts, and other “ancillary” services. The city government, in turn, draws tax revenues from the economic activity. New York is singular, with resources, resilience and the capacity to change with the times.