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Real Estate’s Attempt to Hijack the Affordable Housing Discussion

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, pictured, has charged Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, with extorting money through Glenwood Management to benefit his son Adam. Glenwood is already one of the state’s biggest providers of [legal] campaign cash. Photo by Edward Munoz/Reuters
Reprinted from Gotham Gazette, May 1, 2015.

Think of the classic pieces of advice you’ve heard from parents, teachers or mentors along the way in life: Look before you leap. Think before you speak. Consider the source.

Sometimes we forget the obvious. This has been the case over the past two years, as an organization with a long track record of blocking all efforts to advance an affordable housing agenda has suddenly become a leading voice in the debate about how best to pursue this much-needed public policy goal.

Cleverly, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has seized on the de Blasio administration’s focus on affordable housing as the latest way to fight something they have opposed for five decades: the designation of city landmarks. Now REBNY declares that landmarking is bad for affordable housing. The contention is as baseless as it is self-serving.

Consider the source: REBNY’s mission is to maximize profits and eliminate regulatory hurdles for developers and property owners. It sees landmarks and historic districts as obstacles on that path, and historically has been no friend to affordable housing advocates. To further its mission, REBNY has been a longtime key funder of maintaining the Republican majority in the State Senate – which consistently opposes every affordable housing preservation initiative. Is this really a group that should have the ear of the city’s top housing policymakers on this subject?

A recent report issued  by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, “Check the Facts and Consider the Source: Campaign Cash and REBNY’s Real Record on Affordable Housing” reveals that although REBNY represents New York City owners and developers, the group furthers its policy agenda by investing heavily in elections upstate and on Long Island. In the month before last fall’s state elections, the group’s new “Jobs for New York” political action committee raised $2.5 million toward the goal of electing Republicans in Senate districts. The effort was successful: In the five races targeted – all outside of New York City – Republican candidates won, moving the Senate to complete GOP control.

Landmarks like Westbeth are not the problem.
Westbeth is an affordable housing development that is also landmarked.

A look back over the past 10 years further demonstrates a strong pattern:

  • Over the decade from October 2004 through October 2014, the Real Estate Board PAC was the #2 interest-group donor to the New York Republican State Committee, second only to the landlords’ Rent Stabilization Association PAC.
  • Over the decade from October 2004 through October 2014, the Real Estate Board PAC was consistently in the top ten largest interest-group donors to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee, giving $454,000.
  • Over the decade from October 2004 through 2014, the Real Estate Board PAC gave more than four times as much to the Republican senate campaign committee as to the Democratic one.
  • From 2011 to 2013, despite being a New York City organization, nearly three-quarters of REBNY contributions went to candidates in districts outside the city.
  • When the contributions of REBNY officers are added to the mix – like those of Glenwood Management owner Leonard Litwin – the numbers become even more dramatic. From 2011 to 2013, the combined group gave 31 times as much to the Republican State Senate Committee as to the Democratic one.

In the words of veteran housing activist Michael McKee, “Real estate money has prevented action on any and all bills that would benefit tenants or stop the loss of affordable housing. Not a single pro-tenant bill has made it to the floor [of the state Senate] in the last four years.”

Yet city and state officials have been heard parroting REBNY’s self-serving “argument.” Why not learn, instead, from the people who work to build affordable housing day in and day out? We at GVSHP queried those professionals, and they found it laughable to connect landmarking to the challenges of building affordable housing. Rather, they said the top obstacles to such development include the rising costs of land and construction; scarce and declining subsidies; and an inability to reap the economies of scale that market-rate developers depend on.

First Houses, in the East Village, are the nation’s first federally-funded public housing development. A landmark, these apartments provide affordable housing as part of NYCHA.

Another reason to “consider the source” is REBNY’s record of crying wolf over the designation of historic districts that today’s New Yorkers consider essential. Just after the Landmarks Law was signed in 1965, a REBNY official was quoted in the New York Times warning that the new law would “seriously impede the modern expansion and progress of the city” – a prediction that clearly did not come true.

In 1986, REBNY opposed the designation of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District on lower Fifth Avenue, saying it would have “a chilling effect on the renovations and adaptations of long-vacant buildings” – clearly belied by today’s vibrant shopping district with robust rental rates. In 1988, REBNY opposed the creation of the Central Park West Historic District, explaining that it was opposing this one because it always opposes them. For decades, the group has been calling for our city’s landmarks law to be rolled back.

From the current investigation of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to the recent indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – who is accused, among other things, of using Litwin’s Glenwood Management to get kickbacks – the paths that real estate money takes in New York city and state government are often not pretty. And their attempts to influence the process extend far beyond the state Legislature; indeed, REBNY’s largesse has been lavished on both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio.

But that’s not a good reason to let the Real Estate Board become the authors of, or authorities on, public policy about affordable housing or landmarking. We wouldn’t want the NRA to write legislation about gun safety, nor the oil and gas industry to dictate policy on renewable energy sources. Check the record, and consider the source.

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