Q&A With Kenya Handy-Hilliard On Her Run For City Council District 40

Q&A With Kenya Handy-Hilliard On Her Run For City Council District 40
Kenya Handy-Hilliard

Kenya Handy-Hilliard is running in a crowded field to replace the 3.5 term councilmember Mathieu Eugene, who is term-limited after almost 15 years in office. There are currently 12 candidates vying for the seat to represent Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush, and Ditmas Park in City Council, and Handy-Hilliard along with teacher Rita Joseph, cop Edwin Raymond, district leader Josue Pierre, and lawyer Blake Morris, is among the frontrunners. According to the latest campaign filings, she had raised $57,463 from private individuals, placing her third after Raymond and Joseph.

Handy-Hilliard, a former political staffer and mother of two, grew up in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, attending Maple Street school, Saint Ann’s, and St. Francis of Assisi/Bishop Loughlin Memorial H.S. before attending Smith College in Massachusetts. She worked for former Congressmember Charles B. Rangel and current Congressmember Yvette D. Clarke and currently lives in Flatbush.

In 2014, Handy-Hilliard became the Brooklyn Director for the NYC Comptroller’s Office, followed by a position as the Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island Director at the NYS Attorney General’s Office, and her most recent job at the NYC Department of Investigation, which she left to pursue her campaign to represent Flatbush in the City Council.

Why did you decide to run now?

These are challenging times for New York City and our district. Crime rooted in desperation is rising. Overdevelopment and the increased cost of living are fueling our district’s housing and food insecurity. And many are adrift because of the twin trials of COVID and an economic recession.

New Yorkers are hurting, and they need clear-eyed and capable progressive leaders to lead our communities and our City out of this crisis. I’m running because I am a career public servant who’s spent most of the last 15 years working for the people of district 40. As the only candidate with legislative, budgetary, and organizing experience across all government levels, I will be ready to lead on day one.

How have you spent the pandemic? What has it been like for you?

This is a precarious and transformative time. Like much of my district, I have spent lots of time navigating a historic health pandemic and its impact on my personal and professional life.

As I am sure many parents learned to do, I had to figure out how to manage remote learning and to homeschool my kids and work full-time, as it can be overwhelming. Staying close to home heightened my concern for neighbors and the community, and I began using my time and resources to help the district.

I reached out to my network to procure PPE and started volunteering at food distribution sites.  I help distribute food to needy New Yorkers weekly. The pandemic destroyed our old way of life and provided us an opportunity to build our communities back better. This period taught me to use my experience and knowledge to create a new and more equitable future through community-centered leadership. That’s the perspective I plan to take with me into City Hall.

What have you seen? Have you seen a change in your district? What does Flatbush need come post-pandemic recovery?

I have witnessed my rapidly evolving community rise to the occasion like never before. The Mutual Aid networks, Friendly Fridges, small businesses, and churches, like our outstanding medical workers, helped triage the aftermath of COVID. They provided a model network of community assistance for neighbors who lost jobs, needed food assistance, legal help, and more.

The trauma of COVID and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests brought our neighbors together to discuss white privilege, Black pain, and the legacy and lingering effects of racism. As a district, we came together and helped one another during a time of immense need, demonstrating our kindness and resilience.

Like the unity displayed during the worst of the COVID crisis, our district needs a united political class to fight for us across all government levels. Our elected officials must ensure that our hospitals receive critically needed funding and resources, our schools get budgets to fill the widening achievement gap, and that dollars get directed to the district for small business relief, job creation and training, food resources, rent relief, and housing stability and more. We need active leadership to help District 40’s residents get back on their feet and thrive.

What top three issues you will prioritize once elected, and why?

Economic resilience and small businesses. We will need innovative ways to ensure our community’s economic and environmental sustainability and create quality job opportunities for residents in the process.

With a projected deficit of over $12 billion, our City’s government has faced hard budgeting choices. Programs at risk include critical social services for needy New Yorkers, funding to nonprofits that work effectively on the ground, and essential educational programming. These cuts will have future implications and will continue to marginalize already underserved communities.

NYC needs a larger risk management strategy for agencies that address the areas that precipitate waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars first. We must rethink both the City’s private and nonprofit contracting apparatuses. It is also imperative that we think of new and creative ways to save our businesses, particularly MWBEs, preserving existing jobs, creating new positions, and keeping local economies thriving.

Housing and Homelessness – Housing insecurity is a public health issue, and the people of our district must have a meaningful say in how development happens and who it benefits. The current system prioritizes the profits of developers and diminishes the voices of residents. It is paramount that the district’s communities have a significant stake in local development, tenant protections, and landscape preservation.

My priorities are stabilizing the community’s housing stock, eliminating housing scams and deed thefts, creating harsher punishments for falsifying City documents, and instituting fail-safe mechanisms to catch fraudulent documents before approval. I will continue to protect the district’s affordable housing stock and ensure that any new development is truly affordable for area residents and invests in the neighborhood’s future. I will advocate for greater tenant rights and protections, particularly in the wake of COVID conditions.

I am also adamant about reforming the Uniform Land Use Reform Procedure (ULURP) process to add greater significance through accountability measures and technical support for the community approval process. I want to expand historic and landmarked districts. I want to explore better permanent housing investment strategies instead of continuing the current expensive and temporary options to address homelessness.

Education – As the mother of school-aged children, I understand the challenges that come with educating our district’s students from daycare to high school.

Public schools in District 40 schools can be Blue Ribbon institutions like those in other neighborhoods.  However, for far too long, insufficient funding has forced our schools to do the best they can with what little they have. Local schools are on the front lines, fighting the effects of our district’s issues, which include serving our homeless student population, dealing with funding inequities and budget cuts, and inadequate DOE engagement.

Our children and schools deserve better. I will work with the schools and community to expand enrichment programming, create better community mechanisms to effectively address the achievement gaps, and work diligently to make daycare and after-school programming more widely available.

How will you compare to the previous leadership?

Unlike the current Council Member, I am dedicated to fighting for the district in partnership with residents and other community stakeholders – in a transparent and accountable way.

As a government administrator, I witnessed how District 40’s current leadership did not govern effectively or command respect. Instead, the City treated our district as a convenient conduit to execute its will, especially around the passage of MIH/ZQA and the subsequent development taking place.

As Council Member, I will take a different approach to leadership and governance. I will introduce dynamic and effective policies and programs that lead to a flourishing, prosperous community. COVID-19, while devastating for New York City on multiple levels, has also provided the opportunity to create a new City government focusing on securing the present and building equitably for the future.

My team and I will provide opportunities that open the door for district 40 residents to become more knowledgeable, involved, engaged, and empowered about local politics and government. The district will gain an accessible, responsive, and professional Council office that emphasizes constituency services, government reform, and accountability. Our office will regularly schedule forums that encourage active participation in community-driven solutions-based endeavors; offer broader language access and culturally competent engagement to foster new and diverse government partnerships.

Our community will have more significant input in the district’s resource allocation through Participatory Budgeting and increased engagement in other community governance forms like community boards, CECs, etc. I will be active in restoring the respect and reverence for District 40, which will allow us to dictate what happens in our communities, not the other way around.

How do you differ from your opponents?

I believe my opponents and I all have the same desire to serve our community. The candidates share an impressive breadth of knowledge and experience.

As a career public servant who’s spent most of the last 15 years working for the people of District 40, I am the only candidate with legislative, budgetary, and organizing experience across all levels of government.

Standing at the intersection of policy, politics, and people, I worked as a Legislative Aide in Congress, working on major pieces of legislation like Comprehensive Immigration Reform. I partnered with communities, organizing around NYCHA accountability, ULURP reform, land banks, and other issues at the NYC Comptroller’s Office.

As a Director in the NYS Attorney General’s office, I protected NY tenants from unscrupulous landlords and raised awareness around mortgage fraud and deed theft.  My time at the NYC Department of Investigation taught me the pitfalls and vulnerabilities that propagate waste, fraud, and abuse in City government.

I also have experience with the City Budgeting process, which will help bring more money into the district and effectively manage its allocation during the participatory budgeting period, a key priority of our COVID-19 recovery and resiliency efforts. My experience, knowledge, and perspective make me ready to lead from day one.

Housing, homelessness, education are big issues in the city/district. How will you address them?

COVID has further destabilized an already tumultuous housing market and caused widespread job loss and economic instability. This turmoil exacerbates homelessness in the district. The next City council must work with the Mayor on a more comprehensive affordable housing plan that addresses homelessness by creating more units for formerly homeless individuals and families in new developments.

Using Council oversight authority, I will support the Department of Social Services (DSS), helping it reach full capacity to focus on innovative strategies for combating homelessness. I will also work with the Comptroller to review current temporary housing strategies focused on shelters and hotels and explore better, more cost-effective alternatives for permanent placement.

I will work to repeal Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), as the 20% of affordable housing at 60-40% Area Median Income (AMI) has failed to meet the City’s reasonable housing needs. We need options that incentivize nonprofit development rather than AMI,  allowing us to use each community’s median income to assess affordability levels.

I plan to prioritize community-centered affordable housing development such as Community Land Trusts that can compete with the aggressive private development market.

As for education, I will work with the schools and community to expand enrichment programming, create better community mechanisms to address the widening achievement gaps and make daycare and after-school programming more available and affordable.

COVID recovery is in its nascent stages, and we will feel its effects for years to come.  I will prioritize bridging the broadband and technology gaps that further disadvantage remote learning students from vulnerable families. I will also push to expand STEAM education and programming from daycare to high school and help implement universal daycare. I will advocate for the district’s schools to receive proper funding and investment for programming and capital improvements that make schools look like institutions that facilitate learning rather than resemble prisons. I firmly believe that as a Councilmember, it is my job to be a resource and voice for parents and students, from birth to college or trade school.

How will you address policing?

Community safety is a public health issue, and I want to work with district 40 members to define the problems and solutions. Communities cannot thrive or enjoy good health unless they are safe.

This year, the COVID-19 crisis and the BLM protests exposed the structural racism embedded in our State’s criminal legal system. We must drastically reduce police response to non-violent issues and non-emergency calls. I’m glad EMS and public health officials will be answering mental health calls. But we need more independent sensitivity and de-escalation training.

I will focus on demilitarizing the NYPD and decentralizing law enforcement’s role in responding to crises the agency can’t handle. I will also revise the NYPD enforcement Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) with state and local agencies. Finally, I will provide better incentives and resources for agencies unwilling or unable to work together to provide greater insight and coordination on preventing crime and apprehending violent criminals in our communities.

I will redirect law enforcement resources to fully fund and expand social service programs that increase value and opportunities for those who need them. I will explore and implement alternatives to policing; fully fund and provide technical assistance to restorative justice and violence interrupter programs; expand education, skills, and training for good-paying jobs; study the feasibility of universal basic income strategies and invest in community-based organizations that have proven to protect and restore our communities.

How do your past experiences make you fit for this position?

My experiences growing up, living my adult life, and raising my family in the district have given me an intimate knowledge of families and residents’ issues in a rapidly changing community.

My career in government and politics has given me the ability to view those issues through a policy and operative lens. I have the experience and tools necessary to create and manage policies tailored to address these issues effectively.

My community organizing experience has provided me with the relationships and knowledge to draft and perfect relevant policies. Plus, I have the know-how to guide policy through political and budget scrutiny by organizing and mobilizing the community to fight.

Our community needs someone who can hit the ground running on day one and not have to ask where the bathroom is before getting right to work.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my family and my community. My babies are my world, and my community gives me hope for a diverse, engaged, and empowered future. I will create the conditions necessary for district residents to raise their families in the community that they grew up in and give our children access and exposure to the district as a vibrant, multicultural and inclusive microcosm of the world, just as I had.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time – I remember what it was like to have that. Suppose I’m not out in the community, fundraising, calling stakeholders, or studying policy briefs. In that case, I’m spending time with my family, making dinner, reading with the kids, and getting them ready for bed.

If I can sneak an hour afterward, I’m watching an episode of The Real Housewives of somewhere, Law & Order: SVU, or Grey’s Anatomy.

What is your favorite part of your district?

I love Prospect Park. Green space is so important to me, and it allows my kids an ecological oasis away from the concrete jungle. I also love the diversity of the district. Being able to walk outside and see, hear, smell the cultures from the Caribbean, Asia, and all parts in between is a gift. Our district’s rich heritage needs to be celebrated, explored, and preserved for posterity.