Wednesday, May 11, 2016

BDB, Real Estate & the Great Vampire Squid (credit to Matt Taibbi)

Cake from my last birthday; Remember when this was the battle cry against gentrification, especially in the East Village?

With all the scandals now swirling around Mayor de Blasio, I suppose it's easy to focus on possible fundraising improprieties concerning state senate candidates. The press loves simple narratives--in this case standard potential corruption--and given the low attention span or intellectual levels they ascribe to us, they can get away with simultaneously either barely covering or worse--willfully ignoring--the larger, more complex moving parts. Kudos, then, to DNAinfo for its stellar reporting and follow through.

There are currently numerous ongoing investigations into the de Blasio administration, including several based on some variation on a pay-to-play edict. What is becoming astonishingly clear (and disappointingly so) is the seemingly rampant impropriety, illegality and behavior as if they are above the law. Even the appearance of impropriety has not served as a deterrent.

No matter what anyone tells you, it's abundantly clear the majority of these cases involve big real estate and developers, including the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library or concerning the sale and deed change of the AIDS hospice on the LES. I have heard speculation from within certain alternative media outlets that the time frame suggests there is the possibility some of these deals were worked out even before the mayor assumed power. More on this later.

But something I think getting lost within the feeding frenzy is the fact the mayor's point person on all things real estate--my former high school friend DM Alicia Glen--is an alumni of one of the world's most venal corporations, Goldman Sachs, whose track record borders on a criminal enterprise. Glen was no mere mid-level employee at Goldman, she headed its Urban Investment Group. 

I've previously posted my concerns about her appointment. Already, Glen has been linked to the egregious library sale. Reports of her trying to undo the nursing home sale I believe are only part of the story, and I think further investigation will yield evidence that her office was aware of the deal before even the First Deputy Mayor. After all, she has enormous power in this administration and virtually everything dealing with land use goes through her office.

My point here is this: Mayor de Blasio made a very specific statement when he hired her, which was not simply to pacify REBNY. Really, what do you think she represents, what message did her appointment send? De Blasio himself may not be corrupt--I simply don't know anymore and he's a far cry from the man with whom I worked on the Dinkins' reelection campaign in 1993--but Glen's association with Goldman--not to mention Giuliani's HPD which was rife with sleaze while managing to also decimate the agency--speaks VOLUMES to the rest of the well-intentioned honest people who comprise the administration. 


For this post, I've highlighted some of the recent WBAI segments I produced focusing on land use, development and the all-consuming power of the real estate industry, in no particular order. 


Louis Flores, publisher of online news site Progress Queens, analyzes the mayor's recent revamping plan for the city's vast public hospital system. Included deeply and vaguely within the pages of a city analysis is something we've come to expect from the de Blasio administration: the advocacy of selling public (hospital area) land and repurposing buildings.  


Community concerns over the recent and near unanimous Council passage of the East New York rezoning with Ana Aguirre, executive director of United Community Centers-East NY and member of the Coalition for Community Advancement.

-----'s John Fisher and Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation discuss the selling out by tenants groups who now support de Blasio's affordable housing plan. Specifically, they focus on the Real Affordability for All Coalition (RAFA), and the unique relationship that develops because many of its members depend on funding from elected officials. By switching positions, they provide political cover for those electeds who side with the interests of big real estate over those of their own constituents. Meanwhile, said tenant advocates received nothing concrete in concessions from the city. They also discuss the inherent flaw in the kind of Inclusionary Zoning--mandatory or not--used in NYC, which inevitably leads to the construction of predominantly luxury units. That, in turn, fundamentally changes the dynamic of any given neighborhood, imminent displacement and even a net loss of affordable apartments. 

Atlantic Yards Reports' Norman Oder  elaborates on the array of problems and disruptions for residents living near Brooklyn's publicly-subsidized boondoggle, the Barclay's Center Arena--including sexual harassment and assault. Oder also talks about how the promised jobs have morphed over time, and how the 'affordable' units have become less and less accessible to the people who most need them, while also becoming so expensive as to exceed de Blasio's Inclusionary Zoning guidelines--which are already very generous to high-income households.

CUNY graduate student and New Politics author Samuel Stein talks about how the city has the power to do better regarding affordable housing, calling it a 'dangerous game" to link the creation of affordable apartments to luxury unit construction. Focusing on the "imperfect" tool of zoning, Stein believes the city should have imposed a moratorium before instituting any new rezonings. As soon as neighborhoods were identified by the AH plan, they became giant targets of speculation and huge creations of wealth for land owners, as evidenced in East NY, he said, and it's no coincidence the city targeted lower income neighborhoods--which can't possibly remain so after the rezonings.

The mayor's plan is actually a real estate stimulus plan; Stein explains this is to be expected given the top two de Blasio officials responsible for implementation, City Planning chair Carl Weisbrod and DM Glen. Both have backgrounds rooted in finance and the real estate industry rather than in fields like affordable housing or city planning.

Now back to the speculation about timing: In an article for Jacobin magazine, Stein connects the dots about the mayor's proposed trolley route between two boroughs. Stein's research not only revealed most of the same route is already adequately served, there are nine areas considered "subway starved" in comparison, which happen to be located in lower income minority neighborhoods. More significantly, the route matches up with many development projects sponsored by developers who happen to be supporters.

In his article, Stein writes, "The route is clearly not the most logical or sustainable...The 'Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector' are...friends of higher waterfront property values, seeking public insurance for their private investments in the form of infrastructure development....The waterfront streetcar plan is based less on a community's need for service than a group of well-connected developers' desire for profit."


Steve Barrison, attorney and EVP of the Small Business Congress-NYC--which represents more than 185,000 mom pop businesses--discusses why they are trying to pressure Queens elected officials for help to stem the tidal wave of mass closings. Queens is the home to the largest number of immigrants in the city, and immigrants are the largest owners of small businesses.

Years of city policies either neglecting or even exacerbating mass closings of small businesses have created a crisis. As discussed on previous numerous Ethics Ain't Pretty posts, Council Member Bill de Blasio supported the one bill considered a real solution: The overwhelming reason NYC's longstanding mom-and-pops close is because of astronomical rent increases or the refusal of a landlord to renew a lease, and commercial tenants have no rights whatsoever. REBNY and other real estate interests have made it abundantly clear they wish to retain this status quo. Yet, not the mayor is virtually silent--why do you suppose that is?


Tom Siracuse, chair of the Committee to Protect Rent Controlled Tenants, discusses how there are only about 25K of such units remaining in NYC, predominantly inhabited by seniors living on fixed incomes. Outside of those living in public housing, RC tenants have the lowest mean income of all renters in NYC; 1/3 spend more than 50% of income on rent. DHCR, the state agency tasked with overseeing controlled units is proposing (since approved with virtually no press coverage) a 9+% increase at a time when COLA's have been frozen, and rent stabilized tenants will get a rent freeze in 2016. Siracuse describes a faulty formula on which increases are based, resulting in controlled tenants being subjected to the highest cumulative increases of all rent regulated tenants over the years. This translates into more and more NYC senior citizens living at the very real risk of losing their longtime homes.