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Reimagining cities after covid with Brad Lander: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Brad Lander, New York City comptroller, about pandemic-driven changes to cities and this unique moment for reimagining metro areas.

Even if the worst of the pandemic is over, some of the changes it foisted on our lives seem like they're here to stay. In cities around the nation, office space in dense downtown areas is well below full utilization, as workers spend more days working from home. Same goes for public transit weekday ridership. What happens to American cities if they're no longer the place to which people commute each weekday. Our guest this week points out that there’s a great deal that city leaders can learn from each other about reimagining cities during this latter phase of the pandemic. Brad Lander is the comptroller for New York City and serves as the city’s budget watchdog and chief accountability officer. He’s also an urban planner and community organizer. Lander joins WITHpod to discuss some of the key problems NYC and other cities have faced during pandemic recovery, navigating actionable solutions, the role of federal intervention, the uniqueness of this moment in history and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Brad Lander: And I think what happened in the 1970s was pretty different in that it was an existential threat to the economic rationale of the metro area. The businesses, those manufacturing businesses that moved out of the city were moving way out, either to the suburbs or overseas. And that meant it wasn't clear what the economic rationale of the city was, and that only got fixed when, sort of, a certain set of professional managerial jobs and technologies arose, and when immigration brought a lot more people into our cities. But I don't see that kind of shift happening right now.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

So I want you to first, for a second, picture in your head flying over a major American city. You have done this, I'm sure, if you're listening to this podcast. Pick a city, Chicago, or New York, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Boston. What you see as the plane comes out of the city is the relationship between the height of the buildings and the centrality of them, right?

So, like, you know, even in places like Cleveland is a great example, where I think notoriously, a kind of like postindustrial city that really suffered from what was referred to at that time as urban blight and white flight and all these things. You know, you've still got like the major skyscrapers and office buildings that are in downtown Central Cleveland. Big cities that are totally sprawled out, like Houston, for instance, have that same dynamic, although it's a little less like Central there, but same thing, right? Dallas definitely is like this.

And what this basic kind of topographical fact about American cities reflects is this basic spatial relationship between like at the center, the core and the outer areas, right? The central area that everyone can access is the downtown, the central business district often. That is where a lot of office workers go. There's a commute from that central area out.

Now, this has changed over time. There's been, you know, a period of time in which downtowns were completely gutted out. A lot of suburban office parks got built that said, oh, you know what, since our workers now, our workers who have engaged in white flight have fled the inner city, you know, we're going to build our office parks out there. No one has to even touch downtown anymore. So there was a lot of that that happened.

There was also, I think in the 2000s, this kind of downtown boom, which was really interesting, partly because for a bunch of complicated reasons, a lot of it having to do with a really significant decline in crime, particularly violent crime that happened during that period, where you've had this sort of big comeback of these downtowns. Places that had been sort of left for dead and now were now being reoccupied with businesses, offices, lofts, all that stuff.

We're now in this new phase of this core, urban spatial relationships. It's a really important one. In fact, it's a real engine and driver of a huge amount of commerce and local GDP. And it also kind of spatially dictates a huge amount about how we move about the world. Even if you don't live near that central business downtown, even if you live in the periphery of a metro area, the development and the means by which services or provision and commerce happens and jobs are offered really revolve around these sort of central spatial questions.

And we are now in this post COVID era, where there is a real question of like, why is anyone commuting into the central business district? Like, you know, let's say you live 45 minutes out, and the whole premise is you get on the morning commute. You know, the opening scene of "Working Girl," she's in Staten Island, she's got to go into Midtown. She's got her sneakers. She changed into her pumps. It's like, well, why do you do that? Like, you could be a paralegal on Staten Island, just do it remotely.

And what we've seen in the numbers of all kinds of places, if you look in New York which is sort of sui generis, which we'll get into, but just in terms of, you know, have public transportation ridership numbers in weekday commutes recovered to 2019? The answer is, no, I think essentially almost everywhere.

Something fundamental has changed in the flows of commuting, the idea of the central business district, the idea of like the core and the periphery. That relationship has changed many times before in the last 100 years, particularly, you know, through all the things I talked about, the highways being built through by Robert Moses and his like, the urban blight, the slum clearance, the white flight, the suburban office park, the downtown Renaissance boom.

Now, we're in some new era and what does it look like, and what does it mean for cities, and not just cities, metro areas, right? Because metro areas have these really complex ecosystems. And I've been thinking a lot about this. Obviously, if you listen to the podcasts, you know that I love cities, born and raised in New York City, I live in New York City now. I've lived in Chicago and Washington, D.C. I love public transportation. I love street life. I love all the things that make a city a city and make a metro area work. And I'm worried about what this next phase is. But I also see, like, enormous opportunity.

I've been wanting to talk about this topic for a while and I found the perfect person to talk about it today. Also a fellow city lover, a fellow Brooklynite. Brad Lander is the New York City Comptroller, which means he was elected recently citywide. It's an interesting kind of Swiss Army knife job. Crucially, the kind of city's budget watchdog is a big thing, the chief accountability officer. He's also an urban planner, a community organizer.

He was my city council representative in Brooklyn, in the Brooklyn neighborhood I live in. I should say, for full disclosure, I consider him a friend. His daughter has babysat for my kids. But he is like me, like a real urban enthusiast and urban ecosystem nerd. So it's great to have Brad Lander on the podcast. Welcome, Brad.

Brad Lander: Thank you. So great to be with you.

Chris Hayes: So we're sort of saying New York is sui generis, but I think a lot of the things that New York is going through, other cities are.

Brad Lander: That’s right.

Chris Hayes: So let's just start with like the level setting. What is the difference? We're four years past 2019, right, the last year that we had a fully pre-pandemic life, like what's changed in these basic spatial commuting commerce flows in a place like New York?

Brad Lander: So Central Business District Office occupancy is, just on any given day, dramatically below where it was. For New York City, it's right about 50 percent.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: That's a big drop.

Brad Lander: A big drop. And that's everywhere. That's 10 percent above Philadelphia, which is about 40 percent; and 10 percent below Houston, which is at 60 percent, more or less. And obviously, it's higher Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; and lower on Mondays and Fridays.

The subway ridership is a little better than that. Subway ridership is back to 60 percent of its pre-pandemic levels on the weekdays and a little higher on the weekends, which actually speaks to the fact that people still want to come in for culture and music and shows. But, yes, I mean, people, pre-pandemic, you know, almost everyone in an office job and the kind of job that could be done remotely, you had 70 percent of those folks still full-time in-person and a few people remote, and some people hybrid.

And now, that's really flipped to where something like between 50 and 60 percent of people are hybrid, you know, something like a quarter of people are remote, and fewer than a quarter of people are in the office five days a week. I think more and more people are trending to hybrid. There was a really interesting Gallup Poll that showed, you know, that definitely some people who are in those five days a week would like hybrid. But interestingly, about 40 percent of the people that are fully remote want hybrid too. So it looks like that's where we're heading. To me, it looks like we're heading to where the norm is somebody in one of those jobs works in the office about three days a week and is remote the other two.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. The thing you said there, I think it's just worth sort of pausing on because you said, you know, obviously it's Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and more vacant on Monday and Friday. But this is all new, right?

Brad Lander: Yes, totally.

Chris Hayes: It's obvious in the modern context. But, you know, five years ago, if you said to someone, if you're talking with friends and you all have office jobs, and someone is working at a law firm. And you said to them, you know, the place I work, I get to stay home Monday and Friday. They'd be, like, that is so great.

Brad Lander: Totally.

Chris Hayes: That’s amazing. It's like, oh, yeah, it's amazing, I get to go pick my kid up after school. And again, we should be very clear, we're talking about a certain strata of workers, right?

Brad Lander: That’s right.

Chris Hayes: If you're a steel worker, if you're working construction, you know, if you're a service worker --

Brad Lander: Yeah. If you're delivering food to the people that are working at home.

Chris Hayes: -- if you're delivering food. Exactly, right. Like, you have not been able to grab this sort of amazing time bonus, which is, you know, getting somewhere between three to seven hours of your life back not commuting, right? I guess the question is how durable it is, right?

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: So just to push back for a second, one idea is we have a very, very tight labor market that has pushed, you know, particularly for white-collar workers, sort of bargaining power in their direction, which allows them to do this. But if that goes away, then everyone is going to go back to the office and this is all going to seem like a blip. What do you think of that?

Brad Lander: Look, things are still settling in, as you say. People are still experimenting, and new dynamics are being found. I'll give one example. But I think we're going to stay in this hybrid direction. Yesterday, I went to visit HarperCollins, a book publisher that's been around 200 years in Manhattan. I actually visited them because I was on the picket line. Their workers were on strike for about eight weeks.

So the only unionized book publisher there, at 195 Broadway, which used to be the AT&T building, this glorious old marble building. They're back a couple of days a week. And they've got these beautiful offices, like it made me want to write a book just so I could publish a book with them because being in their space was so great.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Publisher offices can be very nice. Yeah.

Brad Lander: But for them, like on the one hand, if you're editing a book, obviously being at home in your room is great. But you want to work for a publisher because you want to meet those authors when they come in.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right, right.

Brad Lander: And you need to wow those authors to want to be part of your team and see the beautiful design work that they do. So it turns out this thing that located in lower Manhattan 200 years ago, because it was near the wharf and they could grab the manuscripts coming from Britain --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- and get them to the printer. And that it went through this whole ‘70s period in Midtown in kind of quiet corporate offices, now are great in an open plan workspace that people some days can be in and meet authors, and collaborate, and do really interesting design work. And some days you can be at home editing that book in the quiet of your home office, or your bedroom, or whatever it is.

And people are going to find that differently in different sectors, of course, because what's good for collaboration and what you can do on your own. So I think we're still settling into those patterns. But I'll be surprised if something like a hybrid work doesn't stick around for some time to come.

Chris Hayes: What does your office do?

Brad Lander: We are three days a week in person, two days a week remote. That started in September of 2021. Interestingly, all the mayoral agencies, everyone was required to come back five days a week. The mayor just agreed to some creativity there. Public sector workers have been pushing for the ability to have some hybrid models and we'll see how that goes.

And we just really actually put new policies in place because we came back three days a week in the middle of the emergency and just said, all right, this is what we're going to do to kind of have social distancing. And now, we did a big survey of all our employees to ask, what do you like? And we are now trying to be more conscious of, okay, if we say we need to be in the office because it's for teamwork and collaboration and mentorship, are we tracking those things? Are we making sure people are getting their mentorship?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: And then when people are working at home, what are the policies? Because, you know, most people will do their job there, but if (ph) you got a big team, and so you know someone is really just taking Fridays off.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: That's not good for your whole team if you think, well, how come that guy is not really working? So what are the new expectations around how rapidly you respond to an email or a phone call? And we just put new policies in place that I think are going to be, hopefully, like a model for other parts of government.

Chris Hayes: I'm laughing because one of the blessings and curses of my job, it's the big blessing and the big curse, is that it has an incredibly transparent work product. So no one can, like, pretend to be working.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: We got, like, the graphic is produced or it's not, the script is in (ph) or it's not. So for us, you know, it's interesting in that way. We know everyone is working because the thing's got to get on air. All the different component pieces have a very hard deadline. But --

Brad Lander: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- we produce it or not.

Brad Lander: Our office is a little different because, like --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: Did you update the capital asset ledger for the city of New York?


Chris Hayes: Right.


Brad Lander: You know, that’s just not, like, transparent every day.

Chris Hayes: Okay. So this part of the conversation, you know, this is about sort of why people want to be in the office or not, and all that stuff. But let's talk about the ripple effects --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- because this is the part of it that I'm really obsessed with, right?

Brad Lander: Yes.

Chris Hayes: So it's like, okay, 50 percent fewer people. You know, I was thinking there was some point during the winter, this winter, where the tree was up in Rockefeller Center and it was like properly packed in the way it used to be, and I realized that it hadn't been that way in probably three years. And I also remembered how nuts Midtown typically was. I mean, obviously, around the tree in Rockefeller Center, which is its own special kind of Hell. But, you know, the iconic movie shot, right, where the camera goes about 12 feet above a Midtown street and there's just this mass of humanity, it's just not like that now.

Brad Lander: Yup.

Chris Hayes: I mean, it's just not like that. And so there's businesses. There's fares for MTA. There's rents and commercial real estate. I mean, talk through the ripple effects, you know, economically and in terms of this ecosystem of that change.

Brad Lander: Absolutely. So we'll start in Midtown or in the central business district of any city. But I also want to ripple it out to what's going on in the neighborhoods where now people are working from home and what kind of things are happening there.

Chris Hayes: Yes. No. Exactly.

Brad Lander: Starting in the central business district, so we have a lot of office vacancies. Office vacancies were about 10 percent before the pandemic. They're at about 20 percent now, that space that's just not under contract. And it's overwhelmingly in Class B and C buildings. It turns out like the new Class A glitzy trophy office buildings, everyone wants to be in there, and so people move in there. But that empties out the Class B and C buildings. There was actually a portfolio of those that just went into bankruptcy last week in New York City. So those are really getting hit hard.

Chris Hayes: Well, you just explained that's like an official designation?

Brad Lander: No. Actually, it turns out it's less official than you would think. But, you know, these are older office buildings that just don't have modern amenities. There's a set of them that are built. You know, think of ‘70s or ‘80s style building kind of, you know, glass. And then there's the even older set, which might be lovely from the outside, but they just don't have efficient floor plates. And businesses just are less likely to want to be in them.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: And in some cases, you'll take a cheaper rent there. But in a lot of cases, those buildings are emptying out. And so the folks that own them have a set of challenges, interest rates are rising, their tenants are moving out. And people are looking for different uses of those buildings. Can we convert them to housing? Can we convert them to biotech labs? Can we convert them to childcare? Should we knock them down and let a big residential building get built where they stood?

So all of that is going to take some time to figure out. I think of this as like, you know, a generation ago, you mentioned this, the manufacturing jobs fled the city. We had all these manufacturing buildings and warehouses.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: Decades later, they became the new kind of cool urban mall. Here, we got our Industry City, or Chelsea Market, or lofts. But it took several decades for that to happen. So we don't want that to happen. We want these spaces to get repositioned and repurposed.

But then, you know, downstairs, somebody ran a lunch counter business, or somebody had a shoeshine business, or people did the dry cleaning near work rather than home. And those folks have seen really big hits, you know, just restaurants. In a lot of cases, those are the restaurants that closed down totally and never reopen.

Chris Hayes: You mentioned dry cleaning, and I just had a conversation with our dry cleaner in our neighborhood is closing.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And the reason she's closing is no one is getting their dry cleaning anymore --

Brad Lander: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- because no one is going to the office. And I hadn't even thought of that. But it's like, oh, right, you run this business for 12 years. And again, I guess, you know, creative destruction is what it is, but I felt bad for her. And it's like I hadn't even thought of that.

Brad Lander: Well, I guess, whatever, you still dress up at night. So, you know, I come to the office in a tie, so my dry cleaner is so happy with me. But this is an interesting example just because people are still eating lunch, right? So that's a question of where you're eating lunch. So that lunch counter business in Midtown is pretty likely to, you know, have closed. But we saw restaurants open all throughout the outer boroughs and the suburbs.

Actually, new business creation, new establishment creation in 2021 and 2022 was off the charts. And that is that creative destruction. New lunch businesses were opening in Crown Heights or in Hoboken, or all throughout metro area.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: Now, if you were the person who had invested your life’s savings in a Midtown lunch business, that's terrible for you.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: But there were these new business opportunities, but not in dry cleaning.

Chris Hayes: So the big challenge to me seems to be this idea of the sort of dinosaur commercial real estate, right? So you've got enormous amount of built infrastructure, you've got these huge office buildings, and this is in a lot of places, right?

Brad Lander: Yep.

Chris Hayes: You know, this, I think, probably transfers city to city to city. At the current levels of occupancy, my sense is that they're not going to necessarily be particularly viable, particularly the combination of occupancy and interest rate, right?

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Because commercial real estate tends to be very interest sensitive, because these people are all, you know, dealing in a lot of debt.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: You know, what you don't want, I guess, is like a repeat of like the hollowing out of the downtown of the 1970s, where it all kind of goes away, eyes on the street disappear, and you get this kind of tumbleweed blowing through the area kind of vibe.

Brad Lander: Though, I do want to start by saying I think what happened in the 1970s was pretty different, and that it was an existential threat to the economic rationale of the metro area. The businesses --

Chris Hayes: Explain that.

Brad Lander: -- the manufacturing businesses that moved out of the city --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- were moving way out, either to the suburbs or overseas. And it wasn't clear what the economic rationale of the city was.

Chris Hayes: Ah, yeah.

Brad Lander: And that only got fixed when a certain set professional managerial jobs and technologies arose, and when immigration brought a lot more people into our cities. But I don't see that kind of shift happening right now. The remote work doesn't mean people aren't here in the same kinds of businesses that wanted to be in the metropolitan areas, pre-pandemic.

We actually have seen growth in tech, growth in healthcare, growth in social services. And what's down now, our retail, hospitality, restaurants. But averaged metropolitan-wide, New York City is back to 98 percent of the jobs we had pre-pandemic. And we were hit the hardest of any city.

So our metro area economy remains strong. But, yes, what do we do in Midtown, in the central business districts? You know, both, because we need the life on the street. So what innovations in the public realm, what can we do to have some more pedestrian streets? Those things like the open-air restaurants that help drive traffic, some cities have done really interesting experiments and taken ground floors and turned them over to artists. Some people are trying interesting experiments in childcare.

So how do we invest in the public realm and keep new ideas sort of moving? That really is critical. How do we deal with the implications of the shift for the tax base? Obviously, that matters. The shift is, you know, if we wind up with more people working from home in the suburbs, and they order lunch from their neighborhood restaurant, in some ways, that's okay. The work is still in the metro area and, you know, there's the folks who are working in that restaurant. But if New York City is collecting less taxes, or especially --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- subway farebox, you know, the subway, the MTA relies on that farebox revenue. So we have some tax base shift work to do, and we have some public realm work to do. And boy, we've got more equal economy work to do. Because if we're talking about folks who are now deliveristas (ph), and they don't get health care, and they don't have any benefits or any minimum wage protections, then we need to rethink how we're building a more equal economy. But we do still have a thriving metropolitan economy. So the ‘70s comparisons, I just urge people, you know, to pause with.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's a great point. I mean, the idea of the economic logic of the city, at a certain point, falling apart. And then, there's, of course, the race aspect too, right --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- which is that, you know, you get the big northern migration, you get these very segregated cities, and then the manufacturing base goes away, and the white flight all sort of comes together and hollows it out.

Brad Lander: Sadly, it might be that racially motivated fear of cities is the most constant thing across these --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Totally.

Brad Lander: -- generational shifts.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So what about this idea of reuse? I mean, what do you do with these buildings? Like, I guess here's the example that I think about all the time. We think about the lofts, right? The loft is this iconic thing, right? Because buildings that were built for industrial manufacturing purposes, then they stick around, their physical structure exists for these huge open floors, where you can get a bunch of people sewing shirts together, right? They're not broken up in the way department is.

And then artists move into them because no one wants to use them, because the manufacturing left and the artists need big space. And then this becomes its own sort of desirable aesthetic and becomes things that now people do new loft construction, which itself is kind of funny, right? Like, you know, I think people romanticize that --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- shift and there's some idea like, is there a version of like the office --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- an open office plan loft in Midtown, that you reuse in some creative way?

Brad Lander: Yeah. I'm going to say something a little iconoclastic here because I'm a planner and I love adaptive reuse. But I'm a little skeptical that there’ll be enough Class B and C conversions. Housing is really hard. You don't have a core. You don't have light. You lose space when you convert from office to residential. Some of that is happening. But it's really expensive and hard to make work.

I thought, oh, East Midtown, what a great place for more biotech labs. We've got this new biotech and life sciences center on Roosevelt Island. So I was all gung ho on that, because I'm thinking, sure, you could use those for labs. But I talked to the folks, they're like, actually, the model of Class B and C buildings is not really good for modern lab space. You can't control the HVAC. So it won't surprise me if what ultimately happens with some of these buildings is that they get torn down and we allow the building to be taller.

You know, if we told Class B and C owners, you could tear down your building and build something 25 percent bigger that was residential. That would be great for the kind of housing supply --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- that we really need. And look, housing affordability was a problem before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it significantly worse. Partly, more people working from home means you like a two-bedroom rather than a one because somebody --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- needs to be working at home. And then if you've got a tight housing market, which we had before and many other cities had before, for a range of reasons we could talk about, and then you just churn it. You know, a lot of people move out, and then they move back, and you've got the same amount of demand facing constricted supply, prices get driven up.

So New York City Housing prices are still, you know, 15 percent above where they were at the beginning, I mean, before the pandemic. So, you know, these creative ideas of things that could produce more housing supply, you know, are certainly one thing we want to be looking at.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And that point there, I think, is a really important one. We've touched on this in other conversations. It's not quite one to one. But there's actually a spatial transfer happening, right? Like, the desk that you used to sit at has been transferred somewhere.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: If it's been transferred to your apartment, you know, and you were in a one bedroom, now want to be a two bedroom, whatever. You're in a suburban house and you bought a new house during the pandemic, which again, the markets were going nuts, right, because you wanted the place that had a finished basement that you can then work out. Like, all of this transfer that happened, it's like the space is not used in central business district, it is being used everywhere else. And you've got, you know, high vacancy rates with the commercial office buildings and --

Brad Lander: Yep.

Chris Hayes: -- and low vacancy rates in residential. Like, if this is going to stick around, you already needed more housing --

Brad Lander: Yep.

Chris Hayes: -- in most American metro areas, but you really need more housing now.

Brad Lander: Yes, absolutely. And hopefully, those conversions will be one source of that.

On housing, though, let's take one step back because I'm a big, like, let's produce more housing guy. But I want to just encourage people to kind of think it through a little, especially those of us who, you know, know the challenges, the problems that markets cause.

Because, now, if you go all the way back to that manufacturing city that we were talking about, where you had working-class people doing manufacturing jobs in the city, that was a city that had a lot of working-class housing. Then you have this era of white flight and abandonment and transition, and that more professional managerial economy, where kind of have high-end jobs, and people want to be living in the city, and then a lot of service jobs and immigration, was a very two-tier kind of economy, very unequal economy. It's hard to have a housing market like that because new production --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: -- would like to produce for the high end of it. And there's always pressure on working-class homes to upscale them, and just more supply won't really help. You need more supply, but you also need tenant protections to prevent people from getting thrown out of their homes. And you need to do things to make sure some chunk of that supply is at a wider range of incomes.

That was true all over the last couple of decades. But after the Great Recession, then housing supply really gets constrained. Some of the adjustments that were understandably made, diminish housing production for the last 10 years, then the pandemic comes and roils at all again.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: So we've got a big set of challenges. And you know, conversions of office buildings or tear down and rebuild of office buildings is one important idea. More supply in the places that have resisted housing development in those suburbs is critical. But we are also going to need a new era of tenant protections to keep people from getting thrown out of their homes, and a lot more deeply affordable and what I like to call social housing. That's like a public option in the housing market, like we have in higher ed or health care.

You know, if you grew up in the Bronx, the Bronx has Co-op City, Amalgamated houses and Parkchester --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- multifamily, what where working class, and in many cases still remain working-class --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- affordable homeownership. So this would be a great era. If we're going to have creative destruction, let's have it produce some new social and affordable housing all throughout the metro economy.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. There's a bunch of different interesting models, not to get like to housing finance policy in the weeds here. But, like, you know, Amalgamated, which I had friends in growing up, which was through the garment workers’ union, the union which has another development down in Manhattan with this sort of like, kind of prorated, you know, affordable co-op system, where you kind of buy a share and you own it, but you can only sell at a certain level, so it can't appreciate.

Then Co-op City, which my grandparents actually moved into. They moved from, you know, the South Bronx to an apartment in Co-op City. You know, they went from renting to buying, which was another model of affordable purchase. Like, the biggest challenge nationwide, in every city, and I think that's a really good point about the sort of housing market destruction and Great Recession aftermath of, like, below trend, new housing, construction, and COVID. Then the kind of train wreck of that is creating an opportunity to have a middle-class life in a city --

Brad Lander: Yep.

Chris Hayes: -- which is, you know, good schools, a home that is secure and gives you some space, and a job that you can get to fairly easy commuting, and a multiracial middle class. That's like the toughest thing.

Brad Lander: Hear, hear.

Chris Hayes: Right? No, but that's what they meant to me (ph). That's what I love about New York --

Brad Lander: Of course.

Chris Hayes: -- like, as a Bronx kid. You know, all different kinds of people living near each other, interacting with each other --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- working together, like that is what makes places great.

Brad Lander: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And it's hard to secure that from a policy level. That's really got to be the focus of the post-COVID era, I think.

Brad Lander: Absolutely. And that's a lot of pieces. That's, you know, more equality in the economy itself.

Chris Hayes: Right. That's the tricky thing. That's the tricky thing.

Brad Lander: But let's recognize that the labor insurgency that's going on is a part of that. Those manufacturing jobs weren't middle class because it came down on from high that they would be. Like unions, you know, turn manufacturing jobs into safer and more middle-class jobs.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Brad Lander: So Starbucks workers who are organizing, or deliveries who are organizing, or workers in the care economy who are organizing are saying these are urban jobs. We need them to have health care, to have job stability, to pay better. So, you know, whatever, our pension funds are big investors in some of those companies. And so we've brought a shareholder resolution at Starbucks to try to hold it to account for its violations of its workers' rights to organize. But how great was it that the judge ordered Howard Schultz to read the workers --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- their rights to organize. Anyway, so lots to do to try to make the economy more equal, all its challenges. but there are some good urban innovations, supporting, organizing Fair Workweek legislation for retail and restaurant workers. So that's one element. As I mentioned, I was at the HarperCollins because they're the one unionized book publisher. We're seeing in journalism, all this great organizing.

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: But housing affordability is probably the key problem cities all over are trying to figure out what to do. We need more supply. We need more supply at affordable prices. I hope we get back to, because those things like Co-op City and Penn-South and Amalgamated, were not only we need affordable housing, so folks who are homeless can get a place to rent, which we sure do, but also we need housing that working and middle-class families can afford to buy.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: We haven't been doing that in a generation and --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- this would be a great time to start doing it again.

Chris Hayes: I mean, this really is something. You're an elected official. You have this job as, you know, elected by all of New Yorkers, and I'm not going to ask you to play pundit here. So I'll give my little editorial, but then I'll go to you, which is just like, you know, I was watching the (ph) Chicago, I'm very close to Chicago. I lived in Chicago. My wife is from Chicago. I have friends there, dear friends.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I love the city.

Brad Lander: Mine too (ph), that daughter you mentioned, she's at school there now. So I've also got several eyes on Chicago.

Chris Hayes: She's at school there now. You went to school there.

Brad Lander: I went to school there. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: It's an amazing city. I will forever love Chicago. And they just had their mayoral election, and the incumbent Lori Lightfoot was turfed-out, only got 16 percent in this sort of open election --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- which is a remarkably low number for an incumbent. And basically, there's a whole bunch of reasons for that, that have to do with Lori Lightfoot and how she did her job. But when you take a step back, you know, I just think when you look around, it's like mayor of big city during COVID is in like top 3 hardest jobs.

Brad Lander: Really hard. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And just generally, when you talk about the larger structural forces in the economy and then you give someone that keys to be the mayor, I mean, I guess, I'm coming around and it's like a very hard job, which obviously does. But the structural forces that are bearing down on you to try to get to, with the power that you have as a mayor, it does seem like there's a mismatch a little bit --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- between those two. You know, when you talk about, like, the economy sort of is what it is, and the labor and all this stuff, but you can't control all of that as a mayor.

Brad Lander: No.

Chris Hayes: Like, you really can't.

Brad Lander: No. I mean, obviously, you know, crime rates are the big thing people are looking at.

Chris Hayes: Huge.

Brad Lander: And all the evidence suggests that the trends are macro, you know, and has every reason to believe that the trends after the pandemic are, because pandemic sociopathy and unwellness and isolation --

Chris Hayes: Massively exploded.

Brad Lander: -- did a lot of harm --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: -- to a lot of people. And no mayor had some tools for fixing that. And look, a big part of what saved our cities, including New York, in the very early days was great federal policy that invested tens of dollars --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: -- and giving our city money to be able to keep our schools going even though we weren't, you know, collecting tax revenue. And we did a calculation of how much, so New York City got about $26 billion for our basic city operations. But New York households and businesses, if you look at the American Rescue Plan and the PPP loan program for businesses, got about $100 billion.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Brad Lander: And in the Bronx, for example, it was just enough to keep growth incomes at slightly above zero. So the federal interventions --

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Brad Lander: -- saved our cities from recession. No mayor on their own could do something that would make up for that --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- at any kind of scale. But then, yes, these challenges of like, can you keep your city safe? How are you dealing with your housing and real estate development policies? What are you doing about transit? Just even garbage, you know, when I was asking people in 2021 as I was running, what are you thinking about? They’d be like, the city, the rats are everywhere, let's just get the garbage picked up.

Chris Hayes: Brad, don't get me started on the garbage. Do not get me started on the garbage. Do not get me started on the citation the New York City Department of Sanitation gave me for not properly winding (ph) up my cardboard the other day. I got a 15-minute rant about that. I'm going to spare everyone that. Dare (ph) you, how dare you --

Brad Lander: You and the mayor together.

Chris Hayes: -- New York Department of Sanitation, citing me for my improper cardboard binding.

Brad Lander: But running a city is hard. You know, this is --

Chris Hayes: But there's actually a real specific zoom-in here, which is the public transportation aspect of this --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- which is such an important part, right? It's poorly understood, the degree to which expanding public transportation is just like absolutely necessary to meet climate goals.

Brad Lander: Yup.

Chris Hayes: You know, like, you can electrify everything, all the cars, you're still going to have to expand public transportation.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: It's just way more efficient in terms of like per person, per mile moved. And every public transportation agency was saved by federal intervention. Thank goodness.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But that road is running out, and it's like the federal money is not going to be there, and they're all down, whatever, 50 percent in fares. I'm just really worried about what that cliff looks like.

Brad Lander: Yeah. That is a real thing we need to pay attention to. There is some promising innovation going on. I will take, like, the free buses work (ph). So Kansas City made their buses free. D.C. is about to make their buses free. Michelle Wu, great mayor of Boston, did a few free bus lines. So that's an example there. Those are all funded with pandemic federal relief, but people are not going to want to go back.

You know, I think about those moments in the early days of the pandemic, when we made our buses free here, they were only full of essential and frontline workers. And because there was no traffic on the street, the buses were actually great.

Chris Hayes: So fast.

Brad Lander: They were a meaningful form of mass transportation. So what would it look like to try? And look, we need the revenue. And Albany is debating it this year, how we make up the lost farebox revenue. But if fewer people are commuting every day from kind of outer borough neighborhood or suburbs into the central business district, but more people have different kinds of service jobs, or personal care work, and are going between neighborhoods, this is a moment when we have to look at --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- where are the shifts? And yeah, probably, that'll be for New York City, a shift from rail to bus because you just can't lay down new intra-neighborhood tracks so quickly. But you can move to bus rapid transit. You can protect the, you know, new bus and bike lanes, and we will need to. And the federal government will have to provide some resources to help. But cities will need to be bold and willing to, like, take on the parking, you know, like, people don't want to give up their parking. But if we're going to make a transition to more public transit, to more bike lanes, to more effective buses, one thing that will have to go is all the parking we have.

Chris Hayes: Well, yeah, that's true, although that's a whole other talk about another implacable force that you might face as a mayor,

Brad Lander: Funny (ph) that we call it a third rail, though, you know.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. It's exactly the third rail parking. And also this is another example, to me, of the lag, right? The thing that is so dynamic about cities is they move so fast, right? They adapt, and they change so fast. They’re fascinating organisms that way.

But built environments move slowly, right? So like that thing you're talking about, neighborhood to neighborhood transport. Well, you know, look at the New York City subway map, right? All but one line goes from Manhattan, right? The G is the only one that never touches Manhattan. If you look at Chicago, L map, right? It's all this hub and spoke model. Everything goes in (ph) the Loop. That's why the Loop is called the Loop, everything goes around the little circle, and they go out to the neighborhoods, right?

So if you want to move from one neighborhood to the adjacent neighborhood, like, you know, buses, other means. But that built environment, which is decades, decades old, is built around a spatial relationship that's going to, you know, not obtain necessarily. So this question of like, building new infrastructure for the new frontier is a really important one, too.

Brad Lander: Although sometimes it's much more politics than physical infrastructure, and I'll give the example here. For most of my time, I was in the city council for 12 years. And from the beginning, a concern I had was that the pedestrian walk and bike way over the Brooklyn Bridge was way too crowded --

Chris Hayes: What a ridiculous --

Brad Lander: -- and dangerous to ride over. And so I had this great idea.

Chris Hayes: Wait.

Brad Lander: Go ahead. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: You're underselling it.

Brad Lander: Yeah, please.

Chris Hayes: Allow me to put a little cable news --

Brad Lander: Please.

Chris Hayes: -- into this. This was the most maniacal mile of transport in all of New York City because it was the famed Brooklyn Bridge, which tourists from all over the world come to. It's beautiful. It's breathtaking view. And there's one walkway that all the bikes and the pedestrians, and the performers and the people taking selfies is on, and it was just a ludicrous cluster that was, like, completely dangerous for years.

Anyway, continue.

Brad Lander: Totally. So I, you know, joined up with a set of people that have the idea that we need to make that pedestrian walkway wider. And we did a design competition. And we talked about whether the cables were strong enough. You know, I thought we had built a strong enough coalition. But a decade later, we still hadn't gotten it done.

The thing no one had thought about in that decade, finally, once the pandemic hit, people realized you know what, you could take one lane of traffic that drives over that bridge and turn it into a bike lane. And you could get both, you know, bikes in both directions for one lane of traffic and you would have a great protected bike lane.

Luckily, traffic had dropped during the pandemic. But now, we're back, you know, to 100 percent traffic levels and it's more or less as it was before. The pedestrian walkway is magical without the bikes.

Chris Hayes: It's totally transformed. Yeah.

Brad Lander: People walk or jog. And we didn't need a multimillion dollar --

Chris Hayes: That's a great point. Great point.

Brad Lander: -- infrastructure project. We needed enough political will to take one lane of traffic and convert it from cars to bikes.

Chris Hayes: Great point. Literally, nothing got built, except for, like, a small little barrier. Like, they painted the lane and they put a barrier.

Brad Lander: It costs almost nothing.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, like, those little concrete sort of barrier between the bikes and the cars. Yeah, that is a great point and promising, right, for thinking about this transformation --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- because I do think, right, it's easy to think in the sort of like very engineering-centric sort of built environment-centric ways. But there may be much cheaper, faster, more interesting ways of making those adaptations along the routes that people are now moving.

Brad Lander: And this takes work. And as your great episode on e-bikes got into, you know, like, that's a new transportation that is shifting a bunch of things about our city. Some of that is commuting, some of that is delivery. We need to think about it in new ways. Some of that is just, okay, so where are we going to be willing to take away parking or lane a traffic and make it infrastructure for this. But some of this is going to be fire safety regulation because we don't want buildings catching on fire when the batteries are all in one place.

Chris Hayes: Yep.

Brad Lander: And some of this is economic and worker protection because DoorDash and Uber Eats workers are working every single day. And the fact that those companies think they should only have to pay them for when they're on a trip and not when they're waiting for the next one, or that they don't need --

Chris Hayes: So crazy.

Brad Lander: -- health care or childcare or unemployment benefits. So this is a good time to be thinking about what those transitions look like.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: You mentioned this before, you talked about the pension funds. But since I have you here, this is related to the work that you do and sort of adjacent to what we've been discussing. But one of the big things you do, what are you, the custodian of the pension funds? Well, I don't even know what the term is.

Brad Lander: Custodian, investment manager and actually a trustee on the funds themselves.

Chris Hayes: So these are big pools of money?

Brad Lander: Yeah. New York $240 billion across the city's five pension funds, which is the retirement savings for our teachers, and firefighters and school crossing guards.

Chris Hayes: Are you the person that, like, you sit here in front of, like, one of those setups, like nine different screens, and you're like, oh, we got to buy this and sell that.

Brad Lander: My team does. You know, I hire a chief investment officer. And the comptroller's office has about 700 people, about 120 of them are in the Bureau of Asset Management. And yes, I mean, it's long-term investing, so they're not stock traders. They're not day traders.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: But, yes, they've got this $240 billion portfolio that's invested in stocks and bonds, and private equity, and real estate, and alternative credit. And, yeah, we take it real seriously, both, because obviously, the retirement of all of those public sector workers is a promise. Because if we don't get good returns, then the city has to put more money into the pensions, and that's what we want to be paying our teachers and childcare and public hospitals.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: And because we have to think responsibly about how that money is invested in the economy, in ways that are consistent with the thriving of the city and the planet, as it has been a big debate recently.

Chris Hayes: So, yeah, I want to talk about this. I'm talking to you on a day when Congress has just passed now, I think it got both houses, in the House, and then you just passed I think 50 to 47 in the Senate.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I think it's something rescinding or overriding what had been an executive resolution, I think, from the administration, about the ability for folks like yourself, I think, right?

Brad Lander: Yup.

Chris Hayes: Was it for pension managers, basically?

Brad Lander: Yeah. This is actually for private sector, or what are called ERISA plans.

Chris Hayes: Okay.

Brad Lander: But, yes --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- it's the same general principle.

Chris Hayes: The idea that you could evaluate investment decisions with, what is it, ESG? What does it stand for?

Brad Lander: Yeah. They call it ESG, that's environmental, social which is a big category that could include workers’ rights, or racial inequality, or G is governance, policies in place. So ESG, I like just to say responsible investing because ESG, no one ever heard of.

And, yeah, the fact that the Republicans have fixated on this is a little bonkers. If you had told me a year ago, there'd be a category that included critical race theory, gas stoves, and ESG investing, mostly, I would have said, I think you're standing too close to your gas stove, Chris. But --


Chris Hayes: Well, I think what's fascinating to me, too, is that like, you know, there's this kind of sense of paranoia that they have lost the culture in toto. And so what used to be the critics of the academy, which they were right that they weren't running the academy at some level. I mean, you know, actually, I take that back. I mean, that sort of --

Brad Lander: They were running Wall Street.

Chris Hayes: Right. But that's debatable about the academy. But now, they've decided that the Pentagon and Wall Street are woke --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- and are crazy lefties and are essentially engaged in cultural revolution. And you know, the Pentagon and Wall Street, and so the Pentagon, first, it was like they were attacking the Pentagon, the Pentagon is doing all this stuff. And now, it's like Wall Street of all places.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Wall Street, and the reason they say is because of this ESG, you know --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- rubric, which to me seems like a lot of like B.S. greenwashing by --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- wealthy corporations that want to like slap some label and could care less about what they're actually doing.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But they're now waging this war against it.

Brad Lander: Well, it's kind of a brilliant culture war on their part because they get to do the bidding of their fossil fuel donors, right? Part of what's happening here is that they --

Chris Hayes: That's a huge part of it.

Brad Lander: -- don't want any discipline brought to oil companies --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Brad Lander: -- or the fossil fuel industry. So they get to just do the concrete bidding of their fossil fuel and corporate donors. But they get to say, hey, those folks on Wall Street, you know, wink-wink like maybe they're Jews, are looking down their noses at like real working people, by which I guess they mean like coal miners, and kind of making out. And yeah, sure, in some ways, because ESG, one, no one knows what it is, but if they have any sense about it, they think of that kind of, you know, greenwashing or kind of packaging of some exchange traded fund in a way that's designed to make it look good.

You know, we try to take it really seriously here because we hold these $240 billion that is the retirement security of working people who got it because they organized a union. And so, you know, what we do is say, what is the climate risk that's represented in our funds if we don't actually achieve those Paris-aligned goals? Then New York City is going to have to spend billions of dollars more, you know, protecting us from rising season temperatures, and we'll lose tons of money over the decades in our portfolios as value --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: -- is burned up. You know, I mentioned the work we're doing to try to support the Starbucks workers and other workers. Like, if we get a more equal economy, because workers have the right to organize, that's good for our broad flourishing. And if we don't, more inequality is not good for the creativity in our economy.

But, yes, ESG has not really shown itself to be a serious practice. Mostly, it's kind of a brand. Republicans found it for their culture wars. And now, they're doing way better than we are at telling people what it is.

Chris Hayes: Well, I think, actually, that point about the fossil fuel companies is actually very clarifying because I'm like, what is this? It's like, right, that's what it is. I mean, at its core, the fossil fuel companies, which are some of the most powerful and wealthiest corporations on the planet Earth and are also pretty distinct in corporate America in that they really are like unilaterally aligned with Republicans, with some exceptions.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Whereas most of corporate America, most industries are a little more, you know, across both sides. Like, that's the core of this thing, right?

Brad Lander: Totally.

Chris Hayes: There's like an enormously profitable industry that is either going to have to be utterly transformed or go away.

Brad Lander: Yeah. Not a coincidence that Texas was the first state to say we're going to, you know, pull our money out of any investment manager, Blackrock or anybody else, that even hints that they might see that climate risk is financial risk. And you know, ironically, I in the fall, had written BlackRock a letter expressing distress that they're not doing anywhere near enough. They made a commitment to, you know, be Paris aligned and to decarbonize, but they're not going anywhere to where they need to, if we're actually going to achieve goals of being net-zero over the next couple of decades.

But, yes, then ironically, like out of fear that that might work, that some investors might start recognizing that they better make climate transition, Texas elected officials and now other GOP elected officials are, like, if you even blink at that. Now, you know, the irony here is that most of the red states that are doing this don't have very good pension programs for their public sector workers.

So I think BlackRock announced that $4 billion between the states that have moved so far have been pulled. To be clear, the New York City pension funds have, depending on kind of the quarter, between $40 billion and $60 billion invested with BlackRock on our own.

Chris Hayes: Wow. That’s fascinating.

Brad Lander: So big cities and states need to get it together because our interest in responsible fiduciary investing, and not like burning up our portfolios and our planet can't be derailed by this war of political distraction.

Chris Hayes: What I think is fascinating, too, is just like the transformation or evolution of this ideological valence of some of these categories, right? So 20 years ago, when I was younger, it's like, well, there's the market, right? And you know, the Milton Friedman's snide line about the social responsibility of the, you know, CEO is to produce maximal --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- returns to shareholders. I'm paraphrasing, something like that, right? So this idea that social responsibility is ridiculous, but it's the market.

You saw this with energy, right? It's like, the cheapest energy is these (ph) fossil fuels. And you interventionist liberals, you want to subsidize green energy. And now, it's all flipping --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- to the point where, you know, that energy is getting more expensive relative to the cheapness of green energy. And the decisions being made are on less favorable terrain to their, sort of, like, incumbent interests. So now, they're sort of appropriating this kind of activist lens, right? So it's like punishing green energy with taxes, subsidizing fossil fuels, and getting into a kind of like right-wing version of activist investing --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- to try to use their pension power to, like, make the corporations more destructive.

Brad Lander: Totally. Yeah. So then, you know, I mean, some of us want to make, okay, climate risk is financial risk, so don't burn up the planet. But others just want, like, whatever happened to just like market Republicans, who would just be, like, let the market do --

Chris Hayes: Right,

Brad Lander: -- what it wants to do because, yes, what they are doing is the worst of all those things. Like, they're almost like, let's burn up the planet whether the market wants to or not.

Chris Hayes: It's really wild. It's like the market is pricing energy from renewable resources at low, low costs, and making things like coal plants. And you're seeing this and there's even state legislatures, I mean, Wyoming and other places that are like trying to keep coal plants alive that are no longer economically viable.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: You know, it feels very funhouse mirror version of kind of liberal interventionism.

Brad Lander: It does, although I do want to kind of note here that we do have more work to do, those of us that would prefer not to burn up the planet. Because, you know --

Chris Hayes: Yes, definitely.

Brad Lander: -- as an example, another set of the shareholder resolutions were on this spring, there's not yet a single major U.S. bank that has agreed to stop lending for new fossil fuel infrastructure. You know, it's one thing to say we're going to keep lending on an existing oil field.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: But if you say we're willing to lend on a new coal, or a new natural gas, or a new oil project, that's got a 30-year time horizon --

Chris Hayes: Yep.

Brad Lander: -- completely inconsistent to International Energy Agency says, with anybody's Paris-aligned goals for, you know, keeping us below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius. And not one U.S. bank is willing to make that shift yet. So I wish the Republicans actually, you know, had some reason to be worried that we're moving quickly enough, but we're going to have to do more pushing to get there.

Chris Hayes: By the way, I just came across a Fox chyron from I think just a few minutes ago, on Fox Business, Senate votes to reject Biden's woke investing rules.

Brad Lander: Yes.

Chris Hayes: So there you go. That's the --

Brad Lander: You know, woke capitalism is --

Chris Hayes: That’s the shorthand.

Brad Lander: You know, who knew that was thing.

Chris Hayes: Let me bring it back around to sort of cities in the future and we can maybe end on this, which is, how transformational do you think this moment is? Like, I go back and forth on this, right?

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Like, has something fundamental changed, or hasn't it? And how bullish or bearish are you on cities? Because there's a little bit of that, like, kind of negative feedback loop spiral thing that I do worry about --

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- that, you know, again, we saw in the past. And I love cities and I want them to thrive. So what do you think?

Brad Lander: Yeah. I mean, this, I really feel like we're like, you know, balanced on the balance beam, and it's about 50/50. On the one hand, there's a lot of reason to believe that what the energy cities have is really generative and productive. You gave that quick imagining of what it would be like if middle-class folks could have kind of an inclusive multiracial economy that might be enough to support an inclusive multiracial democracy.

But on the flip side, we're not as good as we need to be, just delivering the goods and having --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Brad Lander: -- urban government manage. You know, you get so much bureaucracy and kludge in our politics, you know. And that's, honestly, why I ran for New York City Comptroller, like, I don't like this idea that our ambitious progressive goals are at odds with making government work to get its job done. So delivering good governance in order to support that is hard. And it does feel out of the pandemic, like, solidarity came out a little weaker, some crises.

And Rebecca Solnit has that amazing book --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: -- "A Paradise Built in Hell" about the kinds of crises that could strengthen solidarity. But this one, because it isolated us, and pushed us in our homes, and for a range of other reasons, feels like it's strained to those muscles.

And so, can we rise to that moment and say we could have a more equal economy? Can we invest in public goods like transit and schools? We could. Do we have the political muscle and capacity too? Like, that's a fair question. And I don't even --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brad Lander: I don't want to be bullish or bearish on it. It is what we must do, you know, try everything we can do. But it's a fair question whether we'll be able to deliver it.

Chris Hayes: I'm generally an optimist about these things. I mean, my final thing is I think New York is, in some ways, better. It is better prepared, or in better shape than other places.

Brad Lander: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: There's other cities I worry about more --

Brad Lander: Yeah, for sure.

Chris Hayes: -- than New York. And partly, that's just, you know, when you think about the size of a boat and the waves. You know, it's so enormous that even if the waves get really rocky, like, it's got its own kind of weight. Whereas I think --

Brad Lander: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- smaller cities, I think, are getting thrown around a lot more.

Brad Lander: A hundred percent. Yeah. And like that HarperCollins example I gave, like, we got the book publishing industry here because the authors want to come here, and like not every city has that. So --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Brad Lander: I mean, I remain bullish on New York City and the metropolitan area, and what this place can look like if we keep it inclusive and generative. I think you're right, smaller cities are going to have a harder time. But it's a creative time and some smaller cities, as I mentioned, Kansas City --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Brad Lander: -- was the first one to do free buses. So I think there'll be --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Brad Lander: -- some places that surprise us.

Chris Hayes: Brad Lander is a New York City Comptroller. He serves as the city's budget watchdog and chief accountability officer. He is also an urban planner, community organizer. He was my city council member for a number of years.

It's great to have you on the program, Brad. Thank you so much.

Brad Lander: Lots of fun, Chris. Thank you.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to New York City Comptroller, don't forget the P (ph), Brad Lander. You know me, if you listen to this podcast, I love cities. I love New York City, but I love cities generally. Brad also loves cities. And I'd love to hear what you thought about what we said because I do think it's a really interesting moment, for cities everywhere.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email at And be sure to follow us on the TikTok, searching for WITHpod.

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News. It's produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to