Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Eric Adams, the Mayor of Big Real Estate
Money will always talk
“Close the door” was the message Eric Adams had for the City of New York after its deadliest fire in 30 years. Fire safety, Adams argued, comes with personal responsibility. Since malfunctioning doors allowed the fire to spread, along with space heaters that sparked the blaze, Adams believes a public education campaign can ensure 17 people don’t die of smoke inhalation in an apartment building ever again.
It was no accident Adams refused, even when pressed by reporters, to hold the building owners of Twin Parks North West in the Bronx accountable. One of them, Rick Gropper, was a member of his transition team, offering advice on housing issues. Adams said on Thursday he had not spoken to Gropper since the fire tore through the Bronx building.
“I have not communicated with him at all,” Adams said. “I have the utmost trust in our agencies to conduct a thorough investigation to determine what happened, how do we prevent things like this from happening again. Unfortunately, when you’re doing an analysis of a lot of the complaints, many of them happened prior to [Gropper] taking control of this building. We need to make sure agencies identify violations and correct them but I have utmost respect for my agencies and the fire marshals to come up with a real cause of what happened here so we can prevent as much as possible in the future.”
The mealy-mouthed response, atypical of the otherwise brash Adams, underscored how far he was willing to go to ignore the systemic issues at play.
Yes, an investigation is warranted and should be conducted. But the facts are already plain—from the violations the building racked up and the myriad complaints from tenants. As it does in many aging buildings that house working-class tenants, heat circulated poorly, making the use of space heaters in the winter necessary. Building owners, both before and during Gropper’s tenure, failed to fix doors that are supposed to automatically shut to prevent the spread of smoke and fire.
Twins Park North West is owned by three companies—LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group—that bought the building in 2019. Gropper is one of Camber’s founders. As the Times noted, Camber has been rapidly expanding in the Bronx: in December 2018, the group purchased a 50 percent stake in 722 units in two public housing projects in the Bronx, the Baychester and Murphy Houses, for $90 million as part of a joint venture with two other groups.
This is an increasingly common story. Most tenants in New York City apartment buildings pay rent to large real estate companies, a growing number of them consortiums and LLC’s. Low-income housing can be a great business for private equity firms and other ambitious corporations seeking to become major players in the city real estate market. Since the Bronx building had Section 8 tenants—the federal housing voucher for low-income renters—Gropper and the other landlords are guaranteed federal dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in addition to 30 percent of the tenant’s income. If a tenant’s income increases, the landlord gets more, too. HUD will pick up the balance if the household income drops. Real estate investors, meanwhile, have little incentive to fix deteriorating housing stock. Local violations can be ignored and the federal government does not offer sufficient oversight.
The Mayor of New York City cannot, on his own, fix this system of predatory equity. But he does have a bully pulpit. Were Adams the populist he claimed to be, he could attack, in public, Gropper and the other building owners—past and present—who allowed these conditions to fester. He would declare that no tenant deserves to live like this in his city and vow swift crackdowns on those who fail to follow-up on tenant complaints. The mayor oversees a $100 billion budget and a public workforce larger than many small cities. Adams is early enough into his tenure where political capital could be deployed, effectively enough, in such a way. Real estate developers do not fear lame-duck mayors, but they do tread lightly around those that probably, barring significant corruption scandals, have eight years left in power.
Adams, though, is not likely to be that kind of mayor. We know this because he fundraised aggressively from the real estate industry during his mayoral campaign and never hesitated to parrot their talking points. A landlord himself, he once declared that “I am real estate.” As Brooklyn Borough President, Adams ran a charity that received donations from developers with business before his office. When I asked him, during the mayoral campaign, if he supported a rent freeze for rent-stabilized tenants, he said he did not, invoking small Black landlords who would suffer under such as a policy. “The greatest wealth of Black and brown people in this city is in their property. So when we start making any decisions on small property owners, we need to factor that,” Adams told me. “Because if we’re not going to freeze mortgage payments for small property owners, if we’re not going to rollback their mortgage payments, then we need to be careful.”
It was a savvy and deeply disingenuous answer. The average apartment in New York City belonged to a 21-property, 893-unit portfolio, according to a 2020 analysis. The Black middle-class paying off mortgages in Brooklyn and Queens are not impacted by rent-stabilization. Plenty of working-class Black tenants are—and they are the voters that supported Adams. One great, if under-discussed, question looming over the Adams mayoralty is what will happen with the Rent Guidelines Board. The mayor gets to appoint all nine members, including the chair, and these members decide the rent levels for the more than one million tenants who live in rent-stabilized apartments throughout the five boroughs.
In June, the new board—Adams can appoint as many as six members this year, and more in future years—will vote on whether to hike rents. Landlords, who have the ear of the Adams administration, are very hungry for large rent increases after the de Blasio years. Much-maligned now, Bill de Blasio was a relative godsend for working-class tenants, appointing tenant-friendly members who enacted historic rent freezes on apartments. With the expiration of the eviction moratorium, landlords will want to regain their leverage as quickly as possible. It would not be surprising if the Adams board seeks rent increases on par with what was witnessed during the Bloomberg era. Rent increases of 7-10 percent could be on the table. With inflation and rising energy costs, landlords will have their share of excuses that Adams will be happy to take into account. Elections have consequences and this is one of them.
For progressive and socialist politicians, tenant advocates, and various NGO groups, the next months will be crucial. Adams has built a durable coalition but he is far from invulnerable. Public pressure matters, especially if Adams is reeling from scandal. Adams may find, if protests are great enough, it’s not worth appointing a Rent Guidelines Board that will be overwhelmingly in support of whatever landlords want to do. Adams, the mayor of Big Real Estate, will have to be shown the best political path lies with the people.