On Sunday (January 28), State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou will convene a Town Hall meeting to gather feedback from constituents, and hear their priorities for policies, legislation, and the budget in Albany this year. Members of the public are invited to participate on panels that will focus on subjects like civil rights and immigration, senior services and health care, affordable housing, education, consumer protection, small businesses, and transportation.
The Town Hall session will be held at the Manny Cantor Center (197 East Broadway, between Jefferson and Clinton Streets), from noon to 4:00 pm. Admission is free, and all interested members of the public are invited to attend. But anyone planning to go is asked to R.S.V.P. (so that Ms. Niou’s staff will know how many to expect), either by calling 212-312-1420, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To preview this meeting, the Broadsheet asked Ms. Niou (who was first elected to the Assembly in November, 2016, and is expected to stand for reelection this fall) a series of questions. Her answers follow:
Broadsheet: What accomplishment are your proudest of in the year that ended a few weeks ago?
Ms. Niou: I worked really hard to increase community engagement and government accessibility. Our first really big event was our Women’s History Month Panel. It was great to see men and women from the community take time out of their weekends to come listen to a panel of women leaders speak on a breadth of issues including affordable housing, health care, the arts, and labor. We’ve also really ramped up our mobile district office operations — in which we go to community and senior centers with all of our resources — throughout the year. My office chats with constituents, one-on-one, and engages with them on a more personalized level. It’s about making government more accessible and bringing our resources to constituents, rather than waiting for them to come to us. It’s also about building relationships with constituents, and I think we’ve been able to accomplish that. The mobile district office is something unique that we do, and we’ve been able to increase community engagement in this way.
Broadsheet: What unrealized goal or unmet need is your biggest frustration for the year that just ended?
Ms. Niou: During last budget season, Assembly member Gottfried, who is the longtime chair of the Assembly Health Committee, and I pushed for — and got — a $2 million allocation in the fiscal year 2017-2018 State budget for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) and Neighborhood Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NNORCs). We felt that the NORC program offered something unique; an opportunity for seniors to age in their communities. We fought really hard for that funding, and sometime last summer, we found out that three new NORCs, two of which were in my district, would be awarded new contracts. However, later on, some of these programs were cut, and many of us wrote to the New York State Office of the Aging urging them to refund those programs. With the extra $2 million from the State legislature, we thought that we could fund the three new programs and refund all of the existing N/NORCs. It turns out, though, that the $2 million we had fought so hard for couldn’t be allocated to NORC programs. We had to chase the money around, which I thought was unbelievable, because this is money for seniors! This is money to help seniors stay social and healthy and lets them age in their homes. It was very frustrating, and I will continue to push for the funds that we fought so hard for and more.
Broadsheet: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned since taking office in the Assembly?
Ms. Niou: Well, I can tell you that my first impression when arriving at the legislature was realizing just how much the Assembly could use more diversity. There’s a record high number of women elected to the Assembly right now, and we have more Asian-Americans than we’ve ever had — that number being two — but the State legislature is not as diverse as it should be. New York is a diverse State, yet women, ethnic minorities, disabled individuals, are only a small subset of State representatives. I think you see a lot of members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus and women legislators talking about the need to increase diversity in the State legislature, but there’s so much work to be done. This is recognized as the norm, and it is critical that we change that.
Broadsheet: What are your most important priorities for 2018?
Ms. Niou: I have a financial services package that I’ve been working on since last session. Predatory lenders and check cashers often take advantage of low-income families and their hard-earned salaries. Therefore, it is critical that we regulate these industries to protect our communities. Given my background as a consumer protection advocate, I was tasked by our Assembly Speaker to create a roadmap to bank our underbanked communities by working with advocates and my colleagues. It is critical that we provide reliable financial alternatives to working families, and I look forward to pushing for this in 2018.
Last year, Flushing Assembly member Ron Kim, Speaker Heastie and I announced the creation of the New York State Asian-Pacific-American Task Force. This is the first task force in our State dedicated to addressing issues in the Asian-Pacific-American community. This year, we really want to hit the ground running. We’re pushing legislation like data disaggregation, which will help us gain a better understanding of all Asian-Pacific-American communities and ethnicities living in New York. We’re also going to focus in on issues like mental health and language access among Asian American communities.
I am also making resiliency one of my priorities this year. Our communities are continuing to recover from Superstorm Sandy. During the storm, dozens of buildings along the waterfront were flooded under several feet of water, and now, we’re taking the necessary precautions to prevent that from happening again. In our New York City Housing Authority developments along and close to the waterfront, there are major recovery and resiliency construction projects going on, and we need to make sure that throughout this process, the community is engaged and that concerns are heard.
Broadsheet: What can Lower Manhattan residents do to help advance these priorities?
Ms. Niou: Come to my Town Hall! Seriously. I shape my legislative and budget priorities based on what I hear from my constituents. If there’s something residents think I’m overlooking, I need them to come out and have a conversation with me about it. I’ve been working in policy and for a long time, but no one knows what our community needs more than the people who live, work, and go to school here. This is an opportunity for Lower Manhattan residents to come and say what they really think about issues facing our community. I’m also going to be sharing all of the feedback I get with various agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Buildings — everyone. It means one thing if they hear it from me, but it really increases the pressure on them when they know that many people in the community have all come together to take issue with something they’re doing or not doing.
Broadsheet: How does politics on the State stage intersect with, and connect to, priorities at the local level in Lower Manhattan?
Ms. Niou: Everything starts at the local level. This is the foundation of my upcoming Town Hall, and that’s why it’s so important for people to come out. I think some people still feel disconnected to State-level politics, but what I want them to understand is that they are capable of being the catalysts of change. My priorities in Albany come from the community. The whole process begins with the community coming together to express frustration with certain policies or ways they think the government can improve.
Broadsheet: In your view, what are the three biggest issues or challenges facing Lower Manhattan as a whole, in which there is a role for the federal government to play?
Ms. Niou: Years later, our community continues to recover from [the terrorist attacks of] September 11, 2001, and it is critical that folks are aware of the many resources out there for health compensation. Just a few months ago, I worked with Congressman Jerry Nadler and advocates to promote the “Research to Care” event, where Lower Manhattan residents had access to health experts to discuss the impacts of September 11. There are many resources out there on this, particularly from the federal government, and we must work to make people aware of these tools and deadlines associated with September 11 compensation.
Immigration has become a hot button issue in the age of Trump, and in many ways, Lower Manhattan is at the crux of this debate. Our community is home to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and so many longtime immigrant neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side and Chinatown, which is why the topic of immigration runs so deep here. It is critical that we protect the thousands of families and young people who are being threatened with deportation. Here in Lower Manhattan, I represent many families who have benefited from DACA and other immigration programs, and we just can’t allow them to be pushed into the shadows. At the state level, I pushed along with my colleagues to ensure DACA recipients had access to Medicaid. Statehouses across our country are quickly becoming the frontline against Washington’s policies, and I’ll continue to look for ways to protect our immigrants across New York.
Broadsheet: Widely shared outrage often has the effect of firing up voters in the short term, but then contributing to greater disengagement and cynicism in the longer term. What would you say to constituents who have despaired of the political process to persuade them to increase their participation and commitment, rather than to withdraw?
Ms. Niou: The political process can be frustrating, sometimes, but government is touchable. Keep calling, writing, emailing. Remind your elected officials that these issues are still out there, and there are constituents out there who still care about them. Don’t be afraid to let them know you’re frustrated! Get them fired up about the same issues that fire you up.
I also encourage constituents to get involved with grassroots organizations and assist them in their efforts. I think that a lot of people find that working at the most local level and with community-based organizations gives them an opportunity to interact with the people whom this issue is most affecting. You can really see the immediate impact of your work at this level, when you’re working one-on-one with someone or a family or even a group of individuals, and you might be reminded why you’re passionate about this issue in the first place.
Broadsheet: What can people do to make things better?
Ms. Niou: I often tell people to consider running for office, but I know that not every single person can just drop whatever they’re doing and start campaigning today. Honestly, there’s never a right time to run for office, but if you truly feel like you just can’t make that commitment right now, I urge you to support the people who are running or hold a seat in office, who you think are capable of making the kind of changes you want to see.
I also encourage residents to go to Community Board meetings, if there’s something close to home that they’re unhappy with. The Community Boards are the most local level of government, and they are meant to act as the voice for our communities. Elected representatives listen to the community boards, so it’s a really good way to get your voice heard.