Friday, February 12, 2016

BDB & RE: Is it worse than we thought?

Recently, real estate-centric rag, The Real Deal, ran an article discussing the industry's love/hate relationship with Mayor de Blasio, focusing predominantly on that perspective--as one would expect. It included a comment from the DM for housing and economic development who said their relationship was improving, "I think it's changed in the sense that with each month or quarter that goes by, the industry is even more satisfied with the [administration's] ability to get deals done." This quote was presumably offered without any irony intended, given this little gem.

Any mention of opposition to the mayor's affordable housing and zoning plans was perfunctory at best, and completely ignored perhaps the most important and most overlooked concern--the impact these plans will have on NYC's communities. More on this later.

As I've written quite extensively on Ethics Ain't Pretty, to the surprise and now disappointment of many New Yorkers, the de Blasio administration has turned out to be more like Bloomberg redux than anyone expected. Quite simply, when it comes to the all-consuming power of big real estate, the status quo, and watching our beloved city surpass the threshold of progress into generic and homogeneous, the situation has reached Defcon 5.

Really, we shouldn't be that surprised given his history: supporting the massive developer giveaway known as Atlantic Yards that destroyed a viable neighborhood and countless small businesses; in favor of building condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park and NYU's latest land grab. NYU--the university who already decimated a neighborhood--and with whom many high-ranking BDB officials were once affiliated.

These were on the record during the mayoral race. But Bill de Blasio was a very lucky man with good timing who was never thoroughly vetted. In everyone's (necessary) myopia of 'Anyone but Quinn,' these facts were ignored for a multitude of reasons which are too complex to examine for this post.

While in the Council, de Blasio supported the 'Small Business Jobs Survival Act,' (SBJSA) as a means to right economic disparity and injustice--the eventual theme of his Tale of Two Cities mayoral run. But, as Public Advocate and now Mayor, it's been radio silence except to propagate the real estate- friendly narrative that fines, fees and lack of access to capital are the reasons NYC mom and pops close, despite a plethora of data and statistics proving otherwise.

Even considering these facts, it's still rather shocking what's gone on with the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch--an issue de Blasio actually campaigned against while running for mayor. Yet a few short years later, it's been a 180 change; in fact, the aforementioned DM assumed responsibility to ensure the deal went through. 

The last time something so egregious occurred was in 1996 when Rudy Giuliani unilaterally sold the license for WNYC-TV. It was only when he then wanted to also sell off the city's water supply that there was a backlash, but too late for the station (at which i worked). To this day, NYC doesn't have its own public TV station. (Look it up.)

Unfortunately, many of my fellow professionals have utterly failed in covering this issue.

Citizens Defending Libraries founders Michael D.D. White and Caroline McIntyre discuss the administration's push to sell city assets to a private developer for a pittance on WBAI's The Morning Show, which I produced. Naturally, a new luxury tower is in the works. 

The entire process exposes how co opted so many public officials have become by big real estate's largess; it also reveals widespread conflicts-of-interest running rampant throughout executive boards which affect public welfare in some way--including the Brooklyn Public Library's Board of Trustees--and amongst employees of various government entities. 

Now back to the impact question. John Fisher, creator of, tells WBAI why the expiration of the controversial developer incentive plan known as 421a isn't a bad thing. Fisher discusses what much of the media, politicians and even tenant groups have ignored in the debate--the impact of such a program and others like it including inclusionary zoning--a cornerstone of de Blasio's affordable housing plan. 

Fisher noted that no matter how much "affordable" housing is included--25, 35, even 50%--it still means the rest will be luxury, translating into inevitable primary and secondary displacement of residents and businesses alike. This is a pattern we've seen for years, particularly under the Bloomberg rezonings-on-steroids. 

Arguments in favor of deeper affordability and using an AMI that better reflects NYC, according to Fisher, are red herrings because the sheer volume and density of the market-rate housing created will ultimately supersede everything else and continue swallowing up community after community.

Moreover, current owners see these giant profits and want to get it on the action, often employing illegal tactics to push out long-term tenants. A reasonable person might be able to recognize something like a chronic lack of repairs, consistent lack of hot water and/or heat, or tenants being groundlessly hauled into housing court as forms of harassment, but the city's housing agency is still grappling with the definition

And it's not as if ANY law enforcement office--not the five DA's or AG's offices etc.--or relevant agencies in charge of oversight take these issues seriously enough to prosecute most wrongdoers for the criminal fraud and other illegal activity. At best, there's a slew of press releases and a lot of promises made, but in reality the wheels of landlord corruption continue to spin.

Underscoring Fisher's position is this interview I produced with a representative of CASA/New Settlement Apartments, who discusses community opposition to the mayor's proposed rezoning of 73 blocks along the Bronx's Jerome Avenue corridor--a stretch included in the nation's poorest urban Congressional District.

Carmen Rivera Vega tells how she and her neighbors spent a year engaging to create an alternative to the city's, after too many times actual residents--the ones who have been and would be directly affected---were again left out of area development plans. 

Rivera said the median income is under $25,000 per year with many residents spending more than 50% of income on rent, yet the city is relying on an AMI of more than $63,000 to be eligible for its planned "affordable" units. The area is also home to many automotive-related businesses and related jobs the city seems bent on forcing out.

With the City Council not only voting to approve a giant pay raise--but one significantly higher than was recommended--I was reminded of something. In 1999-2000, I worked for then- CM Kathryn Freed who represented lower Manhattan. This was definitely not a job for me and as I was leaving, the Council's salary was raised to $90,000 for this "part-time" job. Over 16 years, that salary will now become $148,500, a $36,000 pay raise since 2006. Considering annual rates of inflation or even COLA increases--or freezes as is the case this year--the word disproportionate is an understatement. 

It's especially important because, as my current CM pointed out, Council employees tend to make paltry incomes, and this $36,000 raise is often more than what many earn in a given year. As a working journalist who regularly interacts with many of these staffers, it's pretty clear these days the 'best and the brightest' aren't generally flocking to, or staying at, the Council for jobs, and invariably the low salary is a giant factor. The staffs also seem to be a lot younger and more inexperienced.

Frankly, I needed a job at the time that gave me some stability, having burned out from the constant state of panic that comes with freelancing--especially in broadcast in the late 90's, and I knew and respected Kathryn. 

With a Masters degree, I earned $32,000; a colleague who started the same time earned $31,000 and he had a Masters in transportation planning.  My salary was insufficient for me to survive in New York City, if i hadn't lived in a rent-stabilized unit AND had a roommate. From what I've seen, this salary situation hasn't changed much after all these years, and Council staff are not represented by any municipal union.

Furthermore, my salary would have excluded me as too high for the very low end of city-sponsored affordable units AND from the vast majority of what's being currently proposed because it was too low.

Also of note: 60 Hudson Street--the building associated with last week's crane collapse--was already a major neighborhood concern in 1999. I inherited the relevant folder from the previous staffer, meaning this building was an issue even earlier. Yet, at last week's mayoral presser, the administration somehow seemed unaware of this. (And as a personal peeve, not one reporter inquired as to whether or not the crane crew was non-union.)

I love this picture, and it brings out my Mod side; I feel sorry for you if you don't know who it is!