Housing / Politics

Councilman looks to defend his seat in Sept. 12 primary

City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., here seen with Melrose constituents in May, will run in a Sept. 12 Democratic primary to hold onto his seat in the 17th Council District.

Incumbent campaigns for third election in 18 months

After a year and a half on the job, City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. says he isn’t running out of new challenges.

“Every couple of weeks, there’s a different pressing issue,” said Salamanca, 37, in his district office beneath the overhead tracks on Southern Boulevard. He was first elected to replace Maria del Carmen Arroyo as representative of the 17th City Council District in a February 2016 special election, then ran again last fall, as required by special elections rules, and again won the seat handily.

The incumbent will face off against a retired health care union organizer Helen Hines, in a Sept. 12 Democratic primary. The general election takes place on Nov. 7. Hines was Salamanca’s only challenger in last September’s primary as well.

The Longwood native’s star has risen quickly among Bronx Democrats in the City Council. Salamanca serves on six committees, and chairs the influential Planning, Dispositions and Concessions subcommittee, which decides on the amount of subsidies the city will provide to developers of affordable housing.

“I’m dissecting every project to see if it’s a fit for this community,” he said, adding that the surge of new development taking place across the South Bronx is an opportunity for residents. He attributes his confidence as a negotiator to lessons learned while hammering out deals between Community Board 2 and developers during five and a half years as district manager. “I know the developer wants something, but what are you going to give the community?”

Despite his popularity, Salamanca has encountered some turbulence during his short tenure. In July, Longwood residents fearing displacement protested a private meeting between the Councilman, city officials and housing advocates, who had gathered to discuss a new city study in its run-up to redevelop a swath of warehouses and derelict lots along Southern Boulevard.

Salamanca insists that residents will be included in discussions about new housing, but added that affordability rates should be set to accommodate middle class residents and “individuals coming back from college,” not just the area’s poorest. Rather than seeing the planning department study as a threat, he calls it “an opportunity to look at different pieces of land,” and to rezone if necessary, to create mixed-income housing.

Record homelessness is another concern. The South Bronx “is an area where everybody likes to build homeless shelters. We have more than our fair share.” Salamanca points proudly to the role he played in getting the City Council to change its term sheets, which determine how much financing developers get. Earlier this year, he led a push to tweak the city’s Our Space financing program so that developers must set aside 10 percent of new apartments to house the homeless, compared with as little as five percent previously.

Some Community Board 2 members were angered when they learned of that change at a June meeting with developers of a project to build 740 new apartments on Spofford Avenue. With more homeless families comes the need for more social services, which could alter the fabric of the neighborhood, they argued, sensing that the city had pulled a bait-and-switch to sneak a controversial policy past them.

“They have a right to feel that way,” said Salamanca, but added that tough measures to address rising homlessness are unavoidable.

The incumbent says he hasn’t forgotten about public housing, where residents face a different kind of crisis. He pointed to a $3 million grant he helped secure to bring safety cameras and electronic entry cards into Melrose Houses to help offset continued federal funding cuts. In addition, he pointed to his advocacy to help secure eight new officers to patrol around the Hub, one of the few areas in the city where violent crime has been on the upswing. Last May, thugs beat a 53-year-old street vendor into a coma in a random act of violence, prompting urgent demands for more safety measures.

Salamanca rates a protracted clash with environmental groups and residents over a bill to cap garbage handling earlier this year among his most trying times in office so far. Protesters rallied in front of his district office last December, accusing him of backing big business at the expense of his constituents when he wouldn’t support the bill.

“These were groups I was so close with,” he lamented, saying that, as a lifelong resident and asthmatic, he understands the need to address the area’s notorious pollution problem but needed time to study both sides of the issue.

Recently, he proposed a bill that would lower the cap on the number of daily truck trips construction debris handlers can make, from a number that environmentalists had previously proposed. At the same time, the bill would raise the maximum number of allowable truck trips for two major waste treatment facilities in Port Morris and Hunts Point, from a lower number the environmentalists wanted. No one loves it, but the Councilman sounded a familiar refrain: “There’s always room for negotiating.”

As of mid-August, Salamanca had amassed $214,500 and had spent $34,051, leaving his campaign with a balance of $185,644, according to the NYCC Campaign Finance Board. Hines had a war chest of $33,842.

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