Eric Adams Delivers for Big Real Estate
Rent might be going up and up
Eric Adams, consistently inconsistent on so much, has always been reliable when it comes to land and money. He respects those who own, not rent, and he is drawn to the glitz of wealth. Millionaires and billionaires are his friends, the kind of people he’ll spend his days and nights among. He is the sort of working-class person enamored with the station he’s reached, happy to pass a Monday with Cara Delevingne and A$AP Rocky.
Some of this is harmless. It’s fine to have a mayor who enjoys the finer things and dips his toe into nightlife. The city needs a cheerleader; the city needs swag. Let Adams, Jimmy Walker incarnate, be that man. The de Blasio years could be tiring. Adams has a right to make this Fun City.
Where the trouble begins is real estate.
Every mayor of the modern era has been a champion of the developers who determine much of the political direction in New York. Developers aren’t all sinister and this city very desperately needs new housing stock, much of it affordable. With the federal government largely absent, the private sector is needed to build. Adams has proposed no serious housing agenda so far but he’s not wrong to insist that more upzoning in wealthier areas is necessary. He should back up his campaign promise and start converting underused hotels into cheap housing. The real estate elite will have a role to play here.
For all his faults, Bill de Blasio understood inherently how to satiate the powerful developer lobby while delivering tangible victories for tenants. De Blasio should have driven a harder bargain with developers and he was too wedded to the Bloombergian approach to building—give the private sector largely what it wants and hope a slice of “affordable” housing is carved out of whatever development comes. But de Blasio was deeply serious about protecting tenants after 12 years of billionaire rule under Michael Bloomberg. He signed transformational legislation into law that gave low-income tenants the right to counsel when facing eviction proceedings. And his appointees to the Rent Guidelines Board froze rent on rent-stabilized apartments multiple times, helping more than one million tenants avoid the routine hikes of the Bloomberg years.
Adams will not be gutting the right to counsel program—if he does, the City Council will be ready to fight back—but the fate of renters in stabilized apartments is largely up to him. The mayor appoints all nine members. Two are supposed to represent the interests of tenants. Two are for landlords. The rest are for the “general public” which, in theory, includes mostly tenants because a vast majority of the city rents. Since the members serve staggered terms, Adams can’t replace all nine before the board votes on rent hikes this June. But he has the power to name up to six.
So far, Adams has named two new members to the Rent Guidelines Board and both spell doom for tenants. This is not surprising. Last year, I asked Adams, when he was a candidate for mayor, if he would be open to freezing rents in the future. He was not. Instead, he disingenuously invoked the interests of working-class Black homeowners to argue against a rent freeze, contending they somehow would struggle to pay their mortgages if rent was not hiked on stabilized tenants. The identity-based defense was nonsensical on several levels. Units in single-family homes are not in the system; rent-stabilization generally covers buildings with six or more units built before 1974. The Black and Latino working-classes that elected Adams occupy many of the apartments that would be impacted by a rent freeze. Adams, a landlord himself, probably knows this and doesn’t care. He got their votes and he doesn’t need much else.
Adams picked one member to represent landlords and one to represent tenants. The landlord representative is a real estate attorney who seems to spend most of her time on Twitter railing against legislation in Albany that would give tenants more rights during eviction proceedings. “NYC Landlords are some of the hardest working individuals I have met in my career,” she tweeted on March 31st. Indeed.
More disturbing for tenants, though, is Adams’ choice for a public member. Arpit Gupta is an NYU finance professor and fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who told Vox in December he is a “little skeptical of rent control” because it acts as a “one-time transfer of equity from landlords to current tenants.” In New York City, the rent-control and rent-stabilization systems are quite different—very few people occupy rent-controlled units, which typically have far lower rents and largely can’t be found on the open market—but it’s notable Adams’ idea of a public representative is a Manhattan Institute policy mind who questions government regulation in the housing market.
How high will rents go? It depends on how aggressive Adams wants to get about replacing the de Blasio holdovers this year. If he doesn’t care one way or the other, the many business elites who have his ear will probably force his hand at some point. That’s how the Kyrie carve out came about, after all. Landlords are very hungry to regain the clout they had in the Bloomberg era. Rent hikes of 7 to 10 percent might be on the table. Inflation—the rising cost of fuel and building materials—could be the pretext.
For a broad progressive movement still figuring out how to best combat Adams, a Black former police captain adept at the identity-first rhetorical warfare favored by the activist class, rent is where they should focus. Rent is a universal issue with little ambiguity. Tenant activism, generally, is the purest form of activism because it can make common cause with the largest number of people. The interests are clear, as is the conflict. The owner class has far more power than the renter class, no matter how often landlords wail that their needs aren’t being met in Democratic New York. In the next two months, Adams must face significant pressure from politicians, activists, nonprofit groups, democratic socialists, and the Working Families Party if New Yorkers hope to avert large rent hikes. The pressure must build into a media campaign that makes Adams the face of an unpopular landlord lobby. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary superpower is media attention, must become involved, as should anyone who believes they earnestly belong to the Left. If Adams fears enough for his political future, he may just do tenants a favor.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Arpit Gupta is a tenant representative to the RGB. He is a public member, not tenant member.