The Democratic mayoral candidate with the biggest following, according to a February poll, is someone named Unsure. It seems that the real estate industry, a major engine of political campaigns, feels the same way: a Voice analysis of the four Democratic candidates’ campaign finance reports shows that in the most recent fundraising period, from last July to January, each politician drew about 10 percent of his kitty from brokers, developers, landlords, and their lawyers.
However, the real estate industry seems to think the smart money is going to Public Advocate Mark Green, whose $4.3 million war chest is second only to Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s $6.5 million. Green also leads in the February 7 Marist Institute survey that asked voters who they would support if the election were held that day. Green had 26 percent; City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, 18 percent; Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, 15 percent; and Hevesi, 11 percent. The biggest chunk of voters—29 percent—were unsure who they would vote for.
The sentiments of the voters polled basically follow those of real estate donors, with Green having the largest share of real estate gifts raised since January 2000 ($220,580, or nearly 12 percent of his total money) and Hevesi the smallest ($184,950, or 7 percent). Unlike in the polls, Ferrer has a slight lead over Vallone in terms of raising real estate dollars. His $181,120 from the industry makes up just over 10 percent of his total. Vallone’s $122,275 comes to about 9 percent. The amounts contributed by real estate interests are minimums, since candidates do not disclose the occupations of all contributors.
Perhaps most surprising is Vallone’s status, both financially and electorally. Long known as a landlord ally and struggling to strike a pro-tenant posture after advancing laws that erode rent protections, Vallone in January 2000 had outpaced his opponents in luring real estate dollars, which then made up 14 percent of his total. His poll numbers remained generally single-digit; as recently as December, Vallone had the lowest rank of the four candidates, with only 10 percent of those polled saying they’d vote for him. But by February, Vallone had risen in the polls, while his real estate dollars had dwindled to 9 percent.
In January 2000, Green had the smallest cut of real estate dollars, only 4 percent of his total. But he quickly pulled ahead, and by July 2000, the industry accounted for just under 14 percent of the money he brought in during those months. He has remained consistently high in the polls.
The candidates range not only in the amount of money drawn from landlords and their like, but also in the nature of the givers. Notable in their absence so far are donations from the leading real estate lobbies, like the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), which represents the city’s largest landlords, and the Real Estate Board of New York. “Real estate individuals are a diverse group, and I don’t believe our PAC has come down one way or the other,” says REBNY spokesperson Warren Wexler. “Right now, when people are giving, they are acting on their own behalf.”
Of the PAC dollars that were contributed, including those from groups that represent Realtors, builders, and some landlords, most are finding their way to Vallone. He is also the beneficiary of Broadway theater owners, who stand to make a killing in real estate because of recent zoning and court victories; landlord and builder Fred DeMatteis, whose company owns Mitchell-Lama developments; and several firms associated with Donald Capoccia, who has won city contracts to build housing on the sites of former community gardens.
Vallone also received $750 from members of the family of Eugene Ostreicher, a developer who faces federal criminal charges following the 1999 death of a worker in a collapse at his Williamsburg construction site. The contributions to Vallone came in July 2000. And Vallone continues to rent his campaign office space in the building that houses the RSA, which is run by Joe Strasburg, Vallone’s former chief of staff. Vallone’s campaign did not return calls.
Green’s real estate green ranges from dozens of small contributions from brokers at firms like Newmark and Company, Time Equities, Douglas Elliman, and the Corcoran Group to thousands of dollars each from heavyweights like Insignia ESG, Murray Hill Properties, and the Related Companies. More than $12,000 came from SL Green, the real estate firm of Green’s brother. The Blumenfeld Group, which builds big-box malls like the Home Depot planned for East Harlem, gave $4050. DUMBO developer David Walentas gave $5000.
Ferrer counts among his biggest real estate rainmakers Procida Realty, which has worked with city agencies to develop housing in the South Bronx. He’s drawn heavily from members of the landlord law firm Borah Goldstein and Altschuler, and from Levites Realty, which has made headlines for its decrepit Bronx buildings, including one that had to be vacated in 1994 after the walls began to shake and crack. Baruch Singer, a notoriously bad landlord, sent Ferrer $500 in July 2000; Ferrer spokesman John Del Cecato told the Voice that the campaign would return the check. Ditto for two donations totaling $700 from Mark Perlleshi, who made the Voice‘s Ten Worst Landlords list in 1995.
“We have the strictest vetting process of any candidate, but with 5000 donors, people slip through the cracks,” Del Cecato said. “In the case of Singer, no formal complaints have been lodged, but we felt more comfortable returning the check.” He added that Ferrer has “the most extensive record on affordable housing of any of the candidates,” including the construction or renovation of 64,000 units of housing. That boom was part of an Ed Koch initiative.
The candidate least buoyed by real estate cash is Hevesi. Among his biggest donors are hotel developers, including the Apple Core chain, which has converted single-room occupancy buildings into tourist hotels; the Muss Development Company, which built the new Marriott in downtown Brooklyn and had a long labor dispute with its janitors; and ARCO, a real estate management firm that is often hired by the city to run distressed buildings. Among his biggest fundraisers is Queens developer Eugene Petracca, a major Giuliani backer.
Hevesi was the only candidate at a fall forum who did not consider housing a top priority, saying that it is more important to keep the economy buzzing, crime falling, and schools improving. The other candidates all advanced plans to build hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing, and in fact housing advocates are gearing up to make that a central issue of the mayoral campaign.
“The problem of affordable housing these days is insane,” says Irene Baldwin of the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development. Indeed, at least 500,000 tenant families spend more than half their gross income on rent, and 1 million could not afford the rents that are on the market today. “There’s a new interest because we’re looking at a political transition,” says Baldwin. “Just the fact that the candidates are talking about it is in huge contrast to the Giuliani administration.”
Research: Camila Gamboa, Jennifer Sain, Allegra Johnson