Unorthodox times led to an unorthodox State of the City address from Mayor Lovely Warren on Thursday, as the mayor replaced a formal speech with a release of a short video and a 48-page booklet titled the “Equity and Recovery Agenda.”
The booklet outlined what she saw as her administration’s achievements and plans for the coming year, which included grand visions for disbursing potential tax revenue from legalized marijuana, investments in housing and the arts, as well as a focus on policing alternatives, urban farming, and education, as ways of countering what her administration called “a tale of two cities generations in the making.”
The literature opened with the mayor’s reflections on the historical use of redlining in Rochester, maps detailing the concentration of crime within the city borders, and institutional practices that have reinforced segregation in forms from interest rates to pizza-delivery boundaries.
“We will not overcome our historic inequities in a period of years,” the booklet read. “Our goal is to continue building a record of accomplishment that moves us forward to a day when we can truly say that Rochester is a community where all children have an equal opportunity to succeed and fulfill their dreams.”
Big plans for marijuana
Warren wasted no time seizing on a vision outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo a day earlier to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in New York, detailing plans of her own for how to use the potential tax revenue from pot.
First on her list was the “Housing First Trust Fund,” an umbrella for a variety of ideas for how the city could stabilize community neighborhoods by assisting potential homeowners.
Some of them included helping renters purchase their home, funding the Rochester Land Bank to buy higher quality properties, offering homes for direct sale rather than to a bidding process, providing $25,000 grants for homeowners to rehabilitate their properties, and expanding emergency debt and rent relief resources.
She envisions a diverse swath of real estate stakeholders weighing in on her proposal, from landlords to government social services agencies and the Rochester City-Wide Tenant Union.
“We must all recognize and contribute to helping build the foundation for success for our children and families by ensuring that all Rochesterians have a safe and affordable place to call home,” Warren wrote. “This work will be at the heart of my future efforts as mayor.”
Along with the housing initiatives, Warren pictures marijuana revenue financing an emergency fund, which would offer grants of up to $2,000 to families in need.
Whether legalized marijuana could actually fund those efforts is unclear. Aside from a law not having passed yet, Cuomo has stated that revenue from marijuana, which he estimated to be around $300 million, should be aimed at helping fill the state’s budget shortfall, which sits around $15 billion.
Warren called on the governor to invest a certain amount of marijuana revenue into equity funds, like the Housing First Trust or emergency grants, particularly in neighborhoods whose residents bore the brunt of racially-disproportionate and excessively-penalized pot arrests.
“The funds that result from marijuana legalization must be used to make amends for the decades of damage done to minority communities,” Warren wrote.
The cost of these programs is estimated to be $2-to-5 million.
Policing, and a new Office of Neighborhood Safety
Following the September release of the video of Daniel Prude’s death at the hand of Rochester police officers, the city created the Office of Crisis Intervention Services to coordinate different units poised to respond to mental health crises and domestic disputes.
While relatively small, the office marked the first time the city coordinated police-alternative programs outside RPD and under one roof.
Warren aims to expand that effort by creating a new Office of Neighborhood Safety, which would house numerous violence prevention programs like Pathways to Peace, My Brother’s Keeper, and the ROC Against Gun Violence Coalition.
To start the process, according to her plan, a task force led by Deputy Mayor James Smith would be created to evaluate the effectiveness of current programs as “third branches of emergency services” outside RPD and the Rochester Fire Department.
Warren also doubled down on a residency requirement for RPD officers, a policy she first proposed in August and that is currently prohibited by state law.
“Our police department has to be part of our community, not comprised of those who simply come into our city to police it,” Warren wrote.
A residency requirement faces a tough road. Any attempt to overturn the law will likely face a legal challenge from the Rochester Police Locust Club.
Living wages for healthcare workers, urban gardens, and immigrant support
Warren cited her mother Elrita Warren, a career home health aide who died from complications of COVID-19 in November, as motivation for pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage law for healthcare workers.
The mayor wrote that she planned to work with the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) and local unions to encourage the state to make the wage law.
“It is time we stand up and demand a fair wage for these essential health care workers,” Warren wrote. “Simply put, our medical care system does not work and our most vulnerable would surely suffer.”
Seeking to cultivate more entrepreneurs, Warrens envisions something she called “RocCity HomeGrown,” an urban gardening initiative under the Office of Community Wealth Building.
The goal of that program would be to make city land accessible to people looking to enter the agriculture industry. She wrote that her administration would jumpstart the program by creating a database of plots of land suitable for farming within the city, as well as creating a program for low or no-cost leases of that land.
“Bringing new life to our neglected parcels to help our residents grow not just healthy foods, but businesses, is another exciting way Rochester will recover together and create equity in our city,” Warren wrote.
In an effort to expand community outreach to marginalized populations, Warren wrote that she wants to create the New American Advisory Council. Led by Bijaya Khadka, a Nepali refugee who founded House of Refuge in Rochester, the council’s goal would be to foster dialogue between communities of new immigrants and city government.
Khadka is tasked with convening a working group to propose formal legislation establishing the council.
“The working group is a necessary step because the New Americans community is not a monolith, nor are the various groups and organizations that work to meet their needs,” Warren wrote. “However, I have confidence that we can come together to create a Council that will honor our community’s history as a leader in advancing human rights.”
Other efforts in the agenda include the establishment of an arts equity fund, turning every city school into a “neighborhood community school,” and expanding efforts of the Office of Energy and Sustainability.
“The Equity and Recovery Agenda, or ERA, is my sincere effort to create pathways to justice. I welcome the discussions and additional ideas that these proposals will inspire,” Warren wrote. “I truly hope that my fellow elected officials, community and faith leaders and residents will embrace this opportunity.”
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or