Just before the holidays, as many of us here in New York City wanted nothing more than a brief reprieve from politics, our mayor, Bill de Blasio, killed a deer. It was a small, furry, single-antlered, white-tailed buck that had appeared in Harlem. For much of December, the deer became a kind of mascot for the neighborhood, spreading Christmas cheer — until it hopped a fence into a local public-housing project and de Blasio, citing safety issues, sentenced it to death. Although this was an ultimately rational decision, the image of a powerful official euthanizing a lost animal had miserable optics. Making matters worse, our governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is always eager to humiliate the mayor, seized the pro-deer high ground and issued an immediate stay of execution. But even as a team of state officials was sent to save the deer, the little creature died from stress, frightened and alone, at a city shelter on East 110th Street.
In the end, the sad affair was blamed on the dispute between the two politicians, which would have been an accurate assessment were it not perhaps more accurate to say that the mayor had allowed his more conniving rival to turn what should have been a harsh but good decision into murder. If Cuomo’s curse as a leader is to frequently be rewarded for his Machiavellian ways, de Blasio’s is to often suffer the consequences of doing the right thing. He has an almost tragicomic genius for finding political injury in well-intentioned policies. When he took over City Hall three years ago as the first progressive mayor in a generation, there were apocalyptic whispers that New Yorkers would soon be hunting game in Central Park to feed their children. But so far at least, the city’s pigeon population is all right — and so are many of us. Our economy is humming, our tourist industry is booming, stop-and-frisk is all but gone, and crime is at historic lows. De Blasio has meanwhile established free preschool for tens of thousands of four-year-olds, made available municipal-I.D. cards for thousands of undocumented immigrants, passed a paid-sick-leave law for city workers, and developed a groundbreaking plan to combat mental illness. Even the disaster of his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump moving from Fifth to Pennsylvania Avenue has played into his hands. The mayor has spoken out against the president, needled him persistently on social media, and threatened to sue if the White House cuts off funding to New York because it is a sanctuary city — which is to say, he has succeeded in using Trump as a whetstone on which to sharpen his positions.
Given de Blasio’s record of success and a resurgent climate of liberal dissent, you would think he would be sailing gracefully and without much competition toward reelection in November. But that is not the case. Several challengers have already declared that they will run against him, and an ever-growing army of more serious opponents — among them Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, and Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president — is waiting in the wings. In January, a Quinnipiac University poll found that while de Blasio would beat both Stringer and Diaz, he would be trounced by Hillary Clinton, whose chief weakness is not having declared that she is even running.
I was thinking of the mystery of the mayor’s popularity when he appeared at a December 15 town hall meeting in a high-school gym on West 102nd Street. It was, as it happened, the deer’s last night alive. The gathering was one of several similar events that de Blasio has held in the past year to reconnect with his base, but it quickly turned into a quarrelsome debate about the most difficult part of his agenda: his desire to make New York more affordable for those of us who aren’t Russian oligarchs or employees of Goldman Sachs. On a street outside the school, local TV stations were interviewing angry residents; inside, de Blasio was being chased across a basketball court by their endless, anxious questions. Although the mayor’s housing plan is the most robust attempt in decades to scale back gentrification, it has also caused enormous apprehension, not least because its operating mechanism is a public-private partnership in which the city is seeking to build or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments by working with developers and harnessing the power of the real-estate market.
Taking turns with a microphone, the school-gym questioners besieged de Blasio with concerns about his model. Luxury buildings were popping up everywhere, they said, chasing out the poor, increasing crowds on the sidewalks, and bringing in amenities like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Public-housing residents were living without heat; some had to pee into umbrellas because of shoddy plumbing. These were the mayor’s people, his natural constituents — blacks, Latinos, white liberals — but they didn’t want to hear about “affordable” apartments when many in the neighborhood could not in fact afford them. “This is your moment of truth,” one woman told the mayor. “You’re going to have to demonstrate who is your constituency. Is your constituency the people who put you into the office you now hold? Or is your loyalty to the developers?”
De Blasio tends to do well in real-folks situations like this. Unlike his press conferences, which are famously contentious, the town hall forum lets him chew through complicated issues without appearing testy or overly pedantic. By now, he has his housing speech down pat. The city, he likes to say, is facing an unprecedented crisis: it has become such an attractive place in which to live, both a rich man’s aerie and a mecca for millennials, that its success has led to a catastrophic rise in rents. “For the twenty years before I came in,” he told the crowd that night, “City Hall had a very pro-development, pro-free-enterprise worldview. They saw gentrification as an unmitigated good.” Although he acknowledged that his approach, too, was pro-development, he said that it took care of the little guy by forcing developers to couple their most profitable projects with a subsidized percentage of less expensive units.
Casting himself as a kind of urban Robin Hood, the mayor gave his listeners a choice. He could, of course, sit back and do nothing as the market did to them what it had already done to hyper-gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg, in Brooklyn: bury them in glass condominiums and artisanal pizzerias. Or he could use his right hand to welcome builders to the area while employing his left to pick their pockets of apartments people could afford. “I have a huge critique of the free-enterprise system, but it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “There’s plenty of places in the city where someone can build a building in any way they want. That’s the reality of a capitalist system. My vision is that the government intervenes to the maximum extent possible to create balance.”
Not long after this event, I caught up with another woman who was critical of the mayor’s plan. Her name was Carmen Quinones and she was a fifty-nine-year-old activist who ran the tenants’ association at the Frederick Douglass Houses, a public-housing project on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I found her in a state of mild confusion. Here, she said, was this nice progressive mayor whom she had known for more than twenty years, but when it came to housing issues, it seemed he didn’t realize that his policy was only going to exacerbate the very problem he was trying to fix. As part of his initiative de Blasio has called for leasing vacant lots in the projects to private developers to build affordable units and raise money for housing repairs. Quinones wanted to know, affordable for whom? “The people in public housing won’t be able to afford what he’s building,” she said. “You can’t serve two masters, the developers and the residents. Either you’re with us or you’re not.”
She wanted to meet with de Blasio and talk the issue out like the old friends they were. And she didn’t understand why he had so far refused. Was he busy? Was he just being stubborn? Was he hung up on achieving his 200,000-unit promise? Or was it something else? Coincidentally, on the morning of the town hall event, the mayor awoke to some bad news about an ongoing story that threatened to derail his reelection. Reports had emerged that two grand juries were investigating the ways in which he had raised money, much of it from real-estate developers. Like many of us, including the mayor’s challengers-in-waiting, Quinones had seen the reports and wondered about the investigations’ import.
If anything, the inquiries exist in that legally equivocal and morally ambiguous nexus of money and power that defines American politics these days. No one is claiming that bricks of cash were discovered in a Gracie Mansion freezer or that deputy commissioners took duffel bags of hundreds into the stalls of public restrooms. Nothing even connects the scandals to one another: the Rivington House mess (in which a former AIDS hospice was flipped into luxury housing) to the carriage-horse debacle (in which the mayor tried to save the horses after animal-rights activists gave him lots of cash) to the mint-scented, rat-repellent trash-bag fiasco (in which a no-bid city contract went to a major donor) — unless, of course, it’s the overarching concern about whether donations flowing into City Hall resulted in favors flowing out.
If there is a center to the investigations, it may be the mayor’s former fund-raising vehicle, Campaign for One New York, which was established in 2013 to solicit money for a media blitz to promote his plan for free prekindergarten. Over the summer, the city’s Campaign Finance Board issued a report about the group. The ruling, stripped of jargon, found that de Blasio had tiptoed up to the line of what was legal when it came to raising money, had not crossed it, but that his practice of accepting funds from donors who had business before the city and using those funds to tout his platform raised “serious policy and perception issues.” Almost all the money CONY took would have been criminal if it had been taken during an election campaign. That instead it was taken to advance the mayor’s agenda between his entering office and his run for reelection was, as the board politely put it, a “solicitation loophole.” Lawful though they were, among the gifts CONY received were several that enraged those already inclined to believe that de Blasio had cozy ties to city builders — like, say, the $100,000 from Two Trees Management, a firm that negotiated with City Hall to redevelop a factory in Brooklyn and joined a coalition that was working to get permission for a publicly financed streetcar that would pass near the project’s front door.
Legalities aside, the investigations have worsened the antagonistic battles over the mayor’s land-use policies for the simple reason that CONY took in more than $1 million from real-estate interests. As the campaign board began investigating the mayor, nineteen tenant groups and labor unions sent a letter accusing him of taking “dirty developer money.” “It’s unconscionable,” they wrote, “that your political operation is using real-estate money to wage a campaign against low-income people.” A few months later, after the news emerged that the United States attorney in Manhattan and the Manhattan district attorney were also looking into de Blasio’s money tactics, a coalition of land-use groups, New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City, held a rally on the steps of City Hall to complain about a welter of unseemly deals, many of them featured in a paper that the coalition published under the conspiratorial title: “Possible Pay-to-Play Links Between Developers and City Administration.” A few weeks after the paper was released, a survey found that more than half of those it polled believed that the mayor did “favors for developers who make political contributions.” These, of course, were the “perception issues” about which the campaign board had warned.
Not long after the scandals broke, I shared a meal with Bill Hyers, de Blasio’s former campaign manager. In the way of these things, Hyers was also the founder of Campaign for One New York. He showed up for our meeting in jeans and a T-shirt. We talked about the fund-raising. Hyers told me that the mayor needed the money, not only to persuade the public and lawmakers in Albany to get behind universal pre-K but also to defend City Hall against an array of dark forces hell-bent on destroying his progressive agenda. He mentioned charter schools (which the mayor had attacked during his campaign), Uber (which he subsequently tried to squash with a botched proposal to cap its fleet), the municipal police unions (which every mayor fights), and the Rent Stabilization Association (a landlord group that presented a threat to his affordable-housing plan).
When our conversation turned to the housing plan and whether it had been affected by the influx of developer donations, Hyers said the narrative of a business-friendly mayor in the pocket of the real-estate industry would have existed without the fund-raising. “That would happen no matter what. The alternative is not to fund-raise. . . . The fact of the matter is, when you go into fund-raising you are going to be attacked, period. If you don’t have to fund-raise, you don’t have to do it.”
I took that last bit as a jab against de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Much of the uproar, both in terms of the pay-to-play complaints and the furor over housing, stems from the ways in which de Blasio gets compared with Bloomberg. Paradoxically, the former mayor has emerged as both the best and the worst thing to have happened to the current one. Bloomberg left behind a powerful legacy of division. If you were white, relatively wealthy, and lived in Manhattan or certain parts of Brooklyn, Bloomberg’s reign provided you with a gleaming utopia of Citi Bikes, physical safety, Parisian-style pedestrian malls, lush new public parks, and ample opportunities in the tech sector. If, however, you were not white, relatively poor, and lived in the outer boroughs, your New York experience was more likely to include asthma, homelessness, sewage-treatment plants, invasive police stops, and harassment by your landlord. Even within the gleaming city, there was, toward the end of the Bloomberg era, a restless sense that it was all too much: brutal rent-to-income ratios, chain stores everywhere, Billionaires’ Row.
De Blasio campaigned against that legacy. But once elected, he had the misfortune of being judged against the standards of a man who not only ran the city like a managerial robot but who, being a billionaire, didn’t have to go around sucking up for money. Whenever I spoke to the mayor’s aides, they would tell me how unfair it was that de Blasio, an ordinary guy without a private fortune, was being tarred as a money hog when all that Bloomberg had to do was open his wallet to get what he wanted, and every other non-self-funding politician used the same, totally normal fund-raising tools.
While that may be true, it is also true that most New Yorkers had never before had such a revealing peek at a mayor’s money sausage being made. This was de Blasio’s own fault: for arguably noble reasons, he insisted on disclosing CONY’s contributor list, a decision that his sharpest aides discouraged, not least because it made it easy for enterprising journalists to connect the quids of donations to the supposed quos of official dispensations. There was also the mayor’s history of having once fought ardently against money in politics. In his previous job as public advocate, de Blasio had launched a national effort to stop corporate cash from washing into elections after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. Although the mayor’s aides point out that money from CONY was never used in an election, the whole thing seemed confusing: we, as a city, were being asked to figure out how comfortable we were with a man who had spent much of his career fighting big money suddenly bringing the new, steroidal fund-raising model to City Hall.
Much of the bad feeling has fed into a belief in many New York neighborhoods that de Blasio hasn’t done much to change Bloomberg’s laissez-faire model of development. Although this belief is widespread and entrenched, it happens to run counter to the facts — in 2016 alone, the city built or preserved almost 22,000 units of affordable housing (as the mayor proudly announced in January), the most in a single calendar year since the Koch Administration. But even this achievement hasn’t quelled suspicions about his housing plan. It’s the deer syndrome again: having made a series of tough, well-meaning decisions, de Blasio has yet to reap their political reward.
I saw this phenomenon firsthand when I went down to Grand Street, in Lower Manhattan, to meet with some residents who worked for an anti-gentrification group called the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. I expected to find them angry. For months, they had been fighting against an eighty-story condo that was going up near the East River on the site of what had once been their community’s main grocery store. The neighborhood has been a hotbed of development, with rents reaching an average of $3,895 for a one-bedroom in a doorman building; thousands of rent-stabilized apartments have been lost to deregulation. The anxieties they expressed were similar to those I had heard at the town hall on the Upper West Side. Although One Manhattan Square, the condo project, is geared toward the wealthy, it also includes a sister building of less expensive units. But even those units, the residents said, were too expensive for many in the area.
What I didn’t expect to find was such a rabid level of de Blasio hatred; it was tinged with disillusionment and a sense of betrayal that seemed immune to any appeal to good faith, rationality, or fact. As soon as I sat down, Louise Velez, a retired school-bus driver who lives in public housing in the East Village, said, “A lot of people who voted for the mayor, like me, felt like he was going to be a good change, but he turned out to be more corrupt than anyone. It’s like he has an agenda he didn’t tell us about.” Before she could finish her sentence, the man beside her, Tony Queylin, a doorman who lives next to the condo project, cut her off to say: “He ran under the banner of change, but he does the same stuff Bloomberg did, even worse. You hear about this pay-to-play thing, like if there’s money for his campaign or charity, the builders can build whatever they want.”
In the case of One Manhattan Square, the builder, Extell, can indeed build whatever it wants. The neighborhood’s zoning allows massive, out-of-scale construction, and zoning has also allowed City Hall to claim its hands are tied. This is true, to a point. Several years ago, with money from Mayor Bloomberg, the coalition hired a nonprofit development firm to help design new zoning for the Lower East Side, which included both height restrictions and a plan for affordable housing that would not displace existing residents. In 2015, it sent a draft to de Blasio’s city-planning department. The letter it got back said the plan was “not feasible.”
“We were commissioned and given funds by the Bloomberg Administration,” said David Tieu, one of the group’s leaders. “But the so-called progressive, elected on a platform to end the Tale of Two Cities, refuses to do what’s right.”
It seemed like Tieu and the rest were just upset and engaged in conspiratorial venting. But then I realized it was more than mere venting. As I stood to leave, Louise Velez reached into her purse and pulled out a postcard. On the front of the card was this:
Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York, NY 10007
On the back was a message to the mayor:
I stand with my fellow New Yorkers to tell you we will not put up with your corrupt dealings with developers. You are selling our nursing homes, public housing and libraries to real estate groups with ties to your administration. Your policies benefit developers that donate to your campaign while destroying our community. Enough of this corruption!
I asked if they were really going to mail the cards to City Hall. Of course, Tieu told me, adding that in the past few weeks alone they had collected hundreds.
De Blasio has said that the housing crisis will define his time in office, and he is keenly aware that his plan to fix it is facing opposition. That’s not surprising, his advisers say: housing issues literally hit people where they live. A central plank of the mayor’s strategy, formally known as Housing New York, was initially rejected by most of the city’s fifty-nine community boards before it passed the City Council last year with support from labor unions and the AARP — right around the time the campaign-finance inquiries emerged. One aide I spoke to described the plan’s opponents as a loose network of preservationists, critics of gentrification, and community-board types, all with different grievances — tall buildings, tenant displacement, overcrowded schools, the disappearance of quirky mom-and-pop stores — but united by a general “antigrowth gestalt.”
That gestalt is not exclusively a New York phenomenon. The urban renaissance of the past few decades has lowered crime and poverty in the world’s cities, but the transformation of those cities into foodie citadels and hubs of global capital has prompted a backlash. San Francisco has its battle over Google buses. Londoners are struggling with the fact that local housing prices have risen to fourteen times the average salary.
In his attempts to solve these problems, de Blasio has made it clear that he likes big buildings — both economically and philosophically. He sees in their height and density an answer not only to the city’s housing scarcity but also to its problems with integration and environmental health. “The Jane Jacobs worldview — neighborhood character, eyes on the street, buildings all the same height — was an antidote to the big urban problems of the last century,” said Wiley Norvell, a City Hall spokesman who works on housing issues. “But we’re confronting a problem now Jane Jacobs couldn’t foresee. It’s the problem of communities that become victims of their own success. It’s so desirable to live in Greenwich Village that the diversity Jacobs prized — the carpenter, checkout clerk, and pensioner living side by side — is disappearing right before our eyes. How is the city supposed to respond to that?”
Under de Blasio’s plan, there are a few main methods. One is the largely invisible process of using public money to help developers erect or preserve affordable buildings in innocuous “infill” spaces throughout the city. He has also ensured two year-long rent freezes for many New York residents living in rent-stabilized apartments, and in February announced that $93 million would be set aside to provide free lawyers to tenants facing eviction. But the method that gets the most attention involves enormous Haussmann-like rezonings of entire neighborhoods such as East New York, in Brooklyn, or along Jerome Avenue, in the Bronx. Last year, the mayor passed a pair of zoning laws that would permit developers to put up bigger, denser, more profitable buildings, provided they included a percentage of below-market units. The rezonings work a bit like a vaccine. Having decided that the disease of gentrification is inevitable, the mayor has chosen to encourage lots of new construction, preemptively injecting a dose of the virus into certain threatened areas. He hopes to control its spread and its most damaging effects by compelling developers to embed within their projects the antidote of cheaper homes.
The question is: Will the gambit work? Although the total number of affordable housing starts announced this year has put de Blasio ahead of schedule in meeting his ambitious goal of 200,000 units, the income distribution of those units doesn’t really fit the city’s needs. According to the Citizens Budget Commission, there are about 250,000 New York families at the poorest end of the spectrum who pay more than half their income in rent but only about 5,000 in the middle-income bracket who are similarly burdened. The chief incentive to correct the imbalance between what is needed and what is being built is a public subsidy to offset the losses that developers incur from building affordable homes that can’t be financed by their rents alone. The mayor has set aside unprecedented billions to do this, but his war chest isn’t bottomless. And though his administration is on pace to create nearly ten times more housing for the very poor than Bloomberg’s, de Blasio still faces a trade-off that has aggravated complaints about his coziness with the city’s builders: underwriting the cheapest and most needed apartments naturally costs more (the rents are lower, thus the subsidies are higher); conversely, while it’s less expensive to guarantee the bottom line of developers putting up more profitable middle-income homes with higher rents, there’s a less urgent need for them.
Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, de Blasio’s former deputy mayor for health and human services, said the plan doesn’t reach the neediest people. In 2015, Barrios-Paoli left City Hall after fighting with the mayor over how to handle the city’s rising homeless population, which has reached historic highs during his tenure. “It’s about affordability that isn’t actually affordable. Their solution isn’t congruent with the problem.”
At a press conference on his housing plan in January, de Blasio addressed this income mix, saying that “certain operating realities” constrained what went up and what did not. “If the financing doesn’t work in the eyes of the people who have to build the building, they won’t build the building,” he said, adding, “We’re trying for people who are poor, for people who are working class, for people who are middle class — they all need to be able to live here.” As committed ideological progressives, no one on de Blasio’s team enjoys hearing a phrase like “market-based incentives” connected to their housing efforts.
The mayor’s aides finesse the issue by saying that the city is “leveraging” the market or “channeling” its forces for the greater good. The local housing market, they contend, is being inundated. Immigrants are pouring into the city to work in construction; college graduates are streaming in to work in tech. Meanwhile, couples with children, who might have left New York twenty years ago, are deciding to stay. At the same time, the already crowded suburbs are discouraging new construction, and Washington, especially under Trump, is likely to continue cutting back on funding for public housing. There aren’t many players left to meet this rising tide of demand aside from private developers, who, the city says, can be either coaxed or coerced into building affordably. It’s an argument in realpolitik: our goals are noble, but ultimately things must get done, even if it means a philosophical compromise. The sense I got from City Hall was that none of it was ideal; it was simply the best possible option in the constrained climate of twenty-first-century liberalism.
“La Guardia had Roosevelt, Lindsay had Johnson — and we don’t have either,” said Anthony Shorris, de Blasio’s first deputy mayor. “The question is: How do you be a progressive when you don’t have the resources behind you?”
One way is the mayor’s third and perhaps most problematic approach to the housing crisis: what could be called an ongoing, citywide squeeze play.
New York’s real-estate market is always churning. And led by Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing, City Hall has been studying the churn, looking for opportunities to cajole developers into adding affordable components to their projects. Sometimes this works out well. In 2015, Glen stepped into a deal by the Wall Street giant Blackstone to buy Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan’s biggest housing complex. In a multi-billion-dollar deal, she used tax breaks to persuade Blackstone to keep almost half the project’s apartments affordable for the teachers and firefighters who have traditionally lived there.
But in other, less successful cases, the mayor has found himself in the uncomfortable position of supporting projects he might have otherwise opposed — or actually did oppose. Among such plans was one that called for building a condo tower on top of a public library in Brooklyn Heights. When the idea was floated during the Bloomberg years as part of a proposal to modernize the city’s library system, de Blasio attacked it as a venal corporate plot to transform places of “knowledge and learning” into profit centers for Big Real Estate. “Once again,” he said, “we see lurking, right behind the curtain, real-estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties.” But after the deal was struck, de Blasio, now mayor, got behind the project. The library chose a firm called Hudson Companies for the job. The firm was run by David Kramer, the mayor’s friend and fund-raiser. Although Kramer’s bid was less than his competitor’s, he promised to include more affordable housing. Once he got the contract, Kramer made a $10,000 donation to Campaign for One New York, a fact that probably wasn’t missed by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, who is reported to be investigating the deal. (A spokesperson for Hudson said the firm had not been subpoenaed, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney declined to comment.)
A man with ambitions of his own, Bharara has developed an aggressive interest in the mayor’s relations with the real-estate industry. Two months after the news got out that he was looking into the library deal, it also emerged that he was investigating another de Blasio squeeze play: the fiasco that swirled around the death of Long Island College Hospital. The 500-bed medical center was for decades the best emergency facility for a large swath of Brooklyn, serving tony Cobble Hill as well as the high-rise public-housing projects in Red Hook. Eighty thousand people depended on LICH for care. When the State University of New York, which owned the hospital, voted to shut it down in 2013 (it was reportedly losing nearly $1 million a week), a monumental battle ensued between community residents, who didn’t want to travel twenty minutes if they happened to have a heart attack, and state officials, who wanted to finance a smaller urgent-care clinic by letting developers build on the site.
The conflict made its way into the mayoral race. De Blasio had been working with local activists to save LICH, and in the midst of his campaign, he sued the state to stop the development plan and preserve the full hospital. At that point, he was languishing in the polls. He also got himself arrested — on camera — while protesting the hospital’s closure at SUNY’s office in Manhattan. Although hardly inauthentic, it was a nifty bit of community-pleasing theater. (de blasio arrested, just as he wanted, read the headline in the Times.) Along with the TV ad that featured his son, Dante, sporting a giant Afro, the much-covered hospital bust helped propel de Blasio into City Hall.
During the mayor’s second month in office, his suit was settled under terms designed to find a developer who would come as close as possible to keeping the entire hospital open. Feeling triumphant, de Blasio convened a meeting for reporters at which he declared that the settlement was a “transcendent moment for health care” in New York. (“We have kept the wolf from the door,” he said.) But when the new bids started coming in, his community allies were disheartened to discover that the state had bypassed two proposals to save the hospital and had gone back to the clinic-and-apartment-tower plan. They were further discouraged when the mayor, who had fought beside them, started to suggest that this deal was the best they could expect. “My clients thought they had finally found a politician with integrity,” said Jim Walden, a lawyer who represented de Blasio and the community. “But three months after the election, the new administration wanted us to drop our case so they could work with a luxury developer in exchange for an urgent-care center and a few affordable housing units. . . . We all realized we made a terrible mistake.” Norvell, the mayor’s spokesman, pointed out that without de Blasio’s intervention the hospital’s emergency room would have shut down altogether and that, as he put it, “a lot of the time, we were the only folks around the negotiating table fighting for” affordable housing.
But what few knew at the time was that during the negotiations, a fund-raiser for an early iteration of Campaign for One New York reportedly was calling the project developer, Don Peebles, asking for money. In an interview last spring, Peebles said that a month after the fund-raiser reached out to him, de Blasio got on the phone himself and asked for money. “It’s hard for a businessperson who has business interests in New York City to tell the mayor no,” Peebles said. So he sent a check, which was later returned at his request. (Peebles has flirted with running against de Blasio this year.)
A few months later, after Peebles lost the bid to another developer, the Fortis Property Group, an odd note dropped into the mailboxes of local residents. “A Letter to My Brooklyn Neighbors” had been written by one of the neighborhood activists, Gary Reilly. Speaking now in support of Fortis’s proposal, Reilly wrote: “I was asked by Mayor de Blasio to share my views on what this means for families,” and what it meant, by Reilly’s lights, was that the deal with Fortis was “a lot better than we had reason to think one year ago.” If it seemed a little strange that the mayor was having someone else tout the latest version of a plan he had once opposed, it was stranger still that Reilly’s letter had been mass-mailed from the office of CONY.
“There are no fans of de Blasio in this neighborhood, because of what seemed like a duplicitous act,” said Amy Breedlove, the president of the Cobble Hill Association, which fought for years to save the hospital. “He was arrested and then got in, and Fortis got the development. Then he stepped in with his agenda for affordable housing. He used us like a campaign platform, like, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m a defender of the community.’ ”
That was the sort of thing I heard for more than an hour when I sat down with Breedlove and her group. They had all given up on getting the hospital back and were chiefly interested in working with Fortis and the mayor to introduce some rational planning into the huge development. Breedlove wasn’t sure if anyone had thought about how all this construction would affect the neighborhood. What about parking or crowding on the F train? What about congestion on the streets and sidewalks? “We don’t think the Jane Jacobs model is outdated,” she said. “When you look at the best cities in the world, it’s about walkable green spaces, places for people to congregate, housing that is nice and feels good on the human scale. That’s what Brooklyn is, that’s what we’re trying to defend. To hear that it’s outdated . . . ” She paused, then said, “I’m starting to get angry now.”
Early in November, after all the anger — and the interminable efforts — the LICH deal fell apart when the Fortis Property Group suddenly announced that it was done negotiating and would likely build its project without affordable housing at all. “This is not the plan we wanted, and nobody won here,” a spokeswoman for the mayor said in a statement. She added that de Blasio would nonetheless “keep fighting to build a fairer, more just and inclusive New York.”
At its heart, our city is like many a republic of small provincial villages, and for several months and throughout those different villages, I heard versions of the same complaint. Everyone agreed that the republic was in crisis, that affordable housing was essential, but many people for their own parochial reasons were skeptical about the ways in which de Blasio was building such housing. He was building it either for those who didn’t need it, they said, or without sufficiently consulting local residents, or in a manner that threatened to destroy established neighborhoods. Whether they are right or not remains to be seen: de Blasio’s plan is at base a Hobson’s choice, a risky bet that doing something is better than doing nothing. His bet has not been called yet, but for a mayor who has spent more energy making it than any other in recent memory this was a strange place to find himself: as a target of his own ambitious gamble.