Former Council Intern Sets Sights on Speaker’s Chair

After fifteen years as a City Council staffer and representative, Donovan Richards says he’s ready to lead the chamber


Since the November 7 general election, all eyes are shifting in one direction: the New York City Council, whose members new and old must pick their next Speaker as term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito departs.

There’s a whole lot of intrigue in the wrangling for the seat, as party bosses play coy and candidates dangle committee chairmanships for their colleagues. Much of that will go on behind the scenes; after all, it’s an intramural election, and the candidates don’t have to make a case to voters.

The Voice has set out to sit down with the expected candidates to discuss their views on the role of the legislative body they hope to lead, the role of the Speaker within city government, and how they would act on pressing issues of the day.

Like many of his City Council peers, Donovan Richards has been around City Hall much longer than he’s been an elected official. Richards started off as an intern in predecessor James Sanders’s office in 2003, eventually rising to chief of staff before being elected to the council himself four years ago. Now, Richards hopes to spend his fifteenth anniversary in the legislative body leading it as the next Council Speaker.

“Being the zoning chair of the council gives you an idea of working with a lot of different constituencies, from the business community, real estate community, to everyday New Yorkers, to nonprofit organizations,” says the 34-year-old chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. This, Richards believes, gives him the ability to unify disparate blocs that would make him a successful Speaker.

By nature, any Council Speaker can never be a true outsider, but Richards is especially a creature of the body. His entire post-college professional life has been spent within its confines, at multiple levels of power. He hails from the notoriously insular world of Queens county politics, and appears to enjoy a good relationship with most of his fellow members, as well as with the mayor. A Richards speakership would likely be one of compromises and negotiations, with perhaps a bit less of the forcefulness that has been a hallmark of Melissa Mark-Viverito’s.

Richards himself has no qualms embracing this flexibility. Like seven out of eight speaker candidates, Richards is a member of the Progressive Caucus. As a black man born to teenage parents in Jamaica, he has known some of the hardship he wants to combat, and was elected as part of a 2013 wave of progressive Democrats. Nonetheless, he’s reticent to brand himself a hardcore progressive legislator. “I try not to get caught up in titles of ‘progressives’ and ‘centrists’ and these things, because we all are Democrats at the end of the day,” he says. “We really don’t have the time to really be in a place where we’re pointing fingers at each other and saying, ‘Well, this faction has it right, that faction has it right.’ ”

There are even issues on which Richards agrees with the council’s three Republican members, namely property tax reform. Disproportionate assessment rates, he says, are “hammering middle-class black neighborhoods in southeast Queens, communities of color, all the way up to white working-class neighborhoods in Staten Island.” Richards has joined attempts to have the current property tax system declared illegal, though he acknowledges that any overhaul would require working with the state.

In conversation, Richards speaks frankly and in overlapping thoughts, often toggling between related concepts to form stream-of-consciousness sentences that manage to pack in anecdotes, data, and interpretations. Asked about the progress of the city’s neighborhood policing initiatives, he assessed that they are doing well so far but should be expanded beyond the current pilot program; mentioned seeing a woman he had grown up with at church and learning she is now an NYPD detective; insisted that the NYPD needs to ramp up efforts to improve diversity in its ranks; and touted programs in his district that encourage friendly interactions and familiarization between police and residents.

One unashamedly liberal prescription Richards does sign on to is an expedited timeline for the closure of the Rikers Island prison complex. “A lot of this has to do with land use, quite frankly,” he says. “Because it’s really about the siting, and most people are going to say, ‘We don’t want a jail in our neighborhood, people break out.’ I have a federal prison in my district now — it’s been in my district, in a residential area, I want to say since 2005. It has not presented a problem.”

Richards also believes the city can start working more closely with the state to expedite trials so people are not lingering on the island. As for what a more reasonable closure timeline would be, he says, “Realistically, going through a [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)] process, six years, five to six years. If we’re serious I think we could get there.”

A look at Richards’s legislative record in the council reveals a preoccupation with energy policy and the environment, with multiple bill introductions over the years relating to commitments to the reduction of greenhouse gases and the development of alternative technologies. This is more than a mere intellectual interest; Richards’s southeastern Queens district, which includes parts of the Rockaways and a whole lot of waterfront, is at particular risk to the effects of climate change and was battered hard by Hurricane Sandy. Storm resiliency and the looming threat of environmental shifts haven’t been marquee issues in the Speaker’s race so far, but it’s an avenue that New Yorkers could expect a Speaker Richards to pursue.

As zoning chair, the delicate navigation of land use in a city where land is in short supply has been a large part of Richards’s job, and he has been a pivotal force in working out signature deals meant to increase housing affordability. Richards is close to Bill de Blasio, though his strongest disagreements stem largely from the mayor’s signature issue of affordable housing, and moving forward with a housing agenda would likely be the source of most friction. During the negotiations between the mayor’s office and the council surrounding the recently approved Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) programs, Richards was uncompromising in calling for inclusion of very-low-income individuals.

He believes the program has been successful so far, but argues that the city needs to “pour more money” into subsidized units. He declines to give a dollar figure, but said it was necessary to finance “deep affordability,” such as for people making as low as 30 or 40 percent of the area median income as a way to address the ballooning homeless crisis. “Working homeless people are stuck in hotels in my district because they can’t afford housing,” he says.

Richards rejects the argument made by some affordable housing specialists — including speakership rival Mark Levine — that much of the city has been rezoned over the past couple of decades without much to show for it. “Not true — for anybody who’s paying attention to what’s going on in the subcommittee and in the Land Use Committee, I can tell you the Bronx is hot, we’re creating a lot of affordable housing there,” he says. “It’s been slow progress because there was a lot of uncertainty with MIH, but I think now, people are starting to move a little faster.”

One solution, he said, is to reform the ULURP, by which land use changes are approved, to make it act more quickly in approving affordable housing. He acknowledged that it “is going to be controversial because people will say you’re taking community input away. But we’re saying, and hear it from most community boards, ‘We don’t want a homeless shelter.’ We have to do something to create units for people.” Similarly, he says the Department of Buildings could commit to faster processing of permits. “We don’t want to jeopardize safety and efficiency, but we need to look at ways to be more efficient so that if an application is coming through, that’s going to get people 30 percent [of area median income] units,” he says.

In terms of balancing low-income housing with the need for a middle-class housing stock that some argue is being neglected, Richards floats an avenue that isn’t nearly as often discussed as affordable rent: affordable homeownership. He has introduced legislation to facilitate community land trusts, in which communities jointly control land through a nonprofit entity. “We can create affordable homeownership and keep those homes permanently affordable, especially in districts where there’s a lot of speculation, like the Rockaways,” he says.

Mayor de Blasio’s still-hazy proposal to construct ninety new homeless shelters has been a magnet for criticism, and Richards is no exception. “My honest opinion on this is, why not just build out permanent housing for people?” he asks. “The answer is supportive housing, the answer is senior housing” — though he acknowledges that some shelters are necessary and still a better alternative than the hotels the city is currently using as a stopgap measure. “Kew Gardens, $5,000 a month? Like, we could put somebody in a house and pay their mortgage. A mortgage in southeast Queens is cheaper than putting people in hotels.”

Like many men of color growing up in the Nineties and early Aughts in New York City, Richards hasn’t always had great experiences with the police. Once, he says, while already a council staffer, he was grabbed by a police officer in his district. The cop wouldn’t identify himself until Richards showed him his council badge.

“For a person like me, who was going to the store to get some milk and cookies in jeans, if I didn’t have that badge, the encounter could have been worse,” he says. These experiences inform his support for the package of bills known as the Right to Know Act, which would compel officers to inform people of their right to refuse a search and to give a card to individuals they questioned but did not arrest.

Richards doesn’t believe these provisions should be left up to internal NYPD policy, as has been proposed by current Speaker Mark-Viverito. “I quite frankly can’t understand why there are people who think that Right to Know is going to make the job of police officers hard,” he says. “It’s just, give me a card, and if you’re doing the right thing, there’s not going to be a problem.”

Nonetheless, Richards doesn’t hold a negative view of the police. He has applauded the expansion of community policing — which involves officers patrolling more on foot and having specialized neighborhood coordination officers (NCO) that get to know residents and act as a sort of liaison with community leaders — and says he’d like to see it kicked into high gear. “They’re using sectors and all these things, all of the precincts need to just go NCO,” he says. (The program is still in a pilot phase in which precincts are divided into sectors, each with two of the specially trained NCOs.) “Every officer should have that responsibility of walking a beat. It shouldn’t even just be sectors, it should be engraved into the culture of the NYPD, period.”

Another touchstone topic, albeit one that the city is in less of a position to influence, is transit. The subway system is controlled by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a state entity, but receives funding from the city. Recently, the MTA and its chairman, Joe Lhota, have been demanding the city contribute funding to an emergency stabilization plan for the beleaguered system.

“I would love to see a millionaires tax” to fund transit, as the mayor wants, says Richards. “They should give up a little more income to make sure that transit runs well, which also helps your business at the end of the day, right? How realistic is that at this moment? I don’t know. I personally don’t see it.” The plan would have to be approved in Albany, where it’d have to pass the hostile Republican-controlled state senate. As for the city committing more money to the MTA, he says he’d want to ensure that “it’s going to be used efficiently and effectively to improve mass transit in New York City.” He’s also signed on to an alternative plan developed by Move NY that would derive revenue from congestion pricing.

One part of the job that will likely differ from that of previous speakers is confrontation with a hostile federal administration. “I think a lawsuit certainly doesn’t hurt,” says Richards when asked if the city had to try to claw back power from Washington in areas like immigration and risk being sued. “It gets touchy because the feds and the state moreso would have oversight of some of the areas, but I don’t think we should necessarily yield all our power, either,” he says. “To where it goes is another question, but we should pull out every tool we can to try to stop this administration from hurting communities all over New York City.”