Wednesday, June 4, 2014

APPOINTMENTS & PROGRESSIVES & REAL ESTATE--OH MY!

As I alluded to in my most recent post of Ethics Ain't Pretty, New York City should be a undergoing a major realignment of the political dynamic from the last two decades. In theory, "progressive" new mayor Bill de Blasio should have started his term in January wiping the slate clean from the right-wing, business-at-any-cost economic policies of Mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani. In theory, de Blasio is the polar ideological opposite of his two immediate predecessors. In theory.....

Like the last Democratic mayor of New York City--David Dinkins--de Blasio's schizophrenia in his appointments to high-ranking positions is clearly evident. When it comes to social services and certain labor and education issues, some of de Blasio's nominations can be seen as groundbreaking, even inspiring, especially after 20 years of strategies that were decidedly anti-poor. 


Longtime Legal Aid attorney, Steven Banks--who was an incredibly effective thorn in the sides of Giuliani and Bloomberg, particularly concerning the homeless-- was appointed to head the city's Human Resources Administration. This choice represents the major change anticipated by de Blasio's supporters, and even reflected in his high voter percentage. The new school's Chancellor, Carmen Farina, is very respected within education circles, having worked as a teacher, principal, and deputy chancellor within the city's system, and is a long-time advocate of early childhood education.

But unlike Dinkins--where the philosophical transition from former Mayor Ed Koch didn't represent a huge political leap---many de Blasio appointments have more in common with the policies of the last twenty years than they have any right to have.

In some circles, Mayor de Blasio is now being called Mayor de Bloomberg. It's become clear to even a casual observer of NYC government, when it's come to development--real estate or economic--Bill de Blasio has decided to perpetuate the status quo. And in NY, that means embracing the unrivaled power of real estate interests. The most telling sign came last month with the presentation of the mayor's new "affordable" housing plan, which has been praised by--you guessed it--the real estate industry, despite numerous and varied calls to break with the past and build more units for the poorest New Yorkers.

Created under the auspices of the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen-- the plan is only serving to codify many concerns (as previously mentioned in this blog) about the true loyalties of both the mayor and deputy mayor. In truth, de Blasio's plan falls far short of the actual demand for real affordable apartments and has more in common with Mayor Bloomberg's most recent housing plan in terms of numbers and details--such as they exist.


Developers will still be "incentivized," either through direct subsidies or more likely, by allowing them to build bigger, denser buildings through rezonings (which they love) and using inclusionary zoning (IZ)--which has at best a mixed record of success in terms of creating affordable units. IZ can also result in unforeseen consequences, like the creation of a two-tiered system where regulated or lower-income tenants are often relegated to a 'less-than' status (like having to use a separate entrance) or are discriminated against by the developer in some other manner.

John Fisher, who runs the website TenantNet, said the mayor's stated goal of "livable neighborhoods" is made meaningless because IZ "allows these giant towers to be built and the entire economic stability of a community becomes undermined. Economic pressures are put on the area's existing residential tenants, who tend to be lower income, as well as on local businesses so services get dislocated." When luxury towers are built, Fisher said, developers are singularly interested in attracting high-end tenants, so therefore they bring in high-end businesses and suddenly the neighborhood is too expensive to stay. The outcome is often secondary displacement of both residential and commercial tenants.

As one journalist wrote about the overall proposal, "The result is that large groups of people will be left out the plan. It does not specify how many apartments will be built for the city's working poor, but the $40,000 a year it categorizes as "very low income" is middle-class next to a minimum-wage worker, for whom even a $600 rent would take more than half their income." 


Moreover, he points out another big disappointment: De Blasio's plan doesn't live up to his campaign pledge to work towards repealing vacancy decontrol. (It remains unclear what would happen if the City Council repealed its own vacancy decontrol measure, which was passed in 1993/94, before the state's version ever took effect.)

An interesting aside: Within the 117 pages of the plan, credit is given to the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations for their preservation efforts of affordable units. Yes, that Giuliani whose main concerns about housing centered on destroying community gardens or ensuring his developer friends were able to make tidy profits off of city assets. From a City Limits article in 1995, "The trouble is that nobody at the whole agency really gives a shit about the issue of housing anymore," said a former top aide to Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the second commissioner to leave [the Housing, Preservation and Development agency] HPD in a year... the focus in housing has been to save money, not to spend more on the expensive building renovations that have been the heart of HPD's traditional mission...[the administration started] selling off old tax-lien debt to private investors...But in hatching the tax lien sale, Giuliani's minions initially made no provisions to protect the buildings' low-income tenants who might have faced evictions or deteriorating conditions if owners, unable to pay off the liens, abandoned their buildings." The entire article is worth reading.

Perhaps the shout-out to Rudy is Glen's way to justify her work as a senior official in his HPD.

With almost every appointment dealing with land use in some way, de Blasio's progressive moniker becomes increasingly irrelevant, and the incestuousness of the city's permanent government and the influence of real estate become more entrenched and more interconnected. Most if not all these positions fall under Glen's jurisdiction. (Full disclosure: she and I were friends in high school.)

Here are several examples:

1) Vicky Been, the new HPD Commissioner not only has connections to big real estate by way of her work at NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy; there is also her obvious tie to NYU itself, whose mega-development plan was supported by de Blasio, but was widely opposed by the affected communities. First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris also has connections to NYU, leaving many to wonder if these appointments are harbingers that the new administration will somehow circumvent legal rulings against the university so all or part or the expansion can still happen.

2) De Blasio's new Small Business Services (SBS) Commissioner is a former executive vice president and chief of staff of Bloomberg's NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a move the Small Business Congress is already deeming bad for what's left of the city's mom and pop businesses. Overall, they argue, the biggest obstacles facing small businesses and the main cause of closings are escalating rents and landlord extortion--areas both agencies have denied or ignored for years, in deference to the power of the real estate lobby. With New York's small businesses providing the largest number of decent jobs, it seems unclear how these kind of employment and labor issues can be separate from economic development, but it happens in NYC.

Though de Blasio's appointment, Maria Torres-Springer, was on maternity leave until recently, one of her first moves was to name a deputy commissioner supervising the Neighborhood Development Division, in charge of the city's 69 Business Improvement Districts (BIDS).

BIDS were created to supplement the city at a time when it couldn't provide necessary services due to financial shortfalls. Critics accuse the city now of relying too much on them in lieu of providing the services government should provide in the first place. And, they say, there is an inherent conflict-of interest because many BIDS represent the interests of property owners and not an area's commercial renters, who are usually forced to pay the related fees passed on by owners. In fact, a Furman Center analysis reported the larger BIDS have "a big impact' on commercial property values--which is not their core mission-- while the smaller ones are less effective. The report advocates more of the budget for smaller BIDS be spent on direct services and less on administrative costs. (FYI: I recently interviewed the commissioner for a separate article; I found her to be genuine and accessible.)

3) The new Landmarks Preservation Commission chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, is the former head of the city's Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) under Bloomberg--the entity that grants zoning variances to developers. Some tenant and community activists have already written her off as a 'real estate hack,' and there's some evidence to support that accusation, given her role in the Hudson Yards "master plan" and the Broadway/Theater District rezoning, both considered to be death knolls for the Hell's Kitchen and Clinton neighborhoods. While she is a city planner and architect, Srinivasan has no actual preservation experience though press accounts revealed the administration in fact interviewed several candidates with such credentials.

On the other hand, I spoke with some veteran staff of the BSA--one of whom I have known for years--who praised her "intellectual heft and rigorous analytical skills," saying she is no pushover; credit also had to be given for Srinivasan's ability as "gate-keeper," deciding which applications were worthy of review.

Based on these conversations, it would seem the BSA is a very different animal than it was during the days of Giuliani, when the board was considered a rubber stamp for developers. However, as the staff informed me, the agency doesn't track the number of zoning variances it approves or denies in a given year, making it impossible to objectively compare data within any year or analyze year-to-year outcomes.

4) The reappointed president/chief executive officer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) is not only another Bloomberg holdover; he served as an evp and co-head of NYCEDC'S real estate division, and was responsible for overseeing controversial projects like Atlantic Yards and Cornell University's tech campus on Roosevelt Island. The announcement of David Ehrenberg's reappointment said he'd be working closely with NYCEDC and Glen. That last point is particularly of note, because of the pre-existing relationship between the Navy Yard and Goldman Sachs.

On its website, Goldman Sachs states, "through its Urban Investment Group (UIG)...[it] has contributed to [BNYDC's] revival by helping finance the renovation... helped identify new sources of capital, invested its own capital.... and brought together the public and private parties needed to make the project work."

Glen is the former managing director of that very same division, after serving as the assistant commissioner for Housing Finance at HPD from 1998 to 2002. Capital NY referred to her as a Bloomberg collaborator.

There appears to be some overlap at HPD between Glen and former commissioner Richard Roberts, who left the city's employ for Goldman, and was one of at least four HPD commissioners under Giuliani. He was ultimately indicted for making false statements to prosecutors in a case involving his close relationship to Russell Harding, the ridiculously unqualified but well-connected head of the city's Housing Development Corporation.

Incidentally, Goldman's new 43-story building in Battery Park City which opened in 2009, "was helped along by $1.65 billion worth of tax-exempt Liberty Bonds and an additional $115 million in tax sweeteners," according to the New York Times and criticized by then-public advocate, Bill de Blasio.

5) The new head of the City Planning Commission, Carl Weisbrod, as written previously, is the quintessential example of the permanent government, and almost always in work that has benefited real estate interests: as an original creator of NYCEDC and president of the Downtown Alliance; at the Battery Park City Authority; and as president of the Times Square BID during the 90's, when the area was transformed into a tourist's wet dream--which also lead to the displacement of countless long-standing area businesses and residents. The man was even a professor at NYU's Schack Institute for Real Estate--yet another NYU connection for de Blasio's government.

Weisbrod has been "credited" with what most of us would recognize as the gentrification of Manhattan areas Hudson Square and the Meatpacking district, neither of which can be seen as shining beacons of affordable housing. Now his predisposition has already become obvious. The New York Post's main real estate lackey, Steve Cuozzo, wrote, "De Blasio’s “progressive” agenda has scared the daylights out of the real-estate community even as it feigns cautious optimism.... Weisbrod is anything but the kind of development-averse, ivory-tower technocrat de Blasio might have chosen. A real-estate man through and through."

Weisbrod and Glen brokered the deal giving the luxury developers of the Domino Sugar Refinery parcel zoning variances and other perks ostensibly to build more affordable housing. However, the difference between a potential deal reached by Bloomberg's people under their policies and this agreement will yield a meager seven percent more affordable units, or getting 60 more apartments for up to 40 more stories. What a tremendous victory for affordable housing! And this is clearly only the beginning....

6) Other areas of concern include the fact that his administration is reviving the Midtown East rezoning previously championed by Bloomberg and the real estate industry but generally opposed by the affected communities; that they are pushing to build towers on public parkland in Brooklyn Bridge Park with the smaller (and less desirable) tower dedicated to some kind of affordable housing, again despite community opposition to any housing; and that Glen appears to be backing away from the mayor's often stated support of a Rent Guidelines Board rent freeze for stabilized apartments. And now this is reported....not even the pretense of objectivity anymore?

As I noted in my 'Progressive Ideology vs Real Estate Interests' entry, in NYC, "to be labeled progressive-- which may be technically accurate--can also be somewhat meaningless, particularly when it comes to the enormous power and influence of the real estate industry.... it's not uncommon for political ideologies to become inconvenient or even irrelevant in the face of such enormous wealth and power. In fact, it's usually the rule, not the exception." So, who is the real Bill de Blasio?



Monday, April 21, 2014

SOME MORE NYC DEJA VU: THE APPOINTMENTS PT. 1

In the previous post of Ethics Ain't Pretty, I discussed the parallels between the Dinkins and de Blasio administrations regarding their difficulties with communications and messaging. In fact, it was recently announced that the current mayor would be expanding his press office, though this was recently published. (My first suggestion: David Neustadt!)

This entry and the next will analyze the similarities again between the two mayoral tenures, but in terms of appointments and job selections---essentially another case of deja vu all over again. However, that parallel only goes so far. To the dismay of many, Mayor de Blasio is managing not only to disappoint much of his base by some of his selections; His inability or refusal to break from Mayor Bloomberg on some very significant issues and in the way government does business could turn out to be the key to his downfall.


To adequately appreciate this, we must delve a bit into the personal history of David Dinkins. Dinkins came from a 'regular' political background, known at the time as Manhattan's Tammany machine lead by the late Carmine DeSapio. DeSapio was widely credited for reviving Tammany in the 1950s into the 1960s, before a burgeoning 'reform' movement, changing demographics and a corruption conviction essentially ended his political career.

As with every ethnic group in the city before, the political machine was the best way to work one's way up the proverbial ladder. It provided jobs and other benefits to the community at large in exchange for loyalty to the local party. In Harlem, Dinkins and his closest political allies became so strong that they were eventually referred to as Harlem's Gang of Four; Dinkins held numerous political positions, including Assembly Member and City Clerk.


When Dinkins successfully ran for Manhattan Borough President in 1985 after two previous runs, there was a general consensus among politically active democrats that it was his turn. When he ran against Ed Koch in 1989 for mayor, some of that sentiment existed, coupled with other factors like enormous Koch fatigue after three terms, and a genuine concern about race relations following several high-profile travesties--incidents towards which Koch either appeared to be tone deaf or handled very badly. Koch also ushered in the first real wave of uber-development and gentrification, and can be credited as being the first modern mayor to literally hand over the city to the real estate industry.

This contextual background is one explanation for the kind of people Dinkins appointed as senior officials. Overall, the appointments seemed a bit schizophrenic: on the one hand, the ranks boasted an array of ethnically diverse highly-competent liberals, who in their own way represented the 'best and the brightest. That list includes people like Nancy Wackstein, Mark Green, Richard Murphy, Margaret Hamburg, Richard Shrader, Cesar Perales, Ron Johnston and Gladys Carrion. Dinkins also appointed women to some high-ranking non-traditional posts, including as commissioners of Corrections, Health, Finance and Sanitation. (Unfortunately, some of these 'best and brightest' have subsequently morphed into perennial fixtures of the city's permanent government.)

I have always maintained had Dinkins been afforded a second term, the administration would have been teaming with such public servants.


As with most other mayors, Dinkins appointed his fair share of patronage jobs. Many came from within the ranks of either African-American affiliations, from the democratic party, or both. These appointments didn't always work out in the mayor's favor: Prime examples are NAACP New York State chair, Hazel Dukes, or its pro bono counsel, former Judge Laura Blackburn, appointed to head OTB and NYCHA, respectively. Both ultimately embarrassed Dinkins by demonstrating poor judgement and/or committing illegal acts.

The Dinkins administration also included certain high-profile Koch holdovers, most acutely personified in the naming of Norman Steisel as First Deputy Mayor, but that wasn't without controversy.  In his book David Dinkins and New York City Politics: Race, Images and the Media, Wilbur Rich writes, "Was Dinkins' appointment of Norman Steisel a reassurance for party regulars? Some pundits perceived Steisel as a white knight in the administration.... Many minority activists considered the Steisels of the administration an alien bloc." Rich also quotes from a 1991 New York Amsterdam editorial that sums up that frustration, "We do not wish to believe that a 'shadow government' is being built within your administration."


Furthermore, it would be irresponsible to ignore the hive of lobbyists--many doing business with the city--who swarmed around City Hall, which did nothing to contradict the perception (and reality) of government corruption after the myriad of scandals during Koch's tenure. Sid Davidoff, in particular, held a very privileged position of access, as both high paid lobbyist and as a Dinkins tennis partners.


By relying on so many for advice who had questionable motives, and by the perceived continuation of Koch's way of doing business, Dinkins managed to sour progressives and members of his base almost from the beginning. But according to Rich, "It was unrealistic to expect Dinkins, a quintessential regular Democrat, to refuse to appoint members of his staff who had worked for former Mayor Koch. People such as Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel  are a part of the so-called permanent government of NYC. These individuals are recyclable in any Democrat administration. Failure to appoint these individuals would have been seen as a plan to change the way the city is run." 


The mayor also alienated many of his 1989 voters who weren't necessarily interested in the nitty-gritty details of how government functions, but who gleaned bits and pieces of negative reporting from a press corps predisposed towards that negative narrative, as discussed in my last post. 


My best personal anecdote demonstrating this phenomenon is from when I was working at the venerable punk club, CBGB from 1989-1990. Surrounded for the most part by eclectic artists and musicians with open-minds, my work on the Dinkins campaign was common knowledge, and when he won, there was much enthusiasm for his success. I tried to temper that enthusiasm with some realities, about the mayor and about the state of the city he was about to inherit, but I didn't really get through to most of my colleagues. Within a year, even I was surprised to hear how so many creative, liberal types had turned against Dinkins, and with such vehemence.


The significance of this history is that one could successfully argue the same pattern is emerging as Mayor de Blasio continues making his own appointments. As they become public, I'm hearing some of the very same surprise and disappointment from activists and good government types--even from Dinkins administration veterans. There's already talk about de Blasio being a one-term mayor. 

In the end, the division within the Dinkins administration was usually (but not always) less about policy and more about style. The philosophical difference between Koch and Dinkins on many issues didn't represent a huge ideological chasm. The theoretical separation between de Blasio's ideology and his predecessor's should be practically insurmountable, and yet.... Based on some of the new mayor's appointments, this is clearly not the case. What could possibly be the common thread that unites the two disparate philosophies of government?


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

DEJA VU FOR NYC: NO COHESIVE MESSAGING, ABSENCE OF COMMUNICATIONS LEADERSHIP MEANS BAD NEWS FOR NEW MAYOR

After only two months in office, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has seen his approval rating drop to 39 percent, according to a recent poll, although today's New York Times poll shows his approval rating at 45 percent. Either way, that's a big drop in a very short period of time. So, what happened?

As is typical of a media feeding frenzy, the press smells blood. Since the first poll was publicized, a veritable swarm of journalists have covered the issue, some speculating, some demonstrating actual research skills. But perhaps the most important element missing from the analysis and conjecture is something a little more intangible, not to mention requiring an accurate working knowledge of city history going back more than a decade. (This is a perpetual peeve of mine about journalism today--little to no context.)

For me, this is a case of deja-vu all over again, for two key reasons. The first is the subject of this post; the second will be the subject of my next. As I wrote in my initial entry on ETHICS AIN'T PRETTY, I'm a veteran of both Dinkins' campaigns for mayor, as a volunteer in 1989 and on staff in 1993. I also wrote my Masters thesis examining local press coverage of the 1993 race, and interviewed a myriad of reporters, press secretaries (both campaign and government), and regular PR flacks. This is obviously an issue about which I've given great thought.

Over the course of his administration, contrary to popular belief, David Dinkins actually accomplished quite a lot of positive things. This a partial list:

--Beacon schools;
--Establishing a meaningful Small Business Advisory Councilwhich actually included representatives who owned small businesses; 
--Communicare Clinics; 
--Crosswalks Television, intended to serve as a local form of C-SPAN to supplement the late WNYC-TV;
--And yes--check if for yourself--crime actually began declining during the Dinkins years.

By the time I started on the 1993 campaign job, even I was skeptical about Dinkins, and I had to do a great deal of soul- searching to accept in the first place. At that point, I wasn't aware of his aforementioned achievements or successes. And why didn't I know--after all, I was a natural supporter who had worked on democratic political campaigns for years and was already inclined to be well-informed?


One reason is because the Dinkins administration never had a proper, top-down communications strategy headed by a competent, seasoned communications expert to get their message out. I know this especially to be true because we lacked the same exact kind of leader on the reelection campaign.

This is the story I gleaned from both my many interviews and my personal experience. The original plan was that a certain publicist to the stars was going to create a dynamic, cohesive strategy for the new administration, though whether or not this person was actually going to join the government staff seemed an open question. The press secretaries and the press office were supposed to handle day-to-day press functions, with this overall strategy in mind. But two vital elements didn't go according to that plan.

The first was that this publicist essentially either flaked out on the mayor, or was always just all talk. Neither his leadership nor his communications blueprint ever came to significant fruition. Fast forward to 1993, and some of us on the campaign staff were assigned (in addition to our other jobs) to work with this same individual, ostensibly to plug celebrities and other notables into the campaign. We didn't know about his history, and we did our best under the circumstances. 


We spent many hours cumulatively, on meetings, on travelling to and back from his office in midtown traffic, and on busy work--time that could and should have been spent on any number of other responsibilities. And for what? In the end, just about everything and everyone he promised never materialized. So I know firsthand this guy was a charlatan, at least politically. (I've subsequently seen him on countless red carpets, either whispering into the ears of A-listers, or standing on the sidelines as they are photographed; He clearly takes that job seriously.)


The lack of a comprehensive media strategy really hurt the administration, and was a key reason the mayor's accomplishments were essentially ignored by the local press corps. They were just not effectively conveyed. (I frankly don't doubt for a second there was also a more nefarious explanation.)


The other reason why Mayor Dinkins was perceived so negatively and weakly was the direct result of the poor choice that was made in selecting a press secretary. The choice, a former Times reporter, became so hated by the press corps--and developed such an acrimonious relationship with it--that it became inevitable the blow-back would affect the mayor. Fortunately, he was replaced by an extremely effective and competent person; unfortunately, the replacement came too late and the damage to the mayor's image was already irreparable.


So, by the time of the reelection, Dinkins was at a distinct disadvantage with the press, who glommed onto Crown Heights and the Korean boycotts as if they were the only issues to define a very decent man.


And just to guarantee the campaign's press team worked under conditions to obstruct its own coordinated strategy--while all along having to play defense--we had a "director" of communications who didn't inspire great confidence, and who was hired as a deputy campaign manager primarily for reasons other than her media prowess. Moreover, this person was set up to directly compete with the campaign's press secretary. Finally, there was also a press team, under the tutelage of a veteran from Bill Clinton's famous rapid response team strategy--which added to the discord.


Now, when I see how Mayor de Blasio keeps losing the narrative on whatever issue--charter schools in particular--it feels exactly the same as 20 years ago. Remember people, Bill de Blasio actually CAMPAIGNED he was going to reverse course on Mayor Bloomberg's giant push to privatize public schools, while pulling back and altering the spread and operation of charters. It's a bit surreal that he's getting his butt kicked on something about which many voters approved.

De Blasio was insightful enough to appoint a special advisor for long-term media planning, but he didn't select someone  who had actually held the role before in this context. And it shows. When I read about his press team's lack of government experience, the resulting vacuum created because no one seasoned is in charge of the greater message causes me flashbacks--and not in a good way. I can also add to the chorus of complaints about experiencing the lack of coordination and slowness to respond to inquiries. It all feels needlessly chaotic.


For the record, I'm not buying into the spin about de Blasio's delay in appointments as an example of him not being ready for prime-time. Nor do I give any credence to the inevitable comparisons to his predecessor because Bloomberg had business acumen.

Creating a coordinated, proactive macro-level media strategy doesn't even have be the exclusive responsibility of one person. It just requires tested people with the right kind of experience, who also understand and are willing to work with your agenda. And this being New York City, and based on de Blasio's definitive win, finding a few candidates who fit these criterion shouldn't be that difficult. I can personally think of several.

Friday, February 28, 2014

NYC Sets Limits on How Much People With HIV/AIDS Have to Pay for Rent, Helps Them to Stay in Their Homes


My latest article: After years of opposition by Mayor Bloomberg, NYC will begin helping low-income people with HIV/AIDS by imposing a cap on what percentage of their income can be spent on rent, giving them piece of mind and housing stability:

http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/4875-city-set-to-offer-rent-relief-to-hivaids-residents

Monday, February 10, 2014

Progressive Ideology vs Real Estate Influence

There's been a great deal of analysis and punditry describing New York City's new progressivism, with the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The selection of Melissa Mark-Viverito--spearheaded by de Blasio--as City Council Speaker has only added to this perception.

Yet, to be progressive here can mean something different to what outsiders might assume. Yes, it means supporting issues like universal pre-K or paid sick leave. But to be labeled progressive-- which may be technically accurate--can also be somewhat meaningless, particularly when it comes to the enormous power and influence of the real estate industry.


Probably more than in any other state in the nation, New York State and New York City are tightly controlled by its iron grip. Though state republicans outside the city tend to benefit most from its largess, it's not uncommon for political ideologies to become inconvenient or even irrelevant in the face of such enormous wealth and power. In fact, it's usually the rule, not the exception.


Common Cause/NY released a report last year, "raising serious questions about the potential influence of tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions on public policy relating to real estate and development in New York City." The findings include:


--Since 2005, the Real Estate Board of NY (REBNY) and the 37 companies comprising its leadership have contributed $43.9 million to state and local candidates, committees, and PACs;


--REBNY’s contributions have increased in recent election cycles, with $17.1 million given since 2011 alone;


Common Cause/NY also faults the real estate industry and its ancillary partners for deliberately trying to circumvent rules governing campaign funding so they could exceed legal limits. The report states, "Using loophole to maximize its influence in city races through the “Jobs For New York” PAC by registering it at the state level... to bypass the New York City campaign finance system’s limits on campaign contributions." As evidence, the report cites:


--Just sixteen REBNY member companies... contributed the entire $5.26 million raised by “Jobs For New York” in [the] first half [of[ 2013 for an average of $328,750 each.


Money isn't the only way the industry influences elected officials; it commonly translates into the upper echelons of government by way of who assumes what kind of jobs and where. As a consequence, public policy--generally favoring the real estate lobby--is directly affected. That notorious revolving door between government and industry is alive and well in New York, particularly with real estate firms and developers.


For example, the former chief-of-staff for two former Bloomberg deputy mayors, Angela Sung Pinsky, is now not only the senior vice president at REBNY, she's also married to Bloomberg's president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).


NYCEDC is the opaque entity considered to be the chief engine for certain kinds of economic development, usually involving private developers, large development projects and huge quantities of public resources, whether or not an affected community supports the plan. (Mostly, the needs and interests of the community are ignored.) Sung Pinsky coincidentally worked for former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, probably the most identifiable figure associated with steamrolling such projects largely connected to EDC including the Hudson Yards boondoggle, and NYC's failed 2012 Olympic bid/Westside Stadium proposal.


Jaime McShane, the longtime spokesperson for the most recent Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, joined the staff of REBNY for a newly-created job. Quinn---once a tenant activist--became so close to real estate interests that it became common knowledge she simply did their bidding. She consistently turned a blind eye to abuses by developers, even within her own district and at the expense of her constituents, as was the case with the Trump 'Hotel' in Soho. Quinn will never overcome the stigma that she couldn't or wouldn't prevent the closure of St. Vincent's Hospital, when the Rudin family who owned the site wanted to convert the properties into luxury housing.


Another real estate organization, the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA) is dedicated to weakening or eliminating the state's tenant rent regulations; the RSA president is Joe Strasburg, who was chief-of-staff for former Speaker Peter Vallone, a man inexorably linked to this lobby. Vallone was the force who, in 1993/4, pushed through vacancy decontrol of regulated affordable apartments in NYC. Vallone also famously punished a handful of members who dared vote against a watered-down lead paint bill in 1999, because the industry supported weakening the current regulations. (I was working for one of the members who voted against the Vallone bill at the time, and it became clear to us she was being sent a message when all of her subsequent legislation was routinely killed.)


The vast influence of REBNY and the like can be seen every day, even if we don't realize it. It's reflected in the thousands of commercial rent evictions every year, and the countless empty storefronts across the city. It's in the ever-growing homogenification of the city with the explosion of chain stores, usually at the expense of local mom and pop businesses.


It's reflected in record high homelessness numbers. Its seen in the loss of  rent regulated apartments--conservatively estimated between 300-400,000 by the Metropolitan Council on Housing-- since the mid-1990's and in the sale of countless Mitchell-Lama buildings --a program exclusively designed to create and maintain affordable housing--for private, free market purposes.


It's manifested in the billions of city and state resources lost through abatement programs and incentives given to developers like 421-a or "payments in lieu of taxes" (PILOTS), supposedly to build affordable units--which often don't get built (as is so far the case with Atlantic Yards). And even when the affordable housing is created, they don't necessarily end up justifying the loss of public revenues. For example, sometimes, the definition of "affordable" is allowed to be so flexible that the people who really need them can't qualify. Or, the small number of units required to obtain the tax break remains affordable for a small window of time, not in perpetuity. That's billions the city could use to build its own affordable housing, use for education, or for any number of other purposes.


So, there has been concern about Mayor de Blasio because of his support for some controversial development projects--like Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards/Barclay Center, which decimated a neighborhood, or for N.Y.U.'s voracious expansion plan, despite overwhelming community opposition. While Quinn was the industry's first choice, the de Blasio campaign still managed to receive hundreds of thousands in contributions from some of the largest development firms like Extell and Related Companies--many of whom do business with the city. De Blasio also received more than $70,000 in campaign donations from Forest City Ratner, the developer of Atlantic Yards.


Also worrisome is the fact that though he returned donations from one of the city's most notorious for-profit owner/operators of hotels housing the homeless--about which de Blasio has been critical--he kept thousands raised and donated by some of the firms closely tied to the initial owner.


On the other hand, the mayor wants to create or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments, and has been very frank in his public rhetoric regarding stricter affordability criterion and requirements under his watch. De Blasio has discussed the need for affordable housing, and often, and has called for the first ever rent freeze for regulated apartments. His campaign's "Affordable Housing" policy paper calls to end giveaways for big developers and enact mandatory inclusionary zoning (IZ)--though IZ doesn't necessarily work, enforce affordability standards, and protect renters, among others. It also discusses de Blasio's plan to:


--Target revenue streams to fund information programs and civil legal services that cost-effectively prevent evictions--programs decimated during the tenures of Giuliani and Bloomberg;


--Guarantee access to emergency shelters for the homeless. Most significantly, de Blasio wants to return to the policies before Bloomberg, when a percentage of public housing units were allocated for homeless families, policies homeless advocates say have proven to work.


One could, therefore, take away a decidedly mixed record for de Blasio when it comes to real estate. Crain's New York even called him a part-time populist.


Now that he's in an actual position in which he can represent the majority of New Yorkers against the most powerful lobby in the state, de Blasio has the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is in the wide array of agencies and boards dealing with land use, zoning, housing and real estate, all of which will be comprised of de Blasio appointments. That includes:


--Commissioners to head agencies like Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Small Business Services;



--Chair of the NYC Housing Authority, and all seven members of its board;

--Chair of City Planning, and six of thirteen commissioners;


--Chair of the Landmarks and Preservation Commission, and all 11 commissioners;


--All five appointees at the Board of Standards and Appeals, which grants developers zoning variances;


--All nine members of the Rent Guidelines Board, including five to represent the general public and the chair;


--President of the Housing Development Corporation.


At this point in time, some of his appointments like EDC's president (a Bloomberg holdover), the new chair of City Planning or his deputy mayor for 'Housing and Economic Development' certainly don't represent the kind of break with the policies of Giuliani and Bloomberg for which many were hoping. In fact, the new City Planning chair is a quintessential example of the 'permanent government'. There is already grousing about his H.P.D. appointment because of her association with N.Y.U.'s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, an organization some equate with REBNY, perhaps unfairly.


To his credit, de Blasio did include 'Housing' in the title of deputy mayor Alicia Glen's jurisdiction, which is a first. However, many progressive see her corporate world background and work as an H.P.D. official for Giuliani as not fully supporting de Blasio's break with previous philosophies of governing.


Many have hoped the new administration would mean a dilution or even break from the real estate industry's stranglehold. Since Bill de Blasio is the mayor, his appointments are supposed to follow his philosophies and policies, so change is still possible. Ultimately, it's his responsibility if New York City really becomes a progressive bastion, and how that looks.


This article was updated on February 11, 2014.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Change of Pace, Part 2

While I am not in the habit of writing 'light' pieces as a journalist, I believe it's important to acknowledge credit where credit is due.  As if to underscore my previous entry about Rudy Giuliani, Bill de Blasio (the new NYC Mayor), deserves praise for his handling of last week's snowstorm. Specifically:
a) The patience he demonstrated while reacting to local reporters as they began circling the waters for blood, like sharks--as they seem predetermined to do whenever there's an event of almost any potential controversy, even in the absence of any;

b) The thoughtful and deliberative way the Mayor explained why schools were kept open, in the face of outright hostility from some reporters;


c) de Blasio's ability to genuinely acknowledge making a mistake with aplomb and humility. 

Humility? Graciously accepting a mistake had been made? This was indeed a stark contrast to our two previous mayors.


Here's what happened: After the storm initially hit, reports from residents of the uber-entitled Upper East Side of Manhattan started making their way to the media saying they didn't receive the "appropriate" level of sanitation services to clear the snow. 


For the record, my parents moved into this area in 1964, where I was raised. I watched it change first gradually, from being a melting pot of mostly working class immigrants--Germans, Hungarians, Irish--until the 1980's when then-Mayor Koch ushered in the first real wave of mega-development. Many of the neighborhood's rent-stabilized buildings were spared for a time, so while the population changed, there was still a mix of the old and new. By the mid-1990s, the singular power of the real estate industry, vacancy decontrol, and Giuliani's philosophy of 'business and development' at all costs, served as a lethal cocktail to any vestiges of the past, obliterating a good chunk of Manhattan's history. It currently contains some of the the nation's wealthiest zip codes.

In response to inquiries about the complaints at his press conference, de Blasio said, "They’re just mistaken. No one was treated differently. We believe in a five-borough approach. That’s in everything we do.... I think people need to be mindful when they hurl those charges. That is not real respectful of the men and women who work so hard for us at Sanitation.... But every neighborhood is being serviced very devotedly by the men and women of Sanitation."

Of course, there's some irony here as outer borough residents have been making these claims for years; even Giuliani--the 'champion' of all things Staten Island--was not exempt from such criticism. Unless it's something akin to a 'snowpocalypse,' usually only some local community paper pays attention. But because this was the Upper East Side--even though it wasn't a giant blizzard and we're really talking about some temporary inconvenience--the media feeding frenzy commenced with its usual abandon.

Here's de Blasio's complete statement later that day: “After hearing concerns about street conditions on the Upper East Side, I headed to the area to survey the streets for myself, and to hear from residents directly. While the overall storm response across the city was well-executed, after inspecting the area and listening to concerns from residents earlier today, I determined more could have been done to serve the Upper East Side. I have instructed the Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation to double-down on cleanup efforts on the Upper East Side, and as a result, 30 vehicles and nearly 40 sanitation workers have been deployed to the area to finish the cleanup. Our crews will remain on the streets around the clock until the roadways are clear in every neighborhood, in every borough, across New York City.”


I also feel Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for describing in detail the criterion that goes into whether or not to keep open the City's public schools. "There are a lot of factors that go into the decision. First and foremost is safety. So I had to be convinced that the situation would be safe. But it’s also really important to remember - it’s our obligation - if we can make the school day work, by law, that’s our obligation," he explained. "If we didn't know if kids could get where they would need to go, they might be at a bus stop for a prolonged period of time and have that kind of exposure–that was a real concern. But when we heard at 10pm last night from the National Weather Service that this snow was tapering off rapidly, we knew what Commissioner Doherty had that he could deploy overnight, we talked to the MTA, we talked to the Department of Education about the school buses' path, et cetera. There was a real consensus on the call that we could get the system to work effectively– meaning kids would not be left in a situation of being outside for prolonged periods of time, and that's what was crucial in making the decision."

It cannot be understated--though it appears to be somewhat ignored within the mainstream narrative--that this is our first mayor with children enrolled in the public school system in decades. You have to go back to Mayor Abe Beam in the mid-1970s, though his children were out of school by the time he was elected.

So when this Mayor discussed the issue, you know it's one with which he is all too familiar. "I, for fourteen years as a public school parent, I thought about these exact issues for my own children," de Blasio said. Prompted by a journalist's question, the Mayor added, "Dante (his son) went to school today. I personally escorted him to school. He was grouching the whole way, but he had three exams today, so I just want to say for the record: Dante would have really liked to stay off for his three exams, but he is doing his three exams as we speak."

The de Blasio team clearly grasped the enormity of the issue, one in which it seems there is not necessarily a 'correct' answer. "By the way, a lot of parents in this town will tell you, that when kids aren't in school it's incredibly disruptive for their lives and they don't necessarily have a safe alternative place to send their child," explained de Blasio. "Let's be clear, I respect that you talked to some parents.... But when we think we can actually get the school day off effectively, and have transportation achieved in a way that will give us good attendance, and that kids will be safe– it's our obligation to keep school open, and that's why we did it."

So, it's refreshing to have a mayor who is open to criticism without automatically becoming combative or defensive. Also, how nice--at least on the surface--to have an executive who appears contemplative when making important decisions, one who seems to take into account varying factors and input before rushing to judgment. And de Blasio is a decent guy--as I know from experience, when we worked together on the Dinkins' reelection campaign in 1993. 

Coming soon: Analysis of certain de Blasio's political and agency appointments.... stay tuned!