Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Battler

Sal Albanese wants to shake up the system. “Some people say I was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders,” he says, sitting in the famous White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village.

It’s a hot, muggy summer day and Albanese is sipping a cold bottle of beer. Dressed in pressed khaki pants and a crisp, blue button-down shirt, he hasn’t broken a sweat. A Democrat and former City Council member from Brooklyn, this is his third time running for Mayor of New York City and he’s hoping three’s a charm. The odds—and the mainstream media—are stacked against him.

“I got ripped today by the Post,” he says, referring to an article by Steve Cuozzo claiming that Albanese needs to get a firmer grip on why so many storefronts in the city are sitting empty, an epidemic that has become known as “high-rent blight.” The problem, as Albanese sees it, is caused by big landlords who collect buildings; hike commercial rents, effectively evicting small businesses; and then leave the storefronts vacant while they write the loss off their taxes and wait for major chains or banks. “It’s not about mom and pop landlords,” he says. “It’s about portfolios.” He calls New York City an oligarchy run by a “new Tammany Hall” of lobbyists for big real estate, a class of powerful elites who back Bill de Blasio while they fill the city with glistening towers for the ultra rich and push out everyday New Yorkers.  

“Hyper-gentrification is driving out working people,” he says. “Do we want to become just a landing strip for billionaires? Do we want to become Dubai?”

As mayor, one of his first orders of business would be to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a “commonsense piece of legislation” that would help protect small businesses from crippling rent hikes on lease renewals. The bill is sponsored by a solid majority of the City Council, and advocates have been trying to get it passed for 30 years. So what’s the problem? Albanese believes “the power of big real estate over our political system has kept it bottled up.” He dismisses the opposition’s argument that the bill is unconstitutional. Back in 2009, the City Council’s legal staff officially proclaimed the constitutionality of the SBJSA and the city’s own legal department has never said otherwise. Albanese would like to see the Council bring the bill to the floor for a vote and finally “let the courts decide” on the question of constitutionality. But this doesn’t look likely when so many council members, Albanese argues, take their funding from the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the powerful lobbying group behind the Jobs for New York pro-development PAC.

To those who might peg him as an anti-growth NIMBY, Albanese insists he’s not against development. “I’m anti-unfettered development,” he says. He wants balance. And he’s got a plan for how to get there. In addition to the SBJSA, he also likes the idea of a vacancy tax to stop high-rent blight, and a pied-a-terre tax that would redirect wealth to affordable housing. He’d reject all of de Blasio’s rezoning proposals, which he believes favor the mega-developers. As mayor, he’d appoint an entirely new City Planning Commission and “go back to the drawing board” with a new plan for bringing affordable housing to less dense parts of town by allocating city-owned land to small and non-profit developers—with significant input from local communities. “The city has to grow,” he says, “but it has to be done with good planning. Right now we’ve got rezoning without planning.”

But the deep root of New York’s unaffordability problem, to Albanese, is the tight grip that big business and big real estate have on City Hall, thanks to their significant donations. He proudly claims to take zero percent of his funding from big real estate and lobbyists, and he wants to reform campaign finance, ushering in the Democracy Vouchers plan recently launched in Seattle, a program that would give every registered voter four twenty-five-dollar vouchers to donate to the qualifying candidates of their choice. “New York City,” he says, “should be a real democracy again.” He also wants to reduce tuition at CUNY, his alma mater.

If all this sounds like a new New Deal for New York City, that’s no coincidence. Albanese’s favorite mayor was Fiorello LaGuardia. He also calls himself “a big Jane Jacobs aficionado,” praising the urban activist’s argument for a human-scale city.

Outside on Hudson Street, just a few doors down from the White Horse, Albanese stands before Jacobs’ former home. The ground-floor storefront is now occupied by a realtor’s office. Laughing ruefully at the irony, Albanese says, “Jacobs would be rolling over in her grave.” He looks down the block, to a pair of vacant shops for rent. They look like they’ve been sitting empty for a while, and their vacancy puts a damper on the energy of the street. This is where Jacobs wrote about the “sidewalk ballet,” the importance of vibrant street life. It’s a dance familiar to Albanese from his childhood in working-class Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he was the Italian immigrant son of a disabled father and a mother who served as breadwinner, working in the garment industry. Back then, he recalls, the streets were full of mom-and-pop shops. You knew the butcher and the baker. It was a community. Today, the city streets feel anonymous and impersonal.

“Real estate is doing what it always did—only now it’s on steroids,” he says. “A small business guy is just cannon fodder.”

On Bleecker Street, he walks past more shuttered storefronts. There are 19 vacancies in the five blocks between Bank and Christopher Streets, some lined up in rows. Back in 2001, there were about 44 small businesses on these blocks. They sold books, antiques, affordable gifts. Then Marc Jacobs moved in with multiple shops, followed by Ralph Lauren, Intermix, and dozens more luxury chains. Within a single decade, all of the small businesses were gone, largely pushed out by astronomical rent hikes. In one case, the rent shot from $4,000 to $40,000 per month. Albanese is stunned by the number—and by the fact that many of these shops sit empty for years. Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren have walked away.

“This is counterintuitive,” Albanese says, shaking his head. “Not only does it destroy neighborhoods, but these landlords are devouring themselves. It’s out of control and something’s got to be done about it.”

The mayoral hopeful knows he’s got an uphill battle ahead of him. He needs to raise $250,000 to even have a chance at beating the incumbent Bill de Blasio. He doesn’t have the financial backing of the city’s power elite, and he’s not sure if he can “entice enough people to contribute small amounts to take their city back.” Or to even get him on the same debate stage as de Blasio, where these critical issues can be raised. But the people of New York can surprise you. They voted de Blasio into City Hall by a landslide when he promised a fiercely progressive agenda and an end to the vast inequality he called a “Tale of Two Cities.” Many New Yorkers believe he has not delivered. Maybe they’ll look to Sal Albanese to complete that promise. He’s an idealist, after all, a man who sees New York as a global leader in democracy--at a time when democracy is on the ropes.

“New York,” he says, “is a city that elevates people. And what we do here has a ripple effect across the world.” 

Albanese wants to reform not just City Hall, but the idea of what the city is supposed to be, to get back on track with the progressive agenda that New York spearheaded through much of the twentieth-century—and lost in the 1980s—an agenda that places the power to shape neighborhoods in the hands of its people. He insists that he’s not just a critic, nor a man tilting at windmills. He’s got a plan. And if he’s elected mayor, he intends to use it.

“I’ve been a battler all my life,” he says. “You have to be. Why get in the arena if you’re not going to fight?”

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Caleo said...

I will support Sal, and donate, but he certainly has an uphill battle. Jeremiah, you yourself voted for DiBlasio, as did most so called progressives. He has not only not delivered, he has turned the Mayoralty into a clown show. He's an embarrassment.
By the way, calling his election victory a "landslide" is disingenuous. The election had the lowest voter turnout in decades. Nothing remotely resembling a majority of voting age people voted for him.

wyomingk said...

Hooray for Sal!

ayeM8y said...

It took Hurricane Katrina to remove the life-force everyday people of New Orleans, leaving behind a touristy Disneyfied version of itself.

Seems like the landlords are doing the same to NYC.