Joycelyn Taylor grew up in the Pink Houses in East New York. Back then, hers was one of the first black families to move into the complex. Her mom stayed home with her, her four sisters, and two brothers, while her dad worked as a bus driver for the MTA. She never left Brooklyn, and these days, Taylor is busy running her contracting company and running for Mayor.
Taylor announced her run for Mayor in the 2021 election last year, and along with Dianne Morales remains one of two lifelong Brooklynites in the race – neither Eric Adams nor Maya Wiley has formally announced their candidacies. We spoke to Taylor on the phone last week about the race, the big issues facing the city – housing, education, policing; and the need to put people first. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bklyner: What is your vision for the kind of city New York would be under your leadership?
Taylor: I am looking for us to be a city that is inclusive, a city that is proactive and not reactive, a city that is able to allow everyone that lives in this city to live comfortably. From my perspective, we are only here for a certain period of time, and if we have to go through our lives dealing with these same issues and fighting these same fights and going through the same struggles without any hope, without any, you know, means out, no vision for anything – is that a life? We have to do better than that.
We have to create the change that we want to see. We’ve been going down a path that isn’t working. And I think everybody that I talk to, whether you’re black or white or rich or poor, we all, you know, have that common ground where we think people should have certain basic needs — to have a roof over your head, food on the table, clothes on your back. A decent education. That’s the path I’m trying to take up now.
Bklyner: Housing is top of mind for many residents in the city. What would you do to help?
Taylor: We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of apartments that are being built [under the current administration], but we’ve also seen a 20% increase in homelessness. So one of the issues that I want to address is homelessness and housing, because to the extent that everyone is not OK, we’re all not OK. We have to make sure that we are providing stable housing for everyone.
We’ve divested from NYCHA developments for so long they’re just crumbling around people. NYCHA has some of your police officers, your postal workers, your civil servants living there. We have to take care of those people, those people are taking care of us every day.
When the government asks us to go on PAUSE, I think the government should have thought about how they were going to provide some relief. Governor Cuomo talks all the time how proud he is of all the New Yorkers. Well, it’s great to be proud of people. But what about how are you going to help them? Are we making sure that it’s reaching the everyday person who you are proud of, who stayed home because you asked them to? I think the government that we invest in every day on a city, state, and federal level has to step up to the plate and now use those funds that we’ve invested in them to help us out in this moment. That should be their priority.
Right now we spend about 3% of the city’s budget on housing. If you look at the cost of housing on average, for example, the [100% affordable housing] building over on Flatbush Avenue and Caton Avenue in Flatbush. It’s going to have 255 apartments, and I think the cost of that building is about $40 million. Now on average at those costs, you’re going to be able to build about 13,000 or so new apartments every year. We have about 60,000 people who are homeless. If we want to increase or see change as it relates to housing, we have to invest more, and we’ve got to widen the pool of developers that we are actually going to work with so that maybe we can see some cost savings.
How we operate in the City is going to change, because you have a lot more people that are able to work from home now, and we might see a dip in the cost of housing because people decide to move to a cheaper location while still working for their company. We have to think about all of the touchpoints that are going to be created from this pandemic and make sure that we’re prepared for it.
Bklyner: Getting folks back to work seems to be more difficult than maybe was anticipated. What would you be doing if you were the mayor?
Taylor: One of the things that I want to do is bring back more of the small businesses that are able to come back because small businesses tend to hire people within the community.
Right now we’re talking a lot about reinventing ourselves and reimagining the city. People being stir crazy and now coming out with restrictions lifted, maybe we need to provide some services to people that allow them to get centered and be well again. Maybe hire people to do massive meditations online, or maybe we hire them to do like yoga online – we have to be creative about the things that, you know, we can hire people who are unemployed to do. We could hire some landscapers to clean up some of these streets around here. All of this brush that’s overgrown. There are things that the city needs done – clean the street. That’s the opportunity to hire people and employ more people.
So I think that there are a number of things that we can do, but I think we need to focus on bringing back small businesses. Think about this. We ask small businesses to close their doors. And then we say to them, oh, to keep you going, we’re going to lend you money. So now they’re coming back with this little possibility, this additional burden and expense, some of which, especially if they’ve already been working with the city, had already borrowed money to do city projects. We have to make sure that they come out of this – 40% of small businesses surviving should not be acceptable to anyone.
Bklyner: Do you think the way that we’re approaching reopening schools and educating our children is how we should be approaching it?
Taylor: You know, they [the City] said that they did a survey and that 75% of the parents surveyed said that they wanted the kids to go back to school in September. I don’t have any school-age kids [anymore], but I do have nieces and nephews that are school age. My first thought is going to be, will it be safe? If it’s not safe, then I don’t think that we should risk anyone’s child’s life. At the end of the day, we can’t assume that this is one size fits all.
We created the school system. We created this weekday, with work from nine to five, Monday to Friday. If it’s not working the way that it is, if any of these things are not working to our benefit, or they’re causing issues we have to read examine them. This is the moment to do it.
This is a moment to be able to have some flexibility to say maybe there are some parents who have been home and have been enjoying homeschooling their kids. It’s different for everyone. Other parents may say, ‘No, this is not working. I have to work during the day. I can’t work and pay attention to the kids, I need to have a different option.’ We’ve put things in a box where one size fits all thinking that it’s going to accommodate everyone for so long and we’ve made people’s lives miserable. Let’s take this moment and seize it to create something different.
I think that parents should be able to be given an option at this point. Do you want your child to go back? What does this look like? Overwhelmingly I think we’ve had the body of the parents on the same page. If we could figure out between working with employers and working with the parents what worked for families, then I think we should seize this moment and do that.
From surveys I’ve seen, most parents don’t seem comfortable with sending their kids back at this point, and even if the city does open back up, you can’t force people to send their kids back to school. This is still your life. It’s still your kid, you’re still in control. And we have to understand that the government is there to help us and make our lives better. That’s why we all agreed to pay into the system so that the government would implement things that would be helpful to us in ways that are helpful to us in this moment. We have to figure out what’s helpful for most parents.
It doesn’t seem like, you know, all the viable options were considered. And we should consider all viable options.
Bklyner: Police reforms have been top of mind this spring in Brooklyn. How are you thinking about the NYPD?
Taylor: You know, I think that we definitely need to defund the police. We invest a lot of money in policing, and we’re about to invest 11 billion dollars in jails. If we use that money on a much more proactive basis, we will have different results. We’re making investments in locking people up and, you know, policing them.
Well, what if we invested in decent education? It’s surprising to me that we went on lockdown and we’ve never in the city had a business continuity testing on remote learning. We never ensured that kids had, you know, a laptop, Wi-Fi access. That’s amazing to me. Most businesses have business continuity plans. We’re the City of New York. Don’t tell me that we are doing remote learning and we never tested that.
We now have to be proactive about the things people need so they don’t get to that point of frustration and hopelessness, that they’re out there committing crimes and they’re doing things that, you know, need to be policed. And it shouldn’t be about policing, it should be about safety.
We should want to ensure that everyone is safe. But when we have students that, you know, graduate fifth grade and can’t read, we’re going to have problems. If we spend that money on things that allow people to grow up and be productive, purposeful, adults, we don’t need as much policing. We don’t need so many jails. We should teach kids critical thinking, consequences.
We have their parents working 12 and 14 hour days, and we think this will grow up knowing all the lessons of life. When were their parents able to teach it to them? It just doesn’t work like that. We have to invest that money in things that will make lives better this year. That 5th grader that doesn’t know how to read is not going to know how to do a resumé and complete a job application. And when he can’t do it, he’s going to be mad. And he or she is going to act out. Because now they’re in the ninth grade and they are embarrassed.
Policing and jails are reactions to the things that we didn’t do that we were supposed to do.
Bklyner: What do you think is the most important thing for a successful recovery for the city?
Taylor: We have to get the schooling right, in conjunction with the schooling, we have to work with employers to get the employment right, because those two things go hand in hand. We have to address what has happened in the past months with people not being able to afford their housing or their mortgages.
We have to ask the federal government for these funds to make people whole. We didn’t bring this on ourselves, but it was not handled so the consequences are not as severe in the United States as they are. But everyday people, we didn’t bring this upon ourselves. It’s going to take the federal, state and city governments taking those dollars that we as everyday people have invested every day through taxes and giving us our money back so that we could be made whole from this situation.
Bklyner: What if there is no money?
Taylor: If we don’t get any federal funds and we don’t get any state funds, it’s going to be challenging.
I think that there are still a lot of inefficiencies, and the city pays a lot more money for things than it needs to because the same people know that you’re going to come to them all the time and you’re going to pay what they charge. So they’re going to keep charging you. We should look at cost savings in those areas first, before we start looking at cutting people’s wages because people need to be able to live.
Maybe it means that we build one less nice, shiny building. It’s going to be very important for us to reshift our priorities and make sure that our priorities are in line with people’s first. There are certain things that we need to have and we shouldn’t be cutting those things. But things that are nice to have, but we don’t really need at this moment, we have to look at them and see where we can have cost savings and efficiencies before we decide to lay people off.
Bklyner: Is the city a good employer?
Taylor: I own a general contracting firm and one of the things that I think the city needs to address is that the city requires the contractors to borrow money to do their project. So the business owners have taken on more of a financial responsibility for the project and we all know that sometimes the city can be very slow to pay.
I’ve sat at City Hall with various business owners. We had meetings with the deputy mayor. Some were owed money for over a year and a half. Some of them were on the verge of foreclosure because they borrowed the money to do these projects, and some of them were owed up to six million dollars. I mean, the city cannot be the worst landlord and the worst employer that there is. We have to do better. We should be the gold standard. We should be setting the example for everyone else, not just pointing the finger at everyone else.
To me, it’s almost as though you’re discriminating against people who don’t have money. Right. Because it’s not about their ability to do the job. It is about their ability to be able to borrow money to do your project. Why should a business owner have to borrow money for the city’s project? Because when you borrow money for the city’s project, that goes on your credit report. Why am I utilizing my credit for the city of New York? It doesn’t make sense.
You wouldn’t hire a contractor for a project at your home and tell them to go borrow money to do it. And then when they finish, you’ll pay. It just would not work. They’ll look at you like you’re a little crazy. So why does the city of New York sense that they should be any different?
Bklyner: How would you know if you accomplished as Mayor what you set out to do?
Taylor: I’ll know I’ve succeeded if I see people more involved and excited about seizing control over their existence and realizing that they are not a victim. That it’s not just about the government doing certain things, but what are we doing for ourselves every day. If people can get excited about that, then I feel like I’m doing a good job.
If I look up and I don’t have to go down Nostrand Avenue and walk over a homeless person and people have housing and not just housing, some mental resources that they need, then I think that I’m going to be doing a good and effective job. If I start by going to one of the worst schools at the beginning of the year and I get to the end of the year and that school is doing a lot better, that they are supported, and the parents understand the importance of their kids getting an education because they don’t want to have to take care of them for the rest of their lives. Then I’ll feel like I did a good job.
Bklyner: Why are you running for Mayor rather than one of the many open Council seats?
Taylor: I have had the opportunity to meet with elected officials on all different levels, and the reason I decided to run for the mayor[rather than city council] is that I don’t want to be groomed to be a politician. I want to be put in the position to be effective and truly create something without having any ties to anyone else. I’m looking to be a changemaker. We can’t continue to elect the same people and expect different results.
I think that people are ready for a change. When you look at people who have been politicians and in politics for so long and we’re at this moment. Who do you think got us to this moment? Are you happy with this moment or are you not happy with this moment?