“Build, baby, build,” declared newly elected Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at a press conference near the Brooklyn Academy of Music in May, 2014. “Build tall, build high,” advised Adams, performing the BP’s role as real estate booster.
This past June, a few miles up Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, Adams played the part of embattled mayoral candidate outside the Bed-Stuy building he owns and claims to call home. “I am real estate,” announced Adams, who is a landlord under investigation by the Department of Buildings for a possible illegal conversion of the basement unit into his purported residence.
En route to Adams’ victory in the June Democratic primary, many of Brooklyn’s leading real estate players — including Jed Walentas (DUMBO, Domino Sugar site, etc.), Andrew Kimball (Industry City) and Donald Capoccia (Bedford Armory) — helped build the outgoing borough president’s war chest. In recent months, many of the biggest names in Manhattan real estate, including Durst and Rudin, have joined the fundraising bandwagon.
Like all Democratic mayoral candidates in the last few cycles, Adams puts affordable housing front and center on his agenda.
A New York City politician who succeeds with the backing of leading real estate developers is hardly a new story. Bill de Blasio won in 2013 with the support of Bruce Ratner (Atlantic Yards), the Rudins and the “animal rights” enthusiasts who had designs on Upper West Side horse stables. Meanwhile, Kathryn Garcia, Adams’ leading challenger in June, was the candidate pushed by Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s deputy mayor for housing who had come from Goldman Sachs’ real estate investment wing.
None of the many mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary carried the support of the Democratic Socialists of America, which makes rejecting donations from real estate interests a prerequisite for its support. As The Indy reported during the primary, developers spent lots of money on attack ads against the DSA’s slate, thus helping Crystal Hudson take her former boss Laurie Cumbo’s seat in Central Brooklyn.
Despite hyperbolic claims by Adams that the “out-of-control” city has been “anti-business” under de Blasio, the dominance of the F.I.R.E. sector (finance, insurance and real estate) remains unchallenged. In late September, the Real Deal reported that the luxury housing market in Manhattan had already surpassed the 2014 high of $11 billion in transactions. Brooklyn home prices are also at record levels.
What’s good for developers and existing homeowners, of course, isn’t good for aspiring homeowners or renters. The current median rent in Brooklyn of $2,650 is close to the pre-pandemic high, and while Manhattan’s median $3,100 is $400 shy of 2019, that’s still quite upscale. Given that Adams is in their corner, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) may be sitting pretty. But what’s in store for everyone else?
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Like all Democratic mayoral candidates in the last few cycles, Adams puts affordable housing front and center on his agenda. The first item on his list is to “up-zone wealthier areas where we can build far more affordable units.” That may sound like a laudable goal that would help working-class people gain access to neighborhoods with deep resources, but as The Indy’s Todd Fine documented, the proposed SoHo rezoning carries few guarantees that affordable units will be built.
Given that most of the city’s high-rise luxury towers are utterly devoid of aesthetic appeal, one can only wonder what these lower-end units will look like.
Neighborhood activists, allied with incoming progressive City Councilmember Christopher Marte, have already forced City Planning to revise its initial blueprint. Even in the best-case scenario, less than 1,150 affordable units would be built over the next two decades — raising the question of whether up-zoning is a viable solution to the affordable housing crisis (or just a way for luxury developers to cash in). In attempting to alter the character of wealthier neighborhoods, the Adams administration would thus engage in protracted battle with powerful, litigious foes. While Adams may score some political points for waging that fight, his administration may not end up creating many new affordable units for working-class families.
Meanwhile, Adams is also proposing to “think big by building small,” stating that he intends to overhaul the city’s “outdated rules” that prevent developers from “building the small, cheaper micro-units common around the world.”
Given that most of the city’s high-rise luxury towers are utterly devoid of aesthetic appeal, one can only wonder what these lower-end units will look like. Adams further calls for wide-scale legalization of basement apartments (like his own), although that would need to be accompanied by massive investment in flood prevention.
Much will depend on who Adams selects to lead his Department of City Planning. De Blasio’s appointment of veteran industry insider Carl Weisbrod in 2014 certainly pleased the REBNY crowd. Weisbrod’s successor, Marisa Lago, maintained a low profile until departing to work for the Biden administration at the end of September. Whether Adams will allow any of his key appointees — police commissioner, schools chancellor, etc. — to operate free from his control remains to be seen.
In his first term, Mayor Bloomberg — now a leading Adams financial supporter — pushed through the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. Seventeen years later, we now see the results: an endless proliferation of high-rise luxury towers in an area devoid of basic amenities such as parks. Over the past eight years, Adams has presided over the transformation of the area from his perch at Borough Hall. Once central destinations in the lives of Black Brooklynites, the Fulton Street Mall and Albee Square Mall are now gentrified and the streets are quiet.
Alas, that’s life in REBNY’s city.
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