The new chair of the City Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises plans to use the position to advocate for affordable housing, transportation improvements and other progressive causes.
Though just 32, Donovan Richards has already worked in city government for 12 years, beginning as an intern under then-City Council Member James Sanders, for whom he worked his way up to chief of staff. Richards was elected in 2013 in a special election to replace Sanders, who is now a state senator, representing southeastern Queens.
He is also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in aviation and airway management, which he is set to finish next year.
“Why not manage an airport?” he asked. “I find it very amazing to see how airports run.” He’s also long believed that John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is in his district, could help the surrounding area by offering more job opportunities. “I wanted to be a voice there and ensure that those opportunities made it out.”
Richards chaired the environmental protection committee prior to his current post, and co-chairs the Council’s progressive caucus. He was also the sole elected official to serve in an advisory role for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan, the blueprint for waste reduction, increasing resiliency and strengthening the job and housing markets.
Sanders said Richards learned important lessons as a member of his staff. “He is well aware of the balance that has to be made between the business community and social good. He has been taught that we can do both — we can do social good and not kill the golden goose,” he said.
Richards grew up in southeastern Queens, one of four children, moving frequently as his young parents struggled financially. In 2003, the year he turned 20, one of his friends was murdered, inspiring him to attend an anti-gun violence meeting held by Sanders.
“I was sort of leery, because I was leery of government.” Donovan said. Motivated by his friend’s memory, he decided to give volunteering a try. Eight months later, Sanders hired him as a full-time community liaison.
When he was a staffer for Sanders, he lived in an affordable housing complex called Arverne View in Rockaway.
“It was a beautiful thing. It was a beachfront property,” he said. He paid $860 for an oceanfront, terraced two-bedroom.
Topping Richards’ agenda now are affordable housing, public transit and participatory budgeting. He said he intends to use his new post to reach out to communities and get as much input as possible on proposed rezoning plans, particularly in the areas that de Blasio picked as potential epicenters for affordable housing development.
First up is East New York, where the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure is already underway. Other neighborhoods the mayor has tagged include Long Island City, Flushing West, the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue corridor and Staten Island’s Bay Street corridor.
He said the zoning committee under his leadership will make sure that the issues of concern to these communities are on the negotiating table when development plans are worked out. “It worries me that under the prior administration, so much development was happening, but we literally were pushing people out of their neighborhoods.”
He also expressed concern about de Blasio’s proposal to reduce parking requirements at some affordable housing developments. “Just because people live in affordable housing doesn’t mean they don’t drive,” he said, noting that from certain parts of the city, driving is the only practical way to get to work.
From Far Rockaway, he said, “you can get to Florida by plane as quick as you can get to Manhattan by train on some days.”
For what he sees as the “inevitable” upzoning of Midtown East, Richards wants to focus on ensuring that the infrastructure and design of the area support more density.
Manhattan Council Member Daniel Garodnick, who co-chairs the Midtown East rezoning committee, said Richards has shown “he intends to be a hands-on chair, with a willingness to pursue a deep understanding of the issues before the committee.”