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Real estate is a flash point in New York’s primary election

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The real state industry’s impact on city and state politics has led to a surge of progressive challengers

Max Touhey

New York is in the midst of a well-documented affordability crisis, particularly when it comes to housing. The city has lost thousands of rent-regulated apartments due to laws that make it easier for landlords to take them out of regulation, while the cost of living has far outpaced residents’ ability to pay ever-rising rents.

Even though New York City has built an unprecedented number of affordable apartments since Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, questions of who can actually afford them linger. And outside of the five boroughs, tenants have fewer protections against predatory landlords or the whims of the real estate market.

In the lead up to the midterm elections, these issues have become a flash point, particularly for a growing crop of progressive candidates who have pitched themselves as not beholden—and in some cases, outright hostile—to New York’s powerful real estate industry.

As voters get closer to Thursday’s primary election, it’s worth looking at how real estate is influencing this particular race, the outcome of which could signal a major shift in New York housing policy.

“Housing and rent is the biggest issue in New York,” says Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, a tenant advocacy group. “Coming out of the financial crisis where so many people lost their homes, and so many people are renters, and have no ability to fight back against landlords … people are now rising up against it.”

One of those people is Cynthia Nixon, the actor and activist who is running against Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic party’s gubernatorial nomination. She’s positioned herself as the anti-Cuomo on issues like transit, education, and fighting corruption in Albany.

Under the banner of universal rent control—a term that Nixon hasn’t always been able to clearly define—her housing platform encompasses several progressive causes, such as expanding rent stabilization across New York state, and ending both the preferential rent and vacancy decontrol loopholes. Her willingness to champion those causes has earned her the backing of many tenants’ rights organizations, including New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and TenantsPAC. (It’s also drawn the ire of groups like the Real Estate Board of New York [REBNY] and the Rent Stabilization Association, which said this spring that Nixon’s platform would “worsen the housing crisis.”)

Nixon is also one of several Democratic candidates—including lieutenant governor hopeful Jumaane Williams and attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout—who have refused to accept donations from real estate bigwigs.

“There’s no special interest that dominates New York state politics more than the real estate lobby,” says Michael McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, which supports candidates who commit to protecting tenants. “And then you have someone like Zephyr Teachout saying she won’t accept real estate money, but she’s going to investigate them if she gets elected attorney general. To a lot of people, that’s very exciting, and to the real estate lobby, it’s very frightening.”

A frequent target of criticism is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from developers, including Extell’s Gary Barnett, who personally donated $40,000 in June, and the Durst Organization, which donated $75,000 in the first half of the year. During his tenure, Cuomo has invested millions of dollars from the state into affordable housing developments across the state. But he’s also helped codify tax breaks for developers, and has not explicitly called for an end to the Urstadt Law, which gives the state legislature outsize influence over New York City’s rent laws.

Other incumbents in this week’s primary who’ve accepted cash from the real estate business find themselves facing upstart challengers. State Sens. Jeff Klein and Jesse Hamilton, both members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)—a group of Democrats who once caucused with Republicans, effectively giving the latter control of New York’s state Senate—before it disbanded, have accepted sizable donations from the REBNY. Both are now fighting primary challengers (Alessandra Biaggi and Zellnor Myrie, respectively) who have committed to not taking money from real estate bigwigs.

“Being a handmaiden of real estate interests is a huge political liability this year for Democrats in a way that it wasn’t before,” says Susan Kang, one of the co-founders of No IDC NY, a grassroots campaign to oust the New York legislators who were part of the IDC. “I think that a lot of people gave Democrats a pass—we assumed they were looking out for our interests.”

Taking campaign contributions doesn’t necessarily mean a person is in the pocket of the real estate industry, of course. Attorney General hopeful Letitia James, the keeper of the NYC’s 100 Worst Landlords list, has also accepted donations (to the tune of about $280,000) from real estate interests; TenantsPAC has still endorsed her, pointing to her record as a strong advocate for residents during her time as NYC’s public advocate.

And REBNY president John H. Banks told Curbed that the organization supports candidates “who are interested in advancing smart policies that create good jobs, produce more housing, and lead to the creation of additional tax revenue to pay for critical government services.”

But tenant advocates argue that when candidates accept money from real estate lobbyists, it’s far less likely that those candidates will fight as hard for the rights of their constituents.

This has come into focus in the race for state Sen. Martin Dilan’s seat in North Brooklyn, where he’s being challenged by self-identified Democratic socialist Julia Salazar. The National Institute of Money in Politics, which tracks campaign finance data, found that some of his top donors are real estate groups, including REBNY and the Rent Stabilization Association. Even though he has previously supported pro-tenant legislation, there has been a massive loss of rent-regulated housing in his district—which some see as linked to his ties to the real estate industry, as reported by Gothamist.

This primary, and its surge of progressive candidates, comes at a particularly crucial time for New Yorkers: In 2019, the state’s rent laws—which govern things like rent regulation, vacancy bonuses, and penalties for tenant harassment—will be up for renewal. “The best chance to strengthen rent laws and protect affordable housing is to deliver the Senate into Democratic hands in November, and elect reformist Democrats in the primary on Thursday,” the New York Times wrote in an op-ed this week, and tenant advocates agree.

“There is going to be a huge fight in Albany over what the future of rent laws look like,” says Westin. He predicts that “thousands” of tenants, galvanized by the pressure currently being put on their elected officials, will be fighting next year for rent laws that are better for tenants—no matter what happens on Thursday.

“People across the state need rent protections, and are willing to fight for it,” he explains, using a recent victory in Ossining—where residents recently voted for rent protections on buildings of a certain age and size—as proof. “That’s what we need all these candidates to do.”