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All That Is Solid Melts into Condos

Bill de Blasio’s recent housing deals give some insight into what the Left is up against in New York, even with a progressive mayor.

Kevin Case / Flickr

For many beleaguered progressives New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio represents a return to New Deal-style liberalism the party abandoned in the post-Reagan era.

It’s easy to see why, since he has made all the right enemies in a short timeframe. He has tussled with charter school profiteers by insisting that private companies who use taxpayer property actually compensate the public. His plan for universal pre-kindergarten education has put him in direct conflict with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a conservative Democrat who wants to fund the program without tax increases — clearly painting de Blasio as a redistribution-minded executive. He aided the beleaguered public housing authority by waiving its obligation to pay for policing, something private landlords get at no extra cost. He settled a long-standing racial discrimination lawsuit against firefighter hiring, a turnabout from the intransigence of the Bloomberg administration.

And when the New York Times asked if he was filling his cabinet with liberal activists rather than technocratic administrators, as if this were a bad thing, it solidified the image among his supporters that activists would have a willing ear inside City Hall. In comparison to the Republican administrations of the past two decades, that is unquestionably true.

Already, a great many liberals are ready to expect big change down the pike, pushing aside his appointment of former Giuliani top cop Bill Bratton as police commissioner as a mere concession to law-and-order critics. In fact, de Blasio appeared to be the knight in shining armor when he halted real estate scion Jed Walentas’s proposal to develop the site of the iconic Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg because his plan for a commercial and residential behemoth didn’t include enough affordable housing.

But it is the deal that was eventually reached between the city and Walentas that may give some insight into what this city is going to look like under de Blasio’s tenure, and gives the Left an insight into what kind of forces it is up against, even with a progressive mayor. As one housing activist likes to note, real estate is to New York City as oil is to Texas. No matter how big of a liberal sits in City Hall, it seems, those titans are going to call the economic shots.

While Walentas agreed to add forty more units of affordable residential units to the complex (bringing the total number of units to 700 out of a total of 2,300), the Times reported that he will “receive a zoning change allowing their towers to rise up to fifty-five stories above the East River, about twenty stories higher than current regulations permit,” and will be “able to charge higher rents for some of the affordable units in the project than he would have previously.” Walentas, clearly the winner in the deal, said, “We hope this can become a model for what we can all achieve together in the years ahead.”

Many urbanists believe that only more density in our already crowded city can address the dearth in affordable housing, an issue that has previously been examined in Jacobin by Karen Narefsky. Yet as veteran Williamsburg activist Phil DiPaolo pointed out to me, development on the north Brooklyn waterfront has proven the opposite: there, high-density build up has replaced a mixed-use and lower-income community with something that looks more like South Beach. As a result, the reigning class dictates what amenities develop, which are mostly expensive bars and restaurants rather than the low-cost retail these lucky “affordable” tenants would normally rely upon.

Likewise, the administration has made clear that any plan to save Long Island College Hospital, a key issue for de Blasio’s campaign, will involve a mix of medical services and luxury condos. Libraries have made up shortfalls by selling off assets — as in, their buildings filled with books — to developers.

The message is clear: Citizens can have the amenities and services that define a city as long as the lords of real estate can get their taste, too.

The problem with hoping that luxury build up will relieve the housing market and include tax revenue for public projects is that the bulk of real estate titans’ wealth streams comes not from leasing to the average Jane, but rather trading with a global wealthy class that gobbles up units here — and in London, Hong Kong, and other global hotspots — to serve as investment vehicles rather than functioning domiciles. This is the inevitable result of an economy where the main brick-and-mortar industry is real estate development; where our city — its streets, parks and public institutions — is not perceived as a collection of communities but as the mined raw material for constant production and accumulation of profit.

And just like with any commodity, if production doesn’t grow, the industry will collapse — taking all the building trades workers, real estate lawyers, architects, and others who have made the industry possible down with it. So de Blasio’s recent deal with Walentas isn’t so much an indictment of his shortcomings as an economic liberal, but rather a clear indication of the constraints such an economic model puts on him.

De Blasio knows that, which is probably why he was embraced so enthusiastically in February when he spoke before the city’s main real estate confederation, the Real Estate Board of New York — his first closed door meeting since he drew criticism for barring the press from his speech to AIPAC. Related Companies founder Stephen Ross validated the mayor’s pitch to REBNY as “very good, excellent.” Real estate developers approve of de Blasio because, while a few more people than usual might get to stay in their neighborhoods, if the Walentas deal is any indication, the vast majority of wage earners will continue to be pushed to the outskirts of New York.

This has always been a weak point in de Blasio’s liberal credentials. As a City Council member, he supported controversial corporate land grabs like the Atlantic Yards project, which has failed to yield any of the public services its developer Bruce Ratner originally promised. His own constituents complained that he was only interested in creating park space on the waterfront if it included new high-rise development.

De Blasio has undoubtedly brought some positive changes in a short time, and there is an opportunity to pressure the administration for demands like a more equitable divide of market-rate to “affordable” housing than the normal 80/20 percent standard in new residential units that receive subsidies, or mandates that street-level retail include things other than high-end outlets like Whole Foods stores, and protections for things of actual use like hardware stores or laundromats, so they don’t all get replaced with scented candle boutiques.

Some Democratic activists, like Nathan Newman through his outfit More NYC, advocate for more housing construction on the idea that it will create cheaper housing and more well-paying jobs. But this approach still views the city as a commodity that needs to be remolded for capital accumulation; left to its logical conclusion, this obsession with density results in viewing every park, every historic home, and every courtyard as an unused blight that needs to be replaced with a skyscraper. From this point of view, we can’t have a library unless it has a tower of housing units above it, as if a public institution on its own is a needless drain — a strange kind of liberalism.

De Blasio isn’t the only part of this new era in New York City politics; there are City Council members and a public advocate to his left. There are also, in some districts, experiments in participatory budgeting. These are all venues to advance central spending on new housing at below-market rates, which require real estate developments to create new types of residential and commercial spaces that operate at a loss if they want to use city spaces to build more towers meant for pure profit making.

Some space has been pried open for new demands for affordable housing in New York. Activists should unite on a plan that puts a government watch on any new affordable development, rather than simply funneling subsidies to developers in hopes they’ll take on a few cheaper units. And since de Blasio has committed to some redistributive measures like universal pre-K, New Yorkers can insist that he bring the same attitude to housing.

That’s a difficult battle to win, but one that will be made easier with de Blasio in office.