Keith Wright, Charles Rangel, and others (photo via Wright's campaign)
New York Assemblymember Keith Wright’s congressional campaign has flooded inboxes declaring him a “champion” for tenants. Many see it as an appropriate description for the housing committee chair - his campaign touts the support of “100 tenant leaders” and he has a long history of advocating for renters, starting in the 1980s as the head of the tenant association in Harlem’s Riverton Houses, where he still lives. Wright and his fellow tenants recently settled a lawsuit with their landlord for $2 million after alleging they were charged improper rent and other misdeeds.
One of several campaign emails to supporters seeking donations based on Wright’s tenant advocacy reads: “Keith has been a voice for our neighborhoods for decades. His leadership has made sure that NYC protects and expands affordable housing. He pushes to stand up for tenants and hold NYCHA management accountable.”
Wright is a leader in the crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel, who has endorsed him, and he’s very much running on his housing record.
There is another view of Wright held by some tenant advocates and legislators, though, who see him as being an outspoken advocate on housing issues who has failed to turn his bully pulpit and considerable power and influence in Albany into actual results.
These critics maintain that Wright failed to buck former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Governor Andrew Cuomo and fight for drastic changes to the rent laws that would do away with what they see as incentives for landlords to increase rent and drive out rent-controlled tenants.
In the 13th Congressional District largely made up of Harlem and Washington Heights, Wright is facing state Senator Adriano Espaillat; Clyde Williams, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton; Assemblymember Guillermo Linares; and former Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell. Appearing the favored establishment candidate, Wright - along with Espaillat and Linares - has faced criticism from Williams and others for connections to Albany and its notorious corruption and dysfunction.
Several tenant groups were excited when Wright took over the housing committee from disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez in 2013, but a number of them were quickly disillusioned, representatives say. They believe Wright has simply maintained the status quo and amassed power in anticipation for his run for Congress. They point to Wright’s fundraising records that show he’s taken significant donations from real estate interests and question his loyalty to tenant issues such as doing away with the process by which landlords can deregulate affordable units or ending the 421-a subsidy they call a giveaway to developers.
“The problem with Keith is that he says all the right things but then follows orders, resulting in the ongoing destruction of our rent-regulated housing. And I am disturbed by the staggering amount of real estate money he has amassed for his congressional race,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC, which organizes around affordable housing issues and backs like-minded candidates. Tenants PAC does not endorse in national races.
A 2014 study by the Community Service Society, an advocacy group for low-income New Yorkers, found that the city lost 40 percent of apartments for low-income residents over the prior decade.
Wright defended his record in an interview: “As chair of the housing committee we’ve had to work against a very conservative state Senate,” Wright said, referring to the Republican-controlled upper house of the New York Legislature. “Listen, no matter what you do you are not going to be able to please everyone. Sure you get folks who want me to hold up the budget and this that, but I’ve been through those days before and it didn't quite work. If I thought it would work I would do it again. You can’t please everyone.”
As for his major wins, Wright counts his “greatest achievement” as a 2014 lawsuit he filed with his fellow tenants at Riverton Square accusing the landlords of illegally inflating rent, improperly evicting tenants, and overstating the value of the improvements made to apartments. In February the landlord, CWCapital and CompassRock, agreed to a $2 million settlement that will be paid in rent credits (they admitted no wrongdoing).
Wright was also a key player in negotiations of the recent sale of Riverton to A&E Real Estate. Part of the sale included an agreement that A&E would repair homes and include 975 apartments, including Wright’s, in a 30-year affordability agreement.
Two of Wright’s major wins didn’t come legislatively, but instead in actions he took to protect his own housing complex.
Wright rejected the idea that contributions from real estate influenced his fight for stronger rent laws. “Ask him why he’s taken so much Wall Street money and D.C. money,” Wright said, apparently referencing his opponent Clyde Williams, who brought up donations Wright has taken from real estate interests in recent debates. “We’ve all taken real estate money. It has nothing to do with my commitment to the tenants of New York City. I think my record is plain on its face.”
Filings with the State Board of Elections and Federal Elections Commission dating back to 2013 show that Wright has taken tens of thousands of dollars in donations from major real estate and construction interests and their subsidiaries. Real estate groups are known for donating to many state politicians in hopes of influencing policy.
Major donations to Wright from real estate interests include $2,050 from the Real Estate Board PAC; $4,100 from JSignal LLC, which is connected to Cayuga Capital, a real estate management and development firm; $500 from John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of NY; $2,700 from Eliot Spitzer, the former governor who now focuses on real estate; $5,000 from Empire PAC, which represents real estate interests; $2,500 from REBNY member Daniel Zucker; and a total of $4,200 over three contributions from Donald Capoccia, head of BFC Partners, a development firm that specializes in affordable housing.
Wright’s first action as housing chair in 2013 was to introduce a package of housing bills that included a surprise: renewal of the lapsed J-51 program. The program is intended to provide tax breaks to landlords who make improvements to affordable housing, but tenant groups asserted it was abused by landlords. A study found half of the tax breaks went to owners of market-rate buildings.
“I was named housing chair on a Friday and we had a very large bill that was somewhat controversial that had to be done on Monday," Wright told Gotham Gazette during an interview in February 2013. "I know folks in the tenant movement were upset, they wanted that bill to be used as leverage, but it was a bill for coops, condos, and lofts, and those type of people do live in New York City. We had to do this bill.”
Last year, as rent regulations that govern affordable housing in the city and across the state came up for renewal, tenant groups were hoping Wright and newly sworn-in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, would be able to win significant changes to the rent laws to do away with what they call incentives for landlords to take apartments off of the affordable housing rolls. Instead they say they got tweaks.
The threshold for rent at which a vacant apartment can be deregulated was increased from $2,500 to $2,700. The deal also required landlords stretch out the period they increase tenants’ rent after making major capital improvements. Landlords were also limited in how much they can increase rent between tenants. The wins were seen as small, minimal in comparison to what Cuomo and the Assembly publicly pushed for. Wright said he was nevertheless proud of the changes that were made.
Last year was a not a typical year - both legislative leaders Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were indicted during budget season (and later convicted). Rather than a traditional negotiation of the expiring rent laws and 421-a program that gives tax breaks to developers for including affordable housing in their projects, Cuomo allowed real estate and labor interests to negotiate 421-a renewal on their own, outside the Legislature.
Tenant groups say 421-a is a “tax suck” that has been demonstrated to produce very few affordable units and been the subject to major abuse and fraud by developers. Investigations, like one by ProPublica, have proven those claims to be true. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio and others want to see a new, strengthened 421-a program enacted.
Cuomo attributed giving real estate and labor control of negotiations to the sensitivity of legislators towards the Silver and Skelos scandals that included revelations about the political influence of Glenwood Management, a real estate company that was the state’s largest campaign donor.
Labor and real estate failed to reach an agreement on renewing 421-a, so the program lapsed. Still, Cuomo and other stakeholders appear loathe to let it go, to the dismay of some tenant groups.
Results of the legislative negotiations on rent laws last year were hailed as “historic” by Cuomo, but tenant groups found it lacking. They say it basically cemented the status quo allowing landlords to steadily raise rents and move apartments off the affordable housing rolls.
"We pretty much got nothing," said Delsenia Glover, director of Alliance for Tenant Power, said at a press conference in Albany in early April. "At the time Governor Cuomo said they were the 'strongest rent laws in history.' It's not true, we got nothing."
Glover, who is from Harlem, does not blame Wright for the rent law negotiations. “Keith is extremely supportive,” Glover told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. “He was one of our lead champions last year along with Speaker Heastie. He worked as hard as he could on the rent laws.”
The focus of Alliance for Tenant Power’s April press conference was demanding that if Albany does decide to find a replacement for 421-a that they must also reopen negotiations on rent laws. Glover says lawmakers should end current rules that incentivize landlords to make apartments unaffordable.
“Instead of discussing benefits for rich developers, all attention should be on fixing the major loopholes in the rent regulation system that houses 2.5 million tenants in approximately 1 million units with no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer,” Glover wrote in an April op-ed at Gotham Gazette.
Glover and other tenant groups deride the idea of any replacement for 421-a. Wright attended the press conference and appeared to agree, despite the fact he introduced what many tenant advocates saw as a direct replacement. Wright proposed a program that would provide $100,000 to developers per affordable unit they build that would be funded by the state abandoned property fund.
Wright said at the time that the bill was negotiated with the Real Estate Board of New York the NYS Association for Affordable Housing, and the Building & Construction Trades Council. All three groups indicated to the Daily News at the time that they didn’t actually support the plan.
“I’m sorry the press picked it up as a replacement for 421-a,” Wright told Gotham Gazette, implying that his plan was not aimed to be such and that a lack of enthusiasm for it was the result of that mistaken characterization.
Asked for her take on Wright’s plan, Glover demurred, saying, “You’d have to ask someone who was in the room.”
Barika Williams, deputy director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), praised Wright for bringing together disparate groups to discuss the creation of “a tool” to spur the creation of affordable housing. “It was a unique table that brought together different parts of the for-profit and nonprofit set. You saw a lot of people who don’t normally sit at the same table. We were looking at achieving the deepest affordability and trying to target resources to those buckets of the population that are desperately in need.”
Williams said that in the end all of the groups may not have been on the same page because not all the groups involved were present for the entire process. “It was a long process that took commitment and being consistently involved for over two months.”
Wright has been criticized by advocates and fellow legislators for not being properly versed in the bills he supports. He’s also been criticized for being too close to Governor Cuomo.
Wright said he would love to see the rent laws reopened for negotiation this year.
City & State NY recently reported that Tom Cayler, chair of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance’s Illegal Hotel Committee, was unhappy with a bill Wright carries that is technically designed to deal with illegal hotels.
Wright’s bill would create a process by which permanent residents of certain apartment buildings could register to rent their apartments in the short term - similar to how Airbnb functions.
Cayler said the bill would simply allow residents to rent their apartments as “illegal hotels,” rather than ending the practice. There is a good deal of pushback against Airbnb in Manhattan. The group met with Wright and were asked to send him a memo with their concerns. They say they never heard back.
“It was really shocking to us that he didn’t actually seem to know much about the bill he had his name on,” Cayler told City & State. “He was not well-informed about it. His chief of staff was the one who knew about this particular bill.”
Wright’s spokesperson Emma Forbes told City & State that the bill was designed to increase transparency and that the bill had yet to move because there wasn’t “consensus” from residents and stakeholders.
Asked about Cayler’s criticism Wright told Gotham Gazette: “I thought he was somewhat misinformed.”
Wright said his door is always open and he is willing to discuss legislation.
WIlliams, of ANHD, countered the idea that Wright was ill informed about legislation. “I think from our experience Assemblymember Wright understands the complexity of housing and the complex mix of interests that are involved. With all of that in mind, his goal always seems to be thinking about deep affordability and how to help those folks in New York City who are struggling and who are the most underserved.”
Asked if he expects legislation on illegal hotels to move this session, which ends in mid-June, Wright replied, “The bill is in my name in a committee I head and I control the bill and it hasn’t moved.” “So if it quacks like a duck...,” he added, implying there was little chance the bill would advance.
Wright said he is proud of his record as a tenant advocate and that despite the overwhelming support he has received from the Democratic establishment, including words of support from former President Bill Clinton and formal endorsements from Gov. Cuomo, Speaker Heastie, and Rep. Rangel, he does not take it for granted that he will be leaving Albany for Washington. “We have a lot to do here,” Wright said, adding that should he be elected to Congress his main focus will be on changing the definition of area median income because of the way it impacts affordable housing in the city.
“The reason I’m running is to change the definition of area median income and the way it is put forward with affordable housing,” said Wright. “The housing that is being built is called “affordable,” but it's not affordable to anyone I know or even me.” (Wright, who lives in rent-stabilized housing, has an Assembly salary of $79,500, not including the stipend he receives for heading the housing committee, and he has served for 24 years.)
Citing the fact that the AMI used for New York City to determine rent thresholds takes into account Westchester and Rockland counties, greatly increasing the number, Wright said that reform would benefit city residents.
“Changing the definition is what I want to do the first day I get to Congress, most definitely,” said Wright.
New Yorkers are tired of seeing condos going for millions of dollars while they worry about paying the bills and staying in their neighborhood, Wright said.
“The people of Harlem shed blood, sweat, and tears to make their neighborhood a safe place to live,” Wright said. “People are scared to death their children won't be able to afford to live in the neighborhood because it won’t be affordable.”