Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

NYC and Rent Regulations--a resurgence or the continuation of a slow death?

Has anyone else noticed that since Mayor de Blasio announced his affordable housing plan (AHP) last May--in which the benefits of saving and/or preserving rent regulated housing are extolled--more and more of such apartments appear to be under siege?

The plan explicitly says: The City needs to protect tenants in rent-regulated units more aggressively. We cannot allow landlords to harass tenants and drive them out of our rent-regulated housing stock. Keeping those units affordable is critical to our overarching goals of addressing inequality.

Yet, here are just a few examples between July and September of tenant harassment:


Pelham Parkway/University Heights

East Harlem




Upper West Side


East Village

East Village, Little Italy, Lower East Side, Stuyvestant
This guy has notoriously been harassing tenants for almost 20 years!

East Village
Donald Trump's family gets in on his old act.

Chinatown, LES, East Harlem

Chinatown, LES

So, the question is, how seriously is the mayor and his inner circle of real estate insiders really taking the problem, and how strong is his commitment to the rent regulation system in general? The record has been decidedly mixed over the ensuing months.

It's already been mentioned here the AHP disappointed many affordable housing activists for what it didn't say in this area. Specifically, there was no mention of repealing vacancy decontrol, though de Blasio did advocate repealing Urstadt

There is no question the overall effect of vacancy decontrol has been devastating--which was its intent all along. And as owners are not obliged to notify any government agency when an apartment is decontrolled, it's impossible to quantify exactly how many units have been lost. According to tenants rights organization, Metropolitan Council on Housing, "Vacancy deregulation is causing the number of stabilized apartments to shrink by tens of thousands every year." 

Some 250,000 units were lost since 1994, according to the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). In the RGB's report issued this year about changes in the regulated housing stock in 2013, high rent/vacancy deregulation accounted for the biggest reason units were removed, at 63 percent.

What's not so clear is if in fact NYC had home rule, would it really pass stronger tenant protections? Because, based on the actions of the last few mayors and City Council, that answer would not be a definitive 'yes.'

Then, consider this combined with the debacle at the RGB's final vote in June, where the mayor all but promised a rent freeze for stabilized apartments--especially during the campaign. At the last minute, two of his own appointees making up the majority instead approved a one percent increase on one-year leases, and 2.75 percent for two--modest increases yes, but following years of excessive ones. In a practical sense, a rent freeze wouldn't have made a huge difference except symbolically, after so many years of landlords raking in giant profits enabled by the city.

It was widely speculated the reason for the last minute change came down to interference from deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen. Given her background (see prior entries), it's hard not to see this as a tacit message to the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and the like, that they will still get their way.  

What's really curious is how the renewal rate approved for two-year leases ended up almost three times what was approved for a one-year renewal.

Some post-vote analysis speculated the machinations occurred behind Mayor de Blasio's back. Regardless, the mayor is ultimately responsible as it was his appointee, so it must reflect back on him. If in fact those reports are true, how can he stand for such insubordination? If they aren't, and the mayor was aware what Glen was doing, then we must infer the rhetoric was meaningless.

Plus, the three individuals singularly responsible for implementing the affordable housing plan are all well connected to the real estate industry. They are also rich. That would be Glen, City Planning Commission Chair, Carl Weisbrod, and Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Commissioner, Vicky Been. That's not to say one cannot be wealthy to understand the acute affordable housing shortage, or to be sympathetic (but not empathetic.)

But to have all three so economically advantaged demonstrates a stunning tone-deafness, a disconnect within the de Blasio administration. After all, Glen openly celebrated bringing yuppies to Harlem. Has any one of them ever known what it's like to worry about paying the rent? Because I have, as have many people I know throughout the city. That's where empathy might have come in handy....

Incidentally, several sources (both inside and outside government) have confirmed to me Been isn't exactly working out in her new job. "She is in over her head," at least two people told me. Apparently, despite Been's background in academia, and writing about housing policy, she isn't necessarily equipped to actually implement it.

Recently, the mayor signed a bill essentially intended to 'shame' landlords guilty of harassing tenants, by publicly posting their names on HPD's website--which seems rather meager. But the problem itself is very real. Even the pro-landlord, pro-real estate New York Times wrote, "Such efforts have been on the rise in gentrifying neighborhoods of the city where market-rate rents have soared and some landlords try to engineer vacancies to make room for higher-paying tenants."

As expected, a flak from the Rent Stabilization Association 
(RSA) said it would do little more than taint and “vilify” property owners and “curry favor with the tenant movement,” which is just laughable. “Should a tenant have their name published for failing to pay rent?” he added.

Possibly a valid point, if all things were equal,  and if it weren't for reality. Just a few of the major constant obstacles facing tenants include
the dysfunctional and underfunded state housing agency that has years worth of backlogs, the city's overburdened housing court, and the lack of money or political will to better assist tenants through public legal services. Simply put, landlords have a disproportionate amount of power and say on both the city and state levels regarding policy, oversight, enforcement and accountability.

And anyway, this already happens--through the tenant blacklist , which isn't solely based on tenants who are in rent arrears. It can be any tenant sued by a landlord in housing court for any reason--legitimate or frivolous--and it's much more encompassing than HPD posting the names of the minuscule number of owners who are found guilty of harassment.

An important gage of how serious such laws are is to see how the real estate lobby reacts. One veteran tenant activist told me REBNY or the RSA put in "token objections for the media's sake, but that's essentially all they do." An examination of the transcript before the City Council's Housing and Buildings Committee in April revealed no registered opposition or testimony from landlord or real estate groups during the anti-harassment hearings. I checked with the committee chair's office just in case, but they never got back to me. 

Furthermore, the 2008 'Tenant Protection Act' (TPA) on which this law is based, was already considered pretty weak, and it should never be forgotten that its driving force was former Council Speaker, Christine Quinn. Next to Peter Vallone, big real estate didn't have a better friend or protector. So, it stands to reason nothing really harmful or with teeth could ever have passed the Council.

Maximum fines are doubled from $5,000 to $10,000 but minimum fines remain at $1,000, and a judge isn't compelled to fine even the minimum amount. Many simply don't, and some don't even fine owners at all. Frankly, even the new fine levels and the reluctance of many judges to appropriately penalize such bad actors means it's still cheap enough to keep harassing tenants as part of the cost of doing business. Between the anemic oversight and gross underfunding of both the city and state agencies tasked to oversee these issues, the odds are greatly stacked in favor of landlords. They can, and often do, get away with such behavior, and if they are caught, the repercussions are generally inconsequential. 

As several witness revealed at the hearing--many from various free legal service organizations--there's more economic incentive than ever before to get tenants to vacate, especially seniors and other long-term tenants. The longer someone has lived in an apartment, the more likely a landlord will want them out, because the rewards are so great, thanks in part to the 20 percent vacancy bonus permitted. Couple that with something called a 'longevity' bonus, which allows owners to calculate greater increases based upon how long a unit was occupied, and even a bonus for apartments renting for less than certain amounts, and voila, the rent exceeds $2,500 and the apartment becomes destabilized. And as mentioned, there's so little oversight to verify a landlord acted legally, why wouldn't one simply fake it?

People whom I've interviewed, as well as some of the aforementioned witnesses, discussed the growing plague of 'predatory equity,' a particularly sleazy form of real estate speculation. We've seen it over and over again--some investment group obscenely overpays for a building, while leveraging equally ridiculous amounts. When they figure out they can't make the kind of return they anticipated, well, it's always bad for tenants. Think the Pinnacle Group

And even with both laws, harassment is still considered difficult to prove. HPD's representative revealed at this hearing only 44 cases initiated out of 3200 since the 2008 TPA were substantiated by the agency. "2195 are discontinued, dismissed or withdrawn," and another 608 were settled, often without the tenant's consent or understanding, reported HPD's associate commissioner for enforcement and neighborhood services. Furthermore, she said, "It is unlikely that a property owner will settle if the settlement includes admitting harassment."

A landlord can still haul a tenant into housing court for literally no reason. If the tenant doesn't appear, there is a very real risk he or she could lose their home. However, if the owner doesn't appear--or even send a representative--there is no downside to the landlord, or even a potential cost. Sometimes, a tenant can be liable for an owner's legal fees if the case is determined frivolous, but rarely is it the other way around. At best, only about 10 percent of tenants at housing court appear with an attorney, while 90 percent of landlords do. That doesn't even take into account time and the amount of work a tenant is forced to take off to appear in court, while that's all part of the job for landlords. 

As John Fisher from wrote, "One real problem is getting to the point where a finding of harassment may be made. The vagaries of the definition of harassment has always been a stumbling block, and from what I've seen, still is. While the 2008 law spelled out the definition in a bit more detail, in many instances, obtaining a finding has to do with proving landlord intent, and that is very difficult to do.... and even put(s) the burden on the tenant. The result can be years of litigation at great expense to the tenant."

The newer version of the anti-harassment law doesn't address these chronic inequities. HPD's response when queried about other measures or policies the administration might currently be considering to stop tenant harassment and increase landlord accountability is interesting. "We are starting to look at other options to discuss." This isn't exactly a new problem! "So we don't have... anything substantive  to put on the table for you today, but this is definitely a work in progress." Astounding. 

This sense of ambivalence from the administration is not completely unexpected. As noted, there's the problem of who his closest advisers are, particularly when it comes to land use matters--which are ultimately tenant issues. 

It is also extremely telling the AHP does not call to make newly created affordable units rent stabilized, focusing only on current apartments. The RGB credited other affordable housing programs (which are actual subsidies or tax incentives) like 421a and 420c for adding rent stabilized units, so the overall net loss was smaller. But under the mayor's favored program of mandatory inclusionary zoning (IZ), there was nary a reference. Don't get me wrong--I'm not a fan of paying developers off for anything. It's just that given de Blasio's stated support of rent regs, I expected him to advocate adding units, both because he believes it to be the right thing to do, as well as to help strengthen the system, overall.

There's also the perennial problem that when it comes to rent regulations in general, local media has consistently done an appallingly poor job explaining what exactly they are, how they work, and whom they most benefit, and the overall narrative has been anti-tenant for decades. Does anyone recall the Daily News used to run a tenant advice column in the 1980's?

After all these years, there are still reporters who can't distinguish between rent control and rent stabilization, either because they are too lazy to make the effort, or for more cynical reasons. Remember, most of the dailies have real estate holdings, and some of the newer journalism venues and online sites are unabashedly biased in favor of this all-powerful industry. Often, the funding behind the venture comes from real estate pockets. Unfortunately, even some of the old journalistic stalwarts have lost their way, as well.

Rent regulations continue to be described specifically as subsidies. They aren't. defines 'subsidy' as: a direct pecuniary aid furnished by a government to a private industrial undertaking, a charity organization, or the like. Yet, no money is actually ever exchanged, paid, lent, borrowed, transferred etc. 
And in fact, rent regulations are among the most effective and cheapest affordable housing programs in the history of NY State, in part because the biggest expense is administrative overhead.

But for the approximately two million tenants now living in regulated apartments, there is the very real possibility of being priced out. Between regular RGB increases and the ever expanding number of loopholes which also permit owners to add on to the rent, even so-called affordable regulated units are quickly becoming unaffordable for many New Yorkers. Examples are increases from Major Capital and Individual Apartment Improvements, which are in perpetuity, and something called 'preferential' rent.

Without telling you any details regarding the size of my apartment, or where it's located, my own rent has increased between 80-90 percent in about 20 years. I can assure my income has not grown comparably. How many other items have increased by such drastic proportions over the same time period? College tuition, gas prices, and healthcare costs come to mind, and all three are the result of shady practices committed by at least one greedy actor.

Another very important element of rent stabilization in particular usually ignored by the media is the automatic right to a lease renewal; the few remaining rent controlled apartments don't have leases. This is absolutely critical. If you are a good tenant, there should be no reason you are denied the stability of not only having a sense of your upcoming (inevitable) rent increase, but also that a new lease will be forthcoming when it's time.

Think of it from the perspective of a market rate tenant: you spend money on a broker, then pay first and last month's rent, as well as a security deposit. That's usually thousands of dollars. Then, after a year or two, your apartment's or building's owner simply decide you are no longer an acceptable tenant, or perhaps your rent is increased by 50 percent, and you can't afford to remain. All that money you've already spent, and all that time searching, is gone in a flash, due to greed or capriciousness. How is that fair?

There's potentially some reason to be optimistic. Several tenant organizers with whom I spoke for a separate article were all reasonably hopeful about next year's rent renewal fight in Albany. For the first time in 20 years, they at least have an executive who is not openly hostile to rent regulations, as was the case with Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg--both of whom did their damnedest to ensure wildly excessive increases totally out of proportion with actual owner costs. In particular, much credit and praise was given to de Blasio's Albany lobbying team. At least, it seems, smart and effective people are in place for 2015. That has to count for something.
Something else to consider which apparently has gone virtually unnoticed: Recently, Goldman Sachs' Urban Investment Group--of which Glen was head for years--announced it will help provide $75 million dollars in equity in a joint venture that will leverage $250 million in new residential development. That's more than three times a return on their outlay. 

At the very least, this gives the appearance of a conflict of interest. Glen may not benefit from this deal in the short-term, and in fact had to cut financial ties with her old firm to take her current job. However, as the article about her largess discusses, Glen's, "stock portfolio overflows with "GS" funds, like the "GS Tax-Advantaged Global Equity Portfolio," in which she has holdings of more than $500,000," so there's a probability she'll benefit from these investments in the long-term. And does anyone really believe she will never discuss with any of her former colleagues--even casually--city plans for neighborhood or infrastructure improvements, and the like?

It's like a form of insider trading, or how the old boys' network used to work on male-only golf courses. Remember that comment about yuppies in Harlem? That can easily translate into a "wink wink, nudge nudge--know what i mean?" (Bad Python pun intended: Glen's mother officiated at Eric Idle's wedding in 1981, I was told at the time.)

Even if this is completely kosher across the board, the role of the UIG just underscores the interdependent relationship between the permanent government and the real estate industry in New York. Just business as usual. And that's the least 'progressive' thing we could ever see. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


UPDATED JULY 24: This is my new article about Mayor de Blasio's appointment for Small Business Services commissioner, and some of the related issues facing the city's mom and pop stores. That there is little alarm in the fact few (almost none) at SBS actually have small business experience raises no eyebrows, but would that be acceptable at DOT or DEP, for example?

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


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


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: