Just over a month after taking the helm at City Hall, Mayor Justin Elicker delivered his first State of the City address to the Board of Alders on Monday evening, speaking with frank optimism and calling New Haveners to action in his 15-minute address.
Elicker, who outlined an ambitious agenda in his 52-page transition report that was released last month, took the opportunity on Monday night to laud his team’s progress and set the tone for the next two years of his administration. In his speech, Elicker touted his administration’s openness and transparency — a hallmark of his time on the campaign trail — and delivered remarks on the nuts and bolts of four key policy areas: safety, jobs, education and housing. While the overall tone of Elicker’s speech suggested great optimism, the newly elected mayor recognized the fundamental challenges to the city posed by inequality and underfunding.
“I believe the state of our city is precarious,” Elicker said on Monday. “We are at an opportunity inflection point, where we could choose to work together, all of us … to take advantage of the growth we are experiencing and harness it for the betterment of all. Or we could work at odds, squandering this exciting moment of change in New Haven. I’m optimistic that the overwhelming majority of us will work together and achieve what now seems unachievable.”
Over the past 34 days, Elicker said, his administration has started that work in earnest with strong executive appointments, continued openness and a tone of trustworthiness. His administration, he said, is composed of diverse individuals who offer a wealth of experience and expertise, consistent with promises he made on the stump.
Elicker also noted that his administration has mirrored the accessibility of his campaign and following transition process — a two-month effort comprised of two town halls collectively boasting nearly 500 attendees, 112 email suggestions, 353 survey responses and 68 meetings with city officials and community leaders. Since assuming office, Elicker has hosted a no-frills inauguration reception — a casual event which city staffer Pat Solomon said was “indicative of [Elicker’s] humble [and] observant” personality — listened to residents over beer and coffee and attended 56 meetings and gatherings around the city. His cell phone number, which he advertised on the campaign trail, has not changed.
Elicker stressed that his concerns are not limited by the scope of his campaign promises — which centered on the tone of his administration — but also include a slew of policy changes he plans to implement over the next two years. He broadly outlined such policies in four buckets: safety, jobs, education and housing.
In terms of safety, Elicker applauded the new police clergy academy, established at the behest of Chief of Police Otoniel Reyes in order to improve relations with the community. He noted that both he and Reyes were present at a protest concerning the death of 19-year-old Mubarak Soulemane at the hands of state troopers on Jan. 15.
On the jobs front, Elicker emphasized a potential opportunity in the form of a new office building at 101 College St. — the plans for which he will present soon. The building, a partnership between the State of Connecticut and developer Carter Winstanley, will offer 500 jobs and structural support to small businesses and startups, making it a hub of commercial activity in a time of economic growth. The city will also offer boot camps and technical assistance to 300 small businesses this year, he said.
Elicker’s priorities for education are early childhood education, play-based learning and restorative practices. He commended Interim Superintendent Dr. Iline P. Tracey for instituting a “much-needed level of calm and stability” and characterized School Board President Yesenia Rivera’s tenure as “an opportunity to take things to the next level.”
But most important among these policy initiatives, Elicker said, is housing.
Given that one third of Elm City residents spend over one half of their incomes on housing, he told attendees, “now is the time” to prioritize local policies like inclusionary zoning in addition to initiatives out of Hartford. On the state level, Elicker plans to work with the state delegation to encourage all Connecticut cities to meet the 10-percent-affordability threshold — one that New Haven meets three times over, but that many neighboring cities do not — and subsidize housing creation. Improving the quality and accessibility of existing housing stock, he said, also deserves attention, particularly given absentee and substandard landlords.
“To the good landlords out there — and there are many — thank you for doing your job, keeping our residents safe, maintaining a clean and healthy living environment,” Elicker said on Monday. “And to the bad landlords — be forewarned, we are coming for you.”
Notably absent from the rigorous policy discussion, however, was the city budget — which was featured prominently in the transition report and will become a hot topic as the mayor’s March 1 deadline approaches.
Elicker’s predecessor and rival on the campaign trail, former Mayor Toni Harp, fell under considerable fire in the last term of her tenure for the city’s financial woes — New Haven has struggled to borrow and spend sustainably as the city’s costs increase while sources of revenue decline or remain mostly static.
While he did not offer a specific vision for the 2020 budget — one that will come, he told the News, in lengthy discussions over the next few months — Elicker underscored the daunting challenges of inequality and underfunding in his Monday remarks.
“The budget is something that we have to tackle and address,” Elicker told the News in an interview. “But it shouldn’t define who we are and what decisions we make. And while many of the things we need to do require money, there’s a lot of things we can do that don’t require money.”
In order to ensure that New Haven’s rapid economic development benefits all residents, he continued, his administration is pursuing policies — like those outlined in his speech — that are directly connected to a vision of inclusive growth.
The Elicker administration is now over one third of the way to its 100-day mark, which serves as the first formal deadline for policies outlined in the transition report.
Mackenzie Hawkins | firstname.lastname@example.org