Democratic Mayoral Candidates Provide Concepts for Getting old New Yorkers and Greying Metropolis

Seniors at a pre-pandemic party (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Earlier this week, various groups co-hosted a virtual forum with leading Democratic candidates for New York City Mayor on aging issues in New York City. The discussion was moderated by City Limits editor-at-large and Max & Murphy podcast co-host Jarrett Murphy, and co-hosted by City Limits, LiveOn NY, AARP New York, New York Academy of Medicine, United Neighborhood House, Citymeals on Wheels, and Hunter Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging.

Participating candidates were Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, former New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Several candidates arrived late or left early due to other commitments, as well over 500 people watched a livestream on Zoom or YouTube.

During the event, Murphy asked questions about issues specific to older adults in New York such as caregiving and isolation as well as how broader areas such as transportation and housing impact seniors and aging New Yorkers.

Murphy first asked candidates how they see ageism and believe the mayor can address it. Adams said it is similar to “other -isms” such as racism and anti-Semitism because it denies “people the basic right to move throughout the city.” He said the mayor “must look at every agency…to make sure every agency is not practicing a systemic ageism.” Garcia, citing her own aging parents in New York City, noted that ageism was about who is viewed as a productive member of society and said that if the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) was funded like the Department of Youth & Community Development, it would receive three times the funding it currently does.

McGuire said older adults in the city are the embodiment of the “shoulders upon which we stand” and discussed the role his mother and mother-in-law have played in his life. To address ageism, McGuire said that the city must ensure that seniors have food, “appropriate care,” and “connectivity” with the outside world.

Senior Centers and Aging Services
Murphy shifted to senior centers, discussing city budget cuts and closures they have faced during the pandemic and asking candidates how they would fund and treat senior centers and aging services as mayor.

Garcia discussed her time last year as the city’s emergency covid food czar and said it caused her to realize, of city government, “we were not actually serving all of the older New Yorkers.” She said that the way the city’s contracts with nonprofits operate currently “don’t work” and “make it so problematic” for them to do their work with older New Yorkers. She touted the work of nonprofit organizations as being on the “front lines” in communities.

McGuire said his four goals as mayor for older New Yorkers were addressing mental health issues and loneliness, increasing access and knowledge of technology, ensuring appropriate caregiving, and providing housing. He would accomplish these goals through device distribution, providing seniors with internet access creating a “Junior/Seniors Corps” to teach seniors how to use their devices, and by doubling the amount of senior housing.

Adams said the city needs to “rethink how we view the social determinants of health” and invest in senior centers and adult daycares.

Asked about senior housing, McGuire said that “New York City’s approach to housing simply hasn’t done enough to prepare for senior needs.” To increase access to senior housing, McGuire would create new affordable housing for low-income seniors with on-site services, work towards a new tax credit to incentivize the construction or conversion of housing for seniors that’s affordable at lower-incomes, provide rental assistance so that seniors can avoid homelessness, and move any seniors who enter a homeless shelter directly into long-term housing. He said that avoiding having older New Yorkers in shelters “needs to be the highest priority that we have.”

Adams called the city’s current approach to senior housing too complicated and inaccessible, particularly for seniors who speak English as a second language. He would have the city provide a MyCity card, which would use the information the city has on file on seniors to automatically connect them to city resources. He also mentioned supporting SCRIE, Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemptions, which helps eligible older New Yorkers stay in affordable housing through rent freezes. Adams concluded by discussing support for rent subsidies for senior citizens and increasing the amount of senior housing available through the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

Garcia also discussed the role of NYCHA in providing senior housing, adding that it was important to ensure that seniors “can age safely in those homes,” including by retrofitting units to contain wider doors and grab bars. Garcia echoed Adams about increasing the enrollment of older adults in SCRIE and that this enrollment should be automatic, and said that the city should increase awareness of property tax exemptions, that while the city does have resources “being able to leverage these benefits is a real access issue.” She also would create 2,000 units of deeply affordable housing for older adults experiencing homelessness, she said.

Stringer, who joined the forum in time for this question, touted his experience managing public pensions for the city as comptroller, saying that they have “never been stronger.” He pointed towards the Aging in Place report he issued as comptroller as the “blueprint” of what he would do as mayor. He called automatic enrollment in SCRIE “obvious,” mentioning that the city should increase enrollment in the DRIE — a similar program to SCRIE for those with disabilities.

On housing, Stringer said that the “We can no longer build housing for the wealthiest people in the name of affordability” and that “gentrification is putting people out of the neighborhoods they spent a lifetime building.”

Lessons from the Pandemic
Murphy then asked candidates what lessons they felt they had learned from the pandemic about protecting seniors.

Stringer referenced his mother, who died of COVID-19 in a Bronx hospital, saying that the past year has been “a very rough ride” for his family. He criticized the de Blasio administration’s rollout of the vaccine, saying that while the city could not have foreseen the pandemic,

“we sure knew this vaccine was on the way,” and that as comptroller he had encouraged the city to create a plan for fair vaccine distribution. “We’ve had vaccine inequity, that’s no surprise with this administration,” he said, adding that the rollout has “bungled every step of the way” by de Blasio. Stringer mentioned that his office is investigating the city’s vaccine distribution, but that its results will not be released during the mayoral race. Stringer said that the city could’ve improved the integration of senior centers into the vaccine distribution network and that it could have offered the vaccine “door-to-door” for seniors (which is now happening).

Adams called the city’s approach to using data akin to a plane with no instrument panel, a metaphor he is fond of using. He said that the city should have immediately opened a command center to provide “real-time analysis” of testing, food delivery, and vaccination distribution, and that the city’s response to the pandemic “failed everyday New Yorkers.”

Garcia said that the “next mayor will face something we cannot yet imagine” but that the pandemic provided many overlapping social service challenges. She made a point of saying that if DFTA had been effective at providing food deliveries to seniors, she would not have been appointed as food czar, criticizing how she was “literally designing programs over a weekend that ended up delivering a million meals a day.” To improve vaccine distribution, Garcia referenced her previously-released vaccine plan and also said the vaccinations should be done door-to-door. Garcia added that the city should partner with community-based organizations with “deep relationships” with seniors to help connect seniors with services and overcome vaccine hesitancy.

McGuire said “we have not planned for anything expected or unexpected during this administration” and the question the city faced with seniors is about connecting them to “the real world,” particularly with technology distribution and education.

Murphy asked candidates how they would address connectivity issues with seniors to prevent isolation and loneliness.

Garcia, calling isolation “physically dangerous” as well as mentally so, advocated for providing seniors with tablets and the education on how to use them. She stressed the importance of incentivizing “older adults to take advantage of opportunities to connect” such as by creating event calendars and providing “content that really speaks to them.” If affordability was an issue, Garcia would have the city provide assistance as “writing a check is not having to rewire a building.”

Adams would turn Wi-Fi into a utility, invest in senior centers and adult daycare centers, and support telemedicine.

Donovan joined the event in time for this question and said the biggest issue was affordability rather than technology or wiring, and that the city needs to “make sure in the meantime that we have community-based centers.”

Home Care
The candidates were then asked about low pay and poor working conditions for home care workers, and whether there was anything the mayor could do.

Donovan said that “the next mayor can and must,” and that he would work with home care workers, city agencies, and unions to “create a safety net of benefits that actually work.” These benefits would “create real pathways into jobs that can advance careers” and provide a “ladder of opportunity for folks in home care.”

McGuire would invest in a program to train home care workers, ensure that seniors and home care workers are given access to vaccine healthcare and expand the VOICES program, which is run by DFTA and matches isolated older New Yorkers with volunteers who call or video call with them.

As mayor, Adams would ensure that all contracts for home care work include living wages and look at failure of the city to pay on time. He said that he would “make sure we do right with nonprofits so they can do right with their employees.”

Garcia pointed out that many caregivers are older New Yorkers themselves, and that part of the issue has to do with the state, saying that the city must advocate for “the rightful dollars that we need to ensure that we are protecting our seniors” as well as addressing living wage and contract issues.

Seniors and Work
Murphy then asked how the candidates, if elected to be the head of the city’s municipal workforce, would ensure “age is seen as an asset,” referencing age-based workplace discrimination many seniors can face. McGuire referenced the “richness” and “wisdom” of seniors, and said his administration would “keep them by my side…as long as they are prepared to stay.” As workers transition to retirement, McGuire would look to have them continue to contribute in “active and engaged” ways, mentioning retired educators as an example.

Adams noted that many government employees regularly must handle the “trauma” of the New Yorkers they serve, and that he would provide respite periods and create “user-friendly” working environments.

Garcia answered the question most directly to how Murphy asked it, noting the discrimination older New Yorkers face and pushing for the full funding of the Commission of Human Rights (CHR) so that the agency can investigate complaints.

Donovan agreed with Garcia about “enhancing” the work of the CHR, but said there are “many, many steps we have to take to go further.” He said that on the first day of his administration he would issue an Aging Bill of Rights and that he would issue an executive order to require all agencies to annually update their aging plans in every phase of their activities.

Middle-Income Seniors
Candidates were asked to discuss “realistically” what the city could do about the fact that “middle-income seniors are sometimes caught in between” having too little money to be secure in their finances and having too much income to qualify for certain income-based programs for seniors.

Adams touted his MyCity card idea, saying that the city would be able to use users’ data to sign them up for programs such as SCRIE, DRIE, and SNAP (food stamps), and take the burden “off the seniors to go out and seek what’s available.”

Garcia would push to secure already-allocated federal funding for the city and use some of it to assist seniors, and to engage with “all of these different populations in the Mayor’s Office” and work to individualize programs.

Donovan focused on housing issues first, saying that the city needs to make investments to keep seniors in their homes, such as loans and tax exemptions. He also said that the city should invest in programs that serve entire neighborhoods independent from income, such as keeping libraries open seven days a week.

McGuire would fund employment programs and subsidize jobs for seniors. He would support nonprofits and libraries to provide services, and work to make sure older New Yorkers know what programs are available to help them. He raised home-sharing as an option to help keep seniors in their homes, though he warned of predators who may approach seniors to sell their homes at a disadvantage.

Street Safety
The next question, from “Harry of Chelsea,” asked candidates what they would do to make walking streets safer for seniors. Garcia called her transportation plans a “critical part” of her overall platform, and that she seeks to “redesign the entire public realm and put pedestrians at the center of it” through changes such as bike lanes.

Donovan said “we need to recognize that we’re living in a 21st century city with 20th century streets.” He said that the city needs to provide truly protected bike lanes, use Bus Rapid Transit, keep well-maintained sidewalks, and improve bus stops and public benches.

McGuire said he would use “comprehensive community-driven neighborhood planning” as “no one size fits all.” He would look at lowering speed limits, adding red light cameras, closing some areas to vehicular traffic, improving pedestrian signage, installing more countdown clocks and accessible signals. McGuire would also better pedestrian ramps on curbs, pointing out seniors using walkers and motorized scooters need them to be accessible, and strengthen the Open Streets program, installing semi-permanent seating and barriers.

Adams touted his work in the state Legislature to decrease speed limits in the city and his borough president office’s work on an Age-Friendly Brooklyn analysis. Rather than specific proposals, Adams said he would have the city government consult with seniors and “find out from them to make sure that the city is the safest city” to move around in.

The candidates were then asked about easing burdens on caregivers. Donovan would look to “support them financially, support them emotionally, and support them by connecting them to networks that help them get the resources and support they need.” He would want to have the city to look at how to provide a “continuum of care” as needs of seniors increase and connect caregivers to senior centers for resources they could access and to answer questions they may have.

McGuire promoted working with the Biden-Harris administration to steer federal funds to New York City from the administration’s infrastructure plan if passed, which includes millions for caregiving needs. He would partner with nonprofits that provide caregiver support programs and

“empower more New Yorkers to recognize themselves as caregivers” so that they can begin the process of being connected to services. His goals for caregivers would be for them to be “properly compensated” and “properly taken care of themselves.”

Adams pointed out that many people do not know about the extent of resources the city offers and would move to centralize information for caregivers to one place to facilitate ease of access. He would appoint a “caregiver czar” to lead a team to connect caregivers to city resources.

Accessibility and Transportation
Increasing accessibility, especially for the subway system and other modes of transportation, was next on the agenda.

McGuire said that he would prioritize fixing the elevators in the subways and other “things as basic as that” and that his economic comeback plan “has at its core” infrastructure improvements for things such as buses, subways, and vans that transport senior citizens.

Adams agreed with McGuire’s emphasis on fixing “the simple things” such as installing elevators, but also called for creating a ride-hailing app for Access-a-Ride, expanding the Fair Fares program, investing in Bus Rapid Transit, and training cab drivers and limousine drivers to handle older adults.

Donovan said similar things about fixing accessibility issues at the MTA, and said that, given his work in the Obama-Biden cabinet, he was “better prepared than any of the other candidates to work very closely with the administration and with Congress” to secure funding for New York City’s transportation infrastructure from a federal infrastructure package.

Donovan would implement congestion pricing and invest more city revenue into the MTA to gain more control of the state-run agency, where the city does have some influence now, and push for an on-demand Access-a-Ride system.

Lightning Round
The forum concluded with a lightning round with the remaining candidates: Adams, Donovan, and McGuire.

The top three issues affecting older adults? Adams said housing, healthcare, and food insecurity. Donovan said housing, healthcare, and transportation. McGuire said housing, healthcare, and technology.

Would DFTA have a larger share of the city budget in your mayoral administration? Donovan said “Absolutely, and I would ensure through my executive order that every dollar we spend goes to helping our seniors,” while McGuire kept it simple with an “Absolutely, yes.” Adams agreed, but said the agency “would have to show me how they’re using the dollars.”

The third question was about how the candidates’ campaigns have reached out to seniors who are afraid of venturing out because of COVID-19 and/or cannot digitally access information about the mayoral race. Donovan pointed to his food program Common Table, which brought food to seniors in their apartments and allowed his campaign to connect with potential voters. McGuire said tongue-in-cheek that his campaign was employing a “much maligned part of how this country works…the United States Postal Service.” Adams echoed Donovan about using the “opportunity of campaigning” as an “opportunity of providing services.” His campaign has gone door-to-door to hand out masks, food, and PPE and to introduce the Adams campaign to potential voters, he said.

Murphy asked the candidates about the role for the NYPD and prosecutors in addressing elder abuse. McGuire said “we need to be much more attentive” about monitoring for elder abuse, and that the NYPD could help monitor that such as through community policing. Adams also said yes, and that the city should look to being “more proactive” than reactive about catching elder abuse. He also wants to “partner with credible messengers in our community” and use banks to catch early warning signs of elder abuse.

Donovan said that “[we] need not just our police, but all of our law enforcement agencies to really focus on ageism, discrimination, and the safety of our seniors,” and that anything done to make New York a more safe and more fair city will ultimately help older New Yorkers.

Murphy finished up by asking the candidates what they most anticipated and what they were most worried about growing older in New York City themselves. Adams said he looked forward to the “luxury of traveling and spending time” with his grandchildren, but was worried about public safety and the efforts to legalize drugs, which he felt endangered public safety. (Mayoral candidate Dianne Morales, the furthest left candidate in the top tier and who has sworn off Zoom forums, has called for legalizing all drugs as a part of her platform.

Donovan looked forward to “having the time to enjoy every aspect of what makes New York City unique in this world,” but worried about having “a city where quality of life has decreased for everyone.” McGuire, on the other hand, said he anticipated playing more basketball but worried about the “lack of respect that is given to our elders.”

The final question of the forum was about how to treat older New Yorkers as more than just “service recipients” but as people who had contributions to make to the city. Adams discussed including seniors in jobs corps programs and said, “I believe we should create a real intergenerational relationship with our young people.” Donovan said, “We need a mayor in City Hall who understands we need to be the best city in the world on welcoming, celebrating, and honoring older New Yorkers.” McGuire said that he “harnesses” the power of older New Yorkers by listening to his mother for advice everyday, and that he would seek opportunities for retired seniors to contribute to nonprofits or to the education system, such as retired teachers.

{moduleAuthor Grace Getman}