Q&A With Justin Krebs: Running For A More Livable Park Slope

Q&A With Justin Krebs: Running For A More Livable Park Slope
Justin Krebs in Park Slope. Fall of 2020. By Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner

Justin Krebs, 42, is a community organizer running to represent District 39 in the city council in next year’s elections. He is the Director of Campaigns at MoveOn and co-founder of arts space The Tank. He is also the Secretary of the School District 15 Presidents Council. We spoke about why he’s running and how he hopes to serve his community and the city at large. Krebs lives in Park Slope near 4th Avenue with his wife and three elementary school-age children who attend their local public school. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to run?

My background is in progressive political organizing, movement building, and community building, often around progressive issue advocacy, on the national level with MoveOn. Over the last couple of years, the other part of my life has become more rooted. We are small business owners in the neighborhood [Krebs’s wife is a midwife and runs Parent Craft]. This past year, all three of my kids are in the same elementary school. And so I saw an opportunity to take both the kind of big organizing I’ve been doing on a national level and bring some of that energy and experience and big picture thinking into the really critical issues of New York City, both our neighborhood, but also our city as a whole.

How would you be different from Councilmember Brad Lander, who currently represents the district?

I’d look to emulate the ways in which he has been a champion on school integration, on safe streets for bicycle safety, and pedestrian safety. I think he has modeled how you can use the platform of the office and the reach of the office to drive things beyond your specific legislative duties. And then there’s the opportunity to connect the progressive agenda in New York City to a national agenda. And whether it’s on climate change or workers’ rights or privacy in the era of big data, these are all places where actually what happens in New York can have an impact around the country.

What you think needs to change in the neighborhood? What do you think the most significant needs and opportunities are?

When I launched my candidacy, I was already thinking and talking about these questions of what makes this city livable for everyone. How you invest in the public spaces, in the public commons and the public good, not just the physical spaces, but the shared resources that helped further our shared conditions and desires and how we live in a sort of democratic space together. How we pool our common goals and our resources across the community to invest in these? That’s become even more critical and brought into sharper contrast since the pandemic has begun.

When you say “make the city livable for all,” what exactly do you mean?

When people talk about why they live in New York or what makes it hard to live in New York, you hear a lot of things again and again. ‘I want to feel good about my kids’ school; I want my kids to be going to a school where they’re safe, where they’re being challenged, where their individual needs are being met, where creativity and not just rote learning is prized.’

You hear people talking about the need for open spaces and common spaces, the desire to be able to walk, bike, get around your community in ways that are safe to do that. Where you feel like pedestrians and cyclists are respected on the roads as much as cars.

Almost everyone you talk to worry about small businesses that we all love being pushed out; the character and the continuity of the neighborhood being pushed out. So schools and small businesses and open spaces and all of those are part of what make this a livable city.

I think supporting small businesses is an interesting and tricky one — their sustainability and ability to last in New York were difficult before the pandemic and were exacerbated by it. But if we all emerge from this pandemic and our small businesses have been torn out of our communities, it’s going to feel like we’re returning to a wrecked home. How we support those kinds of businesses in every one of our neighborhoods is going to be a real challenge for the city council.

A lot of that has to do with real estate?

Quite a bit of it does. In New York, we’re the most inventive people on how to make the most out of a few square feet. Man, if you get those four feet, it is. It is. It’s sacred. And you want to use it in every creative and beautiful and tightly held way you can.

Interestingly, you didn’t mention housing and food insecurity. I would have thought housing was still top of mind for many residents in the neighborhood?

Everyone across New York, whether you’re working class or upper-middle class, whether you’re a renter or an owner, is feeling some of that crunch. So I think housing is critically important, involving many policies that cannot be only solved by advocates. That’s where you really need a heavy hand of government. And you’ve seen the state government finally taking some measures on behalf of renters that are long overdue.

On food insecurity – in late May, we started up a food pantry in Park Slope out of Camp Friendship, which is a community center on 8th street and 6th Avenue. A local organizer named Chris Johnson got it going. Two other folks and I are helping recruit volunteers and handle donations. And several folks said early on, well, there might not be as much of a need. You might not see the kind of line that you’ll see at the Sunset Park Food Pantry, which has had these tremendous lines. And what we’ve seen is every Tuesday lines up the block around the corner.

Many people are becoming food insecure right now that you might not think of as having been food insecure -people who are newly unemployed, people who are newly financially on the precipice, in addition to people who had already been facing those charges.

What issues would you like to champion?

I think what Lander’s done in school integration, safe streets, workers’ rights are all places I want to push it further.

Also, I am interested in climate and making sure that New York is a leader in climate change. I think that the rebuilding that we’re going to see, the economic, the health rebuilding, the democracy rebuilding, leaves a lot of room to do so in a way that also thinks about the longer-term existential crisis of climate change. I think there’s more that we can do.

Data privacy and data control are issues that I’m very concerned about, and it has become particularly urgent in our schools with remote learning. I don’t know that there’s enough clarity around how our kids’ information is being used, stored, protected, and potentially monetized. This issue is not only about protecting New Yorkers. If New York said ‘We are going to have the gold standard, the platinum standard for data privacy,’ it could have ripple effects around the country.

I’m also deeply invested in this nexus of parks and playgrounds and open spaces and cultural spaces, the things that bring New York to life in so many ways. How to make sure open space opportunities, recreational opportunities, cultural opportunities to participate in and experience, live performing arts are available all around the city or around the district, of course. But again, a lot of the things that we could create within our own district can be emulated and modeled elsewhere and can tie into larger citywide solutions.

What do you think about how we use our streets in the city?

The experiments we see now, from closing streets for recreation, allowing more street space for restaurants and bars to the discussions of how to do it for classrooms, are all thinking that’s going the right direction. This is real estate that can make our city more open, that we can have more control over, and we can do so in a balanced way that also keeps this city moving and the ability of seniors to drive places and ambulances to get through and busses to run.

The Arts community has been particularly hard hit this year.

It’s devastating. There are many creative outlets that artists are finding right now on Zoom and on Instagram, and it’s not the same. It’s just not the same as live performance, which is so critical to the economy of New York. Critical to the life of New York, the energy of New York, and it’s also just a unique and important and valuable thing we need to be investing in.

We need solutions that will bring back the big industries because the big industries are engines of the economy of New York. And we need those solutions to also work for the small and independent spaces, the countless number of spaces that are the feeders into that cultural realm.

Could we be creating more performance spaces that are outdoors that emulate the value and the importance of the indoor spaces, the same way that we’re giving space outside to recreation, giving space outside to restaurants and bars?

Some of the hot topic issues in Park Slope have been around things like shelters opening on Fourth Avenue and development in general. How would you approach that?

We need more housing in the city. For every income, but especially for people who need to be in transitional housing. It’s just astonishing and heart wrenching and unacceptable to have a hundred thousand students in New York City schools in transitional housing. So anything we’re doing to support families, to be in housing and then eventually to be in permanent housing, we should be doing now.

We need to listen. At MoveOn, we refer to it as “having big ears.” Ensuring everyone in the community has had their chance to be heard, weigh-in, raise concerns, and help creatively. To have as many community meetings as you need to have a clear process. Make sure that the meetings are in daytimes and in evenings in multiple languages, especially now. Make sure they’re in various virtual settings. But even so, how do people who are not comfortable online or can’t get on digitally, how do they still get heard?

I want to make sure people feel like they were heard and that their opinions were respected. Not everything can be a compromise that makes everyone equally unhappy or equally happy. But we have to make sure people feel like they’re listened to so that even when decisions are unpopular, they know that it came from a place of respect. Anytime you build a shelter, anytime you build a school, anytime you build a waste transfer station, anytime you take a parking spot for recreation or outdoor seating, any time you build a bike lane, somebody will be put off. And you want to understand why. And you want to see if you can address the real concerns they have. And you want to make sure that they were heard, and sometimes you still go on and develop it.

Do you think landmarking is something that should be able to be reversed to allow more development?

Landmarking should be something that can be reversed. Yes. And I don’t mean that we should be reversing it, but – and that’s where the devil’s in – the details. But yes, we need to put forward the principle we have: we need a lot more housing in the city.

This year might end up looking different, but the city is going to keep growing. And we need places for people to live that are safe and that are comfortable. And let’s not get caught up on every particular building or particular block fight if we have the bigger plan of how many units and what those trade-offs look like for different communities. Be as creative as we can be on the big picture, and as ambitious as we can be on the big picture. That will allow us to not divide the community, which actually might end up having shared interests on the more limited pictures.

Would you be in favor of legislation that doesn’t let property owners keep units vacant for long?

I would favor local and state legislation and programs that encourage when possible and mandate, when necessary, landlords to make space available. Gale Brewer has done good work on this in Manhattan, looking at the vacancies around the city. It’s the vacancies, especially those that are being artificially kept vacant for various tax incentives. That’s the place to strike first.

But some of it is also creating programs that give the landlords confidence that if they rent to something, you know, that something’s going to pay rent. You look at a lot of small businesses or startup businesses or small nonprofits or cultural groups that might not be able to have the kind of financial track record to either get a loan or have a guarantor or even sign off on a lease.

I think it’s work that you can either do by legislation, community leadership, or advocacy. And it will have a positive impact not only on the people that are served by whatever the nonprofit is or the cultural group and the small business people are starting it, but the landlord and the community benefits.

Can that solve all housing problems? No, housing is a bigger issue, but will it bring some vacant storefronts back to life? Probably.

What do you miss most about life pre-pandemic?

Part of what I love in life, whether it was creating art spaces or creating parenting groups or creating political, social clubs and meet at bars and in-person is getting together with people, you know, and with newcomers, and strangers who are becoming your friends and sharing the booth or sharing the table or sharing a handshake or sharing a hug and sharing the conversation. And that has been put on hold. And it is heartbreaking.

It is not the greatest loss in this pandemic. The health and economic, and democracy crises we’re in are far greater. But on a personal and everyday level, so much of what I have valued, that building community and political movements and social capital has come from in-person, one at a time. It looks and feels different right now.

So, in a few words, why should people vote for you?

I’m an energizer bunny of joyful, optimistic, can-do, collective action. And I believe that we as a community can do great things together when we’re marshaled and mobilized in inclusive and joyful ways. That’s what I’ve done across different sectors, and that’s what I want to do in office.

I’m 42, and over the last 20 years, I’ve been an activist and a writer, but I’ve also been a business owner and a nonprofit chair. I’ve balanced budgets. I’ve hired people. I’ve had kids and gotten involved in schools. I’ve rented, and I’ve owned. I’ve seen the city through a lot of different lenses, and those are all perspectives that I want to bring in that. And that, I think, will be valuable in serving a diverse, high energy community, a Council District with high expectations at a really critical time in our city and our world.