Layla Law-Gisiko wants to sever housing policy from “the greed of speculation,” denounces proposed Penn Station mega-project as a “disaster.”
Layla Law-Gisiko’s interests have evolved over time, but her interest in holding the powerful accountable hasn’t changed. Born and educated in France, she began her professional career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. She moved to New York City in her twenties to further pursue her career and would later take a keen interest in local politics; she has served on Manhattan Community Board Five for the past 17 years. From her time on the community board, she became keenly aware of the issues her district is facing, and has become an outspoken critic of the power real estate interests have over housing policy. She hopes to soon address these concerns as a New York State assembly member.
Law-Gisiko is running in Assembly District 75, which includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Murray Hill, Midtown and part of the Lincoln Center area. Its incumbent, Richard Gottfried, has been an assembly member since 1970 and recently decided to retire. He’s endorsed Tony Simone, a non-profit executive who has racked up endorsements from local electeds and establishment-friendly labor unions and community groups.
Law-Gisiko aspires to bring a fresh voice to the district. The Indypendent recently spoke to her about everything from affordable housing, to the future of post-pandemic Midtown, to how New York should respond to rulings issued by an increasingly unhinged Supreme Court.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THE INDYPENDENT: Talk about your own personal journey. Why did you make this transition into local politics and serving on a community board?
LAYLA LAW-GISIKO: I was born and raised in France by a French father and a Tunisian mother who herself was an immigrant. My mother’s life was radically different from her mother’s and her older sisters’ because of the education she received. She graduated high school, obtained a scholarship, came to France to pursue higher education and graduated from college. My life was informed by the idea that the arts and policy matter because they’re so incredibly transformative.
I started my career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker and was very fortunate to get a journalist visa to come to the US as a freelancer, correspondent and filmmaker. I covered topics on social justice, labor issues in garment factories, police brutality, etc. I’ve always had a keen interest in my professional career on social issues. At the local level, I felt it was important to better understand how I can be an actor in the policies affecting myself and my neighbors. That’s why I decided to join the community board. I was not planning to enter politics, but when Assemblymember Gottfried announced that he was retiring, I felt compelled to enter the race. With a good group of policies, a strong grasp on land-use issues and with what I know is coming through the pipes for the district, I feel that I am well prepared to tackle and hopefully bring a good outcome.
What does Assembly District 75 need at this time from its assembly member? What are some of the most urgent issues for your district?
Housing is a particularly pressing issue in District 75, given that the cost of land is probably among the highest in the country, making it difficult to produce affordable housing. What we need from the next assemblyperson is putting policies in place that would cut through the greed of speculation. One of the ways to accomplish that is to strongly support community land trusts and limited equity co-ops so that the value of the land is taken out of the equation. Those models have been very successful at providing permanently affordable housing, and it stabilizes neighborhoods and prevents gentrification.
You say community land trusts can work in an affluent community like Assembly District 75. Aren’t they a better fit for the outer boroughs, where there are more vacant lots and abandoned buildings?
We have a scarcity of vacant lots, but we want to make sure that the few parcels left are developed in a way that is beneficial to the community. In my opinion, those should be 100% affordable housing, but we can only embrace this model if there is strong legislation that allows for it. For example, the House of Representatives introduced a bill earlier this month providing loans for the development of community land trusts and limited equity co-ops. We need programs like this because we know the 421-a is not producing nearly enough affordable housing. And when it is producing “affordable” housing units, they’re not actually affordable. In our district, the units are above the average market-rate rental and divest a huge amount of real estate tax revenue that the city is not collecting.
A former documentary filmmaker who emigrated from France, Law-Gisiko has served on her local community board for the past 17 years.
Your district is home to both the Penn South towers and Hudson Yards. What are your thoughts on the contrast between those two communities and how we got to the point where the government would pour billions of dollars into something like Hudson Yards?
The contrast is striking. You have one model that is 100% occupied, has been permanently affordable and has sustained a diverse middle class community. On the other side, you have the epitome of the model of the luxury city. The commercial office towers and the residential condos are mostly vacant. These buildings received massive tax subsidies and are not paying their fair share in real estate taxes. These taxes are actually divested from the city coffers, because they are meant to pay for the MTA upgrade with the extension of the 7 Line. The 7 Line was constructed, bid bonds were issued, money was not trickling back in and we had to bridge loans that were very expensive. It really comes from a misguided vision of how to develop the land.
Speaking of redevelopment plans, another is in the works over in the Penn Station area. Why are you opposed to that? And what could you do to stop that, given that Governor Hochul seems to have embraced it?
The plan is a disaster. Subsuming funds, like Hudson Yards, is accompanied with massive tax subsidies, the extent of which we don’t know because of the lack of transparency. The plan would displace hundreds of residents and businesses and demolish our urban fabric that is perfectly fine. The major issue is Vornado, the developer, whose strategy is to create blight so they can extract more subsidies from the government. They are intentionally letting buildings get dilapidated and creating an unfriendly streetscape. For all these reasons, the commercial office space market is collapsing. Additionally, it is likely that a return to office space will never be back to pre-pandemic levels, so we don’t need this office space in a post-pandemic world.
You’re talking about the post-pandemic world and the demise of office culture. How should state and city leaders be approaching this? So far, both Kathy Hochul and Eric Adams have mostly attempted to prod office workers to go back to the office — they seem to be singing from the same hymn book as the real estate industry. But it doesn’t seem like there’s much vision there.
Correct. I serve as the chair of the committee of Community Board Five, so I deal with the Department of City Planning and with the City Planning Commission. My biggest lament is that there is no vision. They claim that it’s “the market.” It’s not the real-estate market, it’s the financial market. There’s nobody at the helm saying that we need to have a vision for what Manhattan, Midtown, or even what the city as a whole should be.
So, what’s your vision for Midtown? Should the government be looking at ways to convert some of these buildings to affordable housing or to housing for homeless people? What’s a forward-looking vision that you can embrace?
I think there are a number of key issues here. We have to realize that the return of the workforce to the office is not going to happen. We need more affordable housing and tools to stabilize our neighborhoods so that they remain affordable and diverse, not the tools of gentrification. These policies are mostly city-driven, and that is the way it should be. But the state can support certain land use by supporting the creation of and creating the framework for what supportive housing should look like. However, there is a great lack of accountability, and accountability is under the purview of the states.
Some of the ideas you’re putting forward would be outside of the real-estate consensus. How would you balance being an independent voice for your district in the assembly while also being an effective legislator?
In New York, we are fortunate to have a progressive caucus that I would certainly align with. There are a number of other assembly members, such as Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan) or some assembly members in Queens and Brooklyn who are embracing progressive values that go against the real-estate interests. We have a role to play, by reaching out to our colleagues and explaining to them why certain policies are actually beneficial. Trying to overcome the resistance — making sure that unions, for example, understand the impact of such proposals — and building coalitions are key as a legislator.
What are your thoughts on outgoing Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who served for 52 years? Did he stick around for too long?
He was the youngest elected legislator when he entered the assembly, he is the longest serving in the state of New York and he remained true to his progressive values over these decades. Now, it’s time for the continuation of this legacy, while also bringing a fresh voice to these issues.
Assemblymember Gottfried, almost every major elected official on the West Side of Manhattan, and unions and various other civic groups, have endorsed one of your opponents, Tony Simone. What are all these people getting wrong?
I don’t come from the political machine. I have served on the community board for 17 years, and I may have ruffled feathers, especially with the real-estate industry, which plays a role with even the most progressive of our elected officials. They are endorsing a candidate who is more malleable, more willing to take orders rather than work for the benefit of the community. I’m all about policy. This is what’s really important and what I’m committed to rather than politics.
With Roe v. Wade overturned, how proactive do you think the state of New York should be in supporting women who may be fleeing states where abortion is going to be banned? Should New York set aside funds to help women who might need an abortion, or should that be left entirely to the the nonprofit sector?
I do believe New York state has a role to play, including creating a fund to support women in other states so that they can have access to abortion in New York. I think it is the responsibility of New York to be a true sanctuary state. Also, on the legislative front, we need to make sure that New York puts in a set of laws that allow abortion providers to perform abortions in New York without facing criminal charges or repercussions in their home state.
The Supreme Court also overturned a New York law restricting the carrying of handguns in public. What do you think about the direction the Supreme Court is going? Is there a point where you feel like the city and/or the state should be willing to defy Supreme Court rulings if they believe it’s in the best interest of their people?
It is disturbing that the Supreme Court may rule in favor of allowing concealed-carry guns in New York state. This is one reason why I think I’m the best candidate for the district. I have been dealing with policy issues, with reviewing legislation and with reviewing and advocating on the budget. The law in New York needs to be redrafted so that it is not unconstitutional and we can see some protection for the residents of the state. It needs to not only stem from good policy but also to be drafted in a way that is not open to challenge. Furthermore, New York state is not the only state that has anti-concealed-carry law, so it is certainly worth looking at how other states have drafted the legislation so that it is Supreme Court-proof.
Is there a point where we move beyond the idea that if we craft something more carefully, it will pass scrutiny with the Supreme Court — when it appears several justices are showing more and more that they’re going to issue rulings that fit their belief system? Is this where we move to a place of outright defiance of the Supreme Court?
The Supreme Court is not there to craft laws — they’re there to make sure that the existing laws are within the bounds of the Constitution. I feel that New York can solidly prove that our laws are entirely constitutional and that they are not going to be challenged by any court. If we indeed need to cross the threshold and consider defiance, we must make sure that it has broader impacts and sends the message that it is actually the Supreme Court that is wrong, not New York State that is being capricious.
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