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Rethinking the Luxury City

Tom Angotti Dec 17

What will Bill de Blasio do? That question is churning around in the local press and on everyone’s mind. Will he be a true progressive or just an enlightened pragmatist? Who will he appoint to key positions? Will he be aggressive in the pursuit of equality or stumble on the obstacles in his path? Will he stick by labor once he’s on the other side of the bargaining table? Beyond the imaging and the hype, will he be that much different from Bloomberg? Or as an article in Capital put it, will de Blasio prove to be “an operative or activist”?

Interesting questions, but they’re not the right ones.

The media and political establishment would have us believe that what really matters is the person in the top executive post. We are reminded that there are real obstacles in de Blasio’s way — budget realities, the governor and legislature in Albany, the web of legal roadblocks, the sluggishness of the city’s sprawling bureaucracy and Bloomberg’s commitments for megaprojects and contracting out that will be hard to reverse. But what’s really important, they seem to say, is whether de Blasio stands tall.

What this does is reduce local politics to a personality contest involving heroic figures. Missing in the picture: us, the working people, our neighborhoods and our community and labor organizations. The questions we should be asking now revolve around our role over the next four years. What should we do? The Bloomberg administration, one of the most imperial mayoralties in recent history, has created an illusion that the change in emperor is what really matters most.

The Bloomberg Legacy 

Before we get to what does matter, we need to have a better understanding of Bloomberg’s legacy, how it has changed the city, and what that will mean for the next four years.

In 12 years as mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg was a champion of building the luxury city. He explicitly advocated attracting big real estate investments and wealthy individuals with the idea that more capital would bring jobs, services and money for everyone else — in other words, good old trickle-down economics. He was also intolerant of anyone who suggested that this ignored the critical needs of people struggling with wages below the poverty level, unaffordable housing and declining public services. 

The press, led by the three major daily newspapers and major network and cable news channels, pumped up Bloomberg’s image, calling him extremely popular, a paragon of efficient government, a global leader in public health and the environment, and incorruptible. He benefited from a welling up of civic pride following 9/11 and from widespread relief that he turned away from former mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s racial and political intolerance. But Bloomberg’s halo didn’t get tarnished until the remarkable landslide for de Blasio, who ran against Bloomberg’s legacy of “the tale of two cities.” De Blasio clearly struck a chord in an electorate that had not bought the hype about Mike. 

What Bloomberg actually did could not be farther from the public image created in City Hall and on Madison Avenue. To build the luxury city, he rezoned around a third of the land in the city, creating huge increases in land value that  owners cashed in on by building mostly luxury housing and office space. While the rezonings also protected middle- and upper-income enclaves from new development, thereby gaining a measure of consent, their main impact was to spur gentrification and the displacement of lower-income working people and locally owned businesses. At the same time, Bloomberg generously offered subsidies and tax breaks to real estate developers. He focused on the biggest real estate plums in Manhattan, like the Hudson Yards, but also targeted downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and other locations in the outer boroughs — places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn — which in a half decade began to look more like Manhattan than historic industrial, working-class neighborhoods.

Bloomberg dismissed charges that he was responsible for gentrification in Harlem, the Lower East Side and other development hot spots. He pointed to his program to create 165,000 units of affordable housing (mostly accomplished) and the use of inclusionary zoning in areas being rezoned, which created the possibility that 20 percent of new residential units would be affordable. Never mind that the definition of affordability was based on average annual income in the greater New York metropolitan area and was pegged so high that most people living in gentrifying neighborhoods could not afford them. Or that only a handful of developers opted for the 20 percent affordable units. 

Bloomberg used his last term in office to cement his “legacy” by getting approvals and signing contracts for new development schemes that the next mayor will have a hard time reversing or slowing down. He contracted out many services, from public housing maintenance to the city’s own strategic planning, undermining city agency workers, and balanced the budget without negotiating expired labor contracts or setting aside a penny for pay increases once the contracts are settled. In a scandal that none of the newspapers has dared to approach, Bloomberg ran his private charity out of City Hall to shape city policies in ways he would not be allowed to under the City Charter. And his much-heralded reputation for efficiency conceals some pretty big conflicts of interest and scandals, like the one around the CityTime contract. He widened the huge well of discontent with the distance of government from the neighborhoods, which was clearly reflected in the results of the last election.

Then we have Bloomberg’s policing policies — the notorious stop-and-frisk that targeted black and Latino men. His housing policies brought over 50,000 people to homeless shelters, the highest number ever, and under his watch the number of people requiring food assistance went up dramatically while the already underestimated unemployment rate remained high. 

Finally, Bloomberg’s image as an advocate for all that is “green” and “healthy” does not square with the facts. His PlaNYC2030, presented as a long-term sustainability plan, is really a short-term growth plan to justify new real estate development and a few greening projects that help support it, and is not the first of its kind. While Bloomberg banned smoking, so too did mayors all over the United States and Europe. While some gains were made in fuel efficiency, New York is still far behind other cities in waste management and recycling.

Lessons From the Dinkins Administration

Will the next administration be able to stop Bloomberg’s luxury city? To help answer this question, let’s look at the last time grassroots movements helped elect a mayor. David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, was elected in 1990, following 12 years of Ed Koch, a law-and-order politician who was not popular in communities of color or with labor. 

Dinkins welcomed progressives into his administration (including de Blasio), but from the first day he entered office Dinkins faced a backlash in the press and the most reactionary outposts within government, especially from within the police department. This opened the door for the revanchist putsch of Rudolph Giuliani, who exploited racial confrontation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, joined racist cops demonstrating against community policing and went on to win the next election. The progressives, dispersed and disarmed, were unable to stop Giuliani and advance their social agenda.

De Blasio is not likely to face a similar backlash. He will replace Bloomberg’s all-white City Hall with a more diverse staff in a city in which U.S.-born whites are a minority. Bloomberg has effectively lost on stop-and-frisk and many even in the NYPD are relieved. But the new mayor will face a host of other obstacles.

The Permanent Establishment 

Even without a backlash, the formidable army of lobbyists working for Wall Street and the real estate industry will already know where the levers of power are and how to pull them to get to de Blasio. They are going to do all in their power to insure that their greatest achievements under Bloomberg will be sustained. And de Blasio has been careful to not provoke them.

The first item on their agenda is to preserve the real estate boom that Bloomberg presided over. On this score, de Blasio has already declared no contest. In the City Council and as public advocate, he firmly supported new development as long as it included some measure of affordable housing. The problem is that under Bloomberg new development displaced more affordable housing than it created. De Blasio did not oppose the instant gentrification sparked by Bloomberg’s 140 rezonings. He now promises only that the 20 percent affordable housing be required instead of optional. This means that 80 percent will continue to be luxury housing, which still drives up land values and rents and forces out existing residents. So de Blasio may give us more “affordable” housing, just like all the previous mayors did, fiddle with the percentages to get a little more of it, and do nothing to stop gentrification.

To his credit, de Blasio said he would not support some of Bloomberg’s most egregious attacks on public and middle-income housing. For example, he said he would not approve the New York City Housing Authority’s proposal to build luxury housing on the site of eight Manhattan projects. 

However, he has not objected to the authority’s other moves toward privatization and did not rule out coming up with different plans to build on authority land. Will de Blasio be the mayor to realize the dream of big real estate — to get their hands on public housing’s most valuable land? In the midst of budget negotiations, will our next mayor cave before those who argue that selling off these and other public assets is the best way out? 

One small indication of where the new mayor might go is his proposal to tax vacant land to encourage housing development. This evades any role for the people who live in areas that have been plagued with vacant lots as dumping grounds. They should have a say. Maybe they would prefer parks or community gardens to new housing? Taxing the land might be a good solution for developers and help fuel gentrification. Is that a progressive solution? 

The second big item on the business agenda will be the budget and negotiations with unions. Here the 1% only has to let de Blasio take the hit for extracting concessions from his union supporters and for cutting funds for vital services. Let de Blasio be the one to convince workers to be “realistic” and accept the inevitable. What we will not hear about is that the city’s billionaire bondholders, Wall Street firms and powerful real estate investors will not be asked to share the pain. The mayor will try to raise taxes, but even if he were to succeed in Albany it would not be enough.

Build the Dream

Bill de Blasio’s history as a Democratic Party operative and pragmatist and his support for development must be understood along with his progressive credentials and outspoken criticism of inequality. But with the election behind him, who will put the brakes on the pragmatist? 

The most important thing we can do now is to sustain and build independent voices outside City Hall and not depend on the insiders. Here’s an agenda to start with, but there’s certainly much more:

  • We won on stop-and-frisk; now let’s restore community policing.
  • We slowed down the creation of new charter schools; now let’s stop subsidizing them, remake the Department of Education with professional educators and establish functioning parent councils.
  • Bloomberg built a lot of “affordable housing” but too much of it isn’t truly affordable and a lot of it contributes to gentrification and displacement of our neighborhoods. Let’s preserve existing affordable housing by backing stronger rent laws, stopping the privatization of Mitchell-Lama (middle-income) and public housing and preserving affordable housing in land trusts.
  • Bloomberg built many bike lanes, public plazas and the High Line. Now let’s reduce traffic everywhere and bring these public benefits to all neighborhoods.
  • After Sandy, Bloomberg changed the building and zoning laws to protect new buildings on the waterfront. Now let’s have a new waterfront plan that will prevent our most vulnerable land from becoming exclusive upscale enclaves, and let’s support working-class tenants and homeowners stuck in flood plains.
  • Let’s bolster the city’s 59 community boards by drastically increasing their power, funding and ability to plan while also making them more representative.
  • Let’s submit the city’s capital budget to the participatory budgeting process.

Yes, of course, we have organizations and individuals that will represent us, lobby the mayor and stick up for our interests. Some will get into City Hall with de Blasio and advocate worthy causes. But without active, vocal movements pressing from the grassroots, don’t expect a lot from the new administration.

Tom Angotti is a professor of urban affairs and planning at the City University of New York, co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine and author of New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate.


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