He’s running for New York mayor as a real estate foe. Why do some developers support him?
NEW YORK — Actor Scarlett Johansson blasted an email in December seeking donations for New York City mayoral candidate Scott Stringer, citing his commitment to small businesses, education and survivors of domestic violence. But she saved her most effusive praise for his work “to protect affordable housing against greedy, opportunistic landlords.”
“True to his word, to this day, Scott refuses to take any campaign money from real estate developers, because he believes so passionately in creating and preserving opportunities for affordable housing,” Johansson wrote.
Yet Stringer, a leading candidate in the race, is subsidizing his campaign with real estate donations he collected for years, up until progressive Democrats declared them verboten following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent congressional victory in 2018.
And while publicly saying he will pose an obstacle to real estate, Stringer is quietly telling developers he will work with them if elected, according to more than half a dozen people in the business who have direct knowledge of his comments. Even as he attacks the industry in public remarks, leaders in development and business circles are offering him measured support.
“I think Scott's really smart,” said Jim Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s chief lobbying association in New York. “He’s been around a long time. He’s dealt with a lot of complicated issues.”
The same industry Stringer is castigating has underwritten his campaign, which has raised $1.8 million and will have an estimated $7.5 million on hand after the next round of public matching funds — one of the biggest war chests of anyone in the race.
A POLITICO analysis found Stringer accepted roughly $88,000 from developers, their employees and relatives — including $2,000 in donations from REBNY’s political action committee. The haul surpasses $250,000 when accounting for brokers, architects and others in the real estate industry. His team argues he is following a pledge specifically banning developer contributions put forth by advocacy group New York Communities for Change, whose endorsement he is seeking in the race. Yet he rarely makes that distinction on the stump.
A career politician born into a family of elected officials, Stringer has demonstrated an ability to navigate New York’s choppy political waters. He forged relationships with young, upstart Democrats who enthusiastically support his bid for mayor. And in a crowded Democratic field, he is counting on their voters joining his base of old-guard Manhattan liberals to propel him to victory in the June primary. The Democratic primary is likely to decide the New York mayoral race in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by seven to one.
Maintaining that coalition all but requires vilifying the ubiquitous industry that has become anathema to the Democrats he is courting, but with whom most politicians like Stringer have longstanding ties.
Now this high-wire act is on full display: He is at once accumulating endorsements among left-leaning activists and politicians pleased with his posture toward the real estate industry while trying to convince the titans of that same industry that he is not a threat to their business interests.
“I think it’s a pretty craven political shift,” Jay Martin, executive director of landlord group Community Housing Improvement Program, said in a recent interview. “He knows where the money comes from. He knows how much of this industry helps support the programs that keep New York alive and make New York what it is and he’s making a very cynical play.”
On the campaign trail, Stringer routinely calls out real estate’s role in the de Blasio administration’s housing policies that he says failed to protect people in financial distress.
“When I’m mayor, we’re going to end the crushing cycle of speculation, eviction and displacement — no more giving away the store to developers,” he declared during his kickoff speech in September.
But some industry leaders are unfazed.
“I don’t place a lot of weight on the whole issue of whether a candidate is accepting money from real estate or not,” REBNY’s Whelan said. “He’s in campaign mode now.”
Comfort with Stringer extends to the Partnership for New York City, an organization representing Wall Street firms and other large businesses. “Regardless of his politics, real estate needs somebody that understands in deep detail what their constraints are,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the organization. “And Scott does.”
He willingly accepted the now-taboo campaign money until reversing course two years ago, papering over past real estate contributions with a promised “movement supported by New Yorkers from all walks of life,” according to a December fundraising pitch titled “Big money is against Scott.” But he is not returning any of those earlier contributions, which are now shoring up his frontrunner campaign.
Stringer’s financial backers include a who’s-who of luxury condo developers: William Lie and Arthur Zeckendorf built 15 Central Park West, a luxury high-rise featuring an in-house chef and lap pool that caught the eye of Lloyd Blankfein and Denzel Washington, who bought homes there.
Property Markets Group is erecting a 1,500-foot condo tower on Billionaires’ Row south of Central Park, and Alchemy Properties converted the upper floors of the Woolworth Building into opulent homes.
Stringer also rolled $1.4 million from his 2017 campaign account for comptroller into his mayoral war chest. Former REBNY Chair Bill Rudin raised $9,900 for that race, while chipping in $400 himself — the limit for anyone with business dealings before city government Developer Aby Rosen, who bought the Chrysler Building in 2019, raised $43,800.
And Jordan Barowitz, an executive at the dynastic Durst Organization, raised $24,750. Among Durst’s residential portfolio is a triangular building along the Hudson River that was designed by famed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels to maximize sunlight in every unit.
Reached by phone, Barowitz said, “Real estate is a critical component of New York’s civic ecosystem. The industry was vital to the city’s reemergence from fiscal crisis, terrorist attacks, and natural disaster and needs to be the next mayor’s partner on pandemic recovery.”
Rudin declined to comment and neither Rosen nor Zeckendorf responded to a request for comment.
During his eight-year stint as Manhattan borough president, Stringer recommended the city give the green light to the pyramidical Durst project, a parking garage for 15 Central Park West and Rudin’s controversial residential project at the former St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Three people working in real estate and politics at the time recalled him as a pragmatist; his land use decisions — which generally supported proposed developments but suggested conditions to appease opponents — reflect that assessment. Stringer’s inclination for consensus was on display when he recommended the city go forward — albeit with modifications — with sweeping rezonings in Hudson Square, Midtown East and at Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus.
Stringer’s team said he is not swayed by real estate donations, and described a 30-year history of supporting tenant-friendly measures, such as stricter rent laws when he was a state lawmaker in the 1990s.
“Over the last few years, watching the power of big real estate money to hang on to billion-dollar tax breaks like 421-a and fight vital changes to our rent laws, Scott rethought whether any candidate who stands with tenant activists should accept contributions from developers anymore, especially those running for mayor,” spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said in a statement. “So he decided not to.”
His shift coincided with a leftward political movement that lay blame for income inequality across the five boroughs at the feet of developers and landlords.
After Ocasio-Cortez routed a congressional powerbroker with a real estate-free campaign, others followed suit, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who at the time posed a threat to Stringer’s ambitions. Johnson has since dropped his own mayoral bid.
The change wasn’t just financial: After years of attending REBNY’s annual January gala alongside most New York politicians, Stringer joined them in skipping it in 2019, six months after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. As titans of the industry mingled at the black-tie affair that night, he opted for a Queens community board meeting with state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a progressive Democrat who is supporting his candidacy, according to his public schedule.
Other mayoral candidates, such as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Wall Street executive Ray McGuire, have expressed no reservations about taking cash from the real estate industry.
While publicly implying he will pose an obstacle to that sector, Stringer is privately adopting a more conciliatory approach, according to interviews with seven people in the business who have direct knowledge of his comments.
In meetings with developers over the past two years, when pressed on his public posture, he has said he needs to pivot left to win the primary, they said in recounting the talks.