Your Friendly Neighborhood Council Member
On a recent morning, City Council Member Stephen Levin chatted up his young staffers, who were sprawled out in a temporary workspace in David Yassky’s old district office in Brooklyn Heights.
“Anyone ever been to the High Line Park?” he asked.
“I’ve been there,” an aide answered. “It’s nice! I took a self-guided tour when I was there.”
Levin certainly knows a thing or two about parks. One of the things he wants to do during his first term on the City Council is ensure that the city makes good on providing residents with quality parkland — parkland promised for the waterfront as a result of the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in 2005. Only a fraction of that park space has been delivered, and Levin believes the delay has been too long.
Another thing Levin would like to see is an increase in excellent social services, which includes access to quality daycare and early childhood education. With budget cuts threatening to end many of these services, Levin knows he’ll have to figure out a way to make it work.
“Quality pre-k and pre-school is essential to me,” he said.
Levin has a keen understanding of which services district residents require. After graduating from Brown with a degree in classics and comparative literature in 2003, Levin—who yearned to get into politics after seeing the global and local results of 9/11—moved to Brooklyn to look for a job. After brief stints interning and waiting on tables, Levin got a job in Bushwick as a community organizer, working with organizations like the Senior Citizens Council.
“Basically, I was doing social work without a social work degree,” he said.
Eventually, Levin met State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a powerful politician who also chairs Brooklyn’s Democratic Party. As Lopez’s chief of staff, Levin was able to work on the issues he felt most strongly about, especially affordable housing.
“When it comes to housing, getting affordable housing built or housing policy on a statewide level or citywide level, he’s really the go-to guy,” Levin said of his former boss, Lopez. “His office is in the vanguard of progressive housing policy in the city. You can ask anyone in the housing advocacy community. I was very lucky to work on these issues.”
Levin’s close relationship with Assemblyman Lopez has a few critics wondering if he can make his political presence known without conjuring up connections to the borough boss and the Democratic machine. When asked about how he will emerge as his own man, Levin appeared unconcerned.
“Vito’s a pretty amazing guy,” Levin said. “I plan to work with the assemblyman and his office, and I don’t necessarily see how that goes against being an independent advocate. I represent the 33rd District. I will be doing everything in my power to represent strongly and fiercely the needs of my district that I represent.”
It’s the confident, on-message tone of a newly minted young council member.
Levin, who is 28 and lives in Greenpoint, is already planning to work with Assemblyman Lopez and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries on affordable housing. He wants to see the stalled developments in Williamsburg addressed by having the city and state work in tandem to come up with money to finish the projects — with an emphasis on building affordable housing. The goal is to increase the amount of affordable housing stock while dealing with some of the blight in the area. When it comes to the status of the Domino Sugar Factory on Kent Avenue, Levin has a few problems with the height and density of the plan currently being proposed. He says he’ll make sure the project includes at least 20 percent affordable housing on-site, though he’d like to see that percentage increased, if at all possible.
“I’m no big fan of luxury high-rise housing,” says Levin. “I just want to make that very clear. The story of the last eight to ten years in Williamsburg is not a 100 percent positive story when it comes to developers. It is not a thing that I think we’re going to look back on and think we necessarily did it right. I think we have an opportunity now to get it right.”
Levin names several complicated tax incentive regulations that will hold developers responsible for building the promised amount of affordable housing. He’s also gunning for the repeal of vacancy decontrol, in order to save rent stabilization.
“It’s not going to be that effective if you continue to build and lose out on rent stabilization and there’s a net loss of affordable housing,” he said. “We want to be on the positive.”
Other issues Levin would like to work on include reducing truck traffic to improve the quality of life for residents, seeing that Newtown Creek qualifies for Superfund designation, and supporting the vibrant arts community.
“I’ve always enjoyed the music and arts scene in Williamsburg,” Levin said, adding that he’s a rock n’ roll kind of guy. “I think it’s a fair statement to say that more good music has come out of North Brooklyn than any other place in the last five to ten years.”
Levin is planning on having a storefront office near the G-train so all residents of the 33rd District can have easy access to him.
(Remember, this is a district that includes two separate areas—in North Brooklyn and downtown Brooklyn.) But residents can find Levin outside his office as well.
“I’m an active member of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg community, so if you see me, you can stop me and let me know how I can be helpful.”