Vampire Squids and the Mayors Who Love Them

Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen’s affection for all things real estate development is a feature, not a bug


Alicia Glen is in hot water again. The deputy mayor for housing and economic development, whose Goldman Sachs background often shines through in her public statements, is back in the news for calling city councilmembers “extremely confused and ill-informed and not that smart” during a recently released deposition in an affordable-housing suit.

The problem, it seems, is that some of these elected officials were balking at the de Blasio administration’s approach to housing and real estate, which has focused largely on promoting luxury development in order to either create lower-cost apartments or raise funds for public housing. “I think we would be here for a month if you wanted a list of every time a city councilperson didn’t understand what was going on in a particular project or a rezoning,” Glen added.

This is not the first time Glen’s callous language has drawn public ire. She can be refreshingly candid in her obliviousness, as when she compared working-class rage over the gentrification that results from city rezonings to her own feelings of loss when her favorite dry cleaner changed hands: “It pisses me off because I’ve known those people for years,” she told Vice. “It stresses me out. I don’t like change. But change is inevitable and so how you shape the future is incredibly important as opposed to letting it wash over you. Because it’s coming.”

But it’s not just style that has made Glen such a lightning rod; it’s also the substance of her work, both before and after she joined the administration. With a history of service to Goldman Sachs, Glen represents one of Mayor de Blasio’s most important ties to Wall Street and the city’s investor class. With purview over the city’s planning department, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation, the New York City Housing Authority, and much more, she has been able to secure massive amounts of investment capital for projects the mayor has prioritized, while simultaneously giving away huge amounts of public land to private developers. This series of deals, combined with her outrageous public statements, has combined to form something of a rolling crisis for the de Blasio administration: Glengate, we might call it.

The city’s tenant movement has focused on Glen as the epitome of the mayor’s problematic approach to housing and has called on de Blasio to fire her. Last year the Real Affordability for All (RAFA) coalition, which consists of about fifty housing and labor organizations, launched a campaign to dump Glen. It even provided a resource guide titled “Goldman Sachs in City Hall” that detailed several generous deals Glen negotiated with for-profit developers both before and after becoming deputy mayor. And the week before Christmas, the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network held a Grinch-themed protest outside Glen’s home.

Even within the administration, staffers commiserate about the way Glen’s Wall Street agenda counteracts other good works they are trying to pursue. One mayoral office staffer told me, “I am concerned that the negative effects of relying on a market-based affordable housing strategy are an impediment to achieving the equity goals of the administration. Other affordable housing strategies have been advocated internally, only to be stopped by Deputy Mayor Glen’s office.”

There has been turnover among other high-level members of the de Blasio administration during the mayor’s time in City Hall, either for their own reasons or in response to popular pressure. At the start of de Blasio’s second term, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, deputy mayor for strategic initiatives Richard Buery, and schools chancellor Carmen Fariña all stepped down. In the embattled Department of Homeless Services, both deputy mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli and commissioner Gilbert Taylor have left. De Blasio’s single most regressive appointee, Giuliani-era police commissioner William Bratton, stepped down after sustained protest against him and his “broken windows” agenda. Carl Weisbrod, the city’s powerful city planning commissioner, was replaced, as was HPD commissioner Vicki Been. When the press first reported on correction commissioner Joseph Ponte’s generous vacation regimen, the mayor at first backed his commissioner as competent and undeserving of scorn; when the pressure built, however, Ponte was pushed out and replaced.

But still, Alicia Glen remains. Through all the public protests and media storms, she continues to be one of the most powerful people in City Hall. So what exactly has she done during her time in office that is so valuable to the mayor?

As deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Glen not only oversees a massive bureaucracy but controls an enormous pot of public money: $10 billion slated for housing development, renovation, and preservation projects. Glen steers the direction of the city’s planning department, which under de Blasio has remained focused on rezoning working-class, largely people-of-color neighborhoods like East New York and East Harlem to allow for more development — the vast majority of which will be luxury housing, with a small fraction reserved for below-market (but still too expensive for many New Yorkers) rents. She also directs efforts at alienating public land, often for large developments by for-profit firms: In de Blasio’s first year, according to New York Communities for Change, her office handed over 120 publicly owned lots for $1, with nearly 70 percent of them going to for-profit developers.

Under Glen’s watch a large number of at-risk affordable housing units have been preserved, but a closer look reveals that they have often done so at significantly increased rents. Many of the preserved “affordable” units are going for $2,500 per month, or more. According to RAFA’s report, during de Blasio’s first term, Glen directed over $1 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to three for-profit developers: L+M Development got $709 million, BFC Partners got $131 million, and BRP Development got $100 million. In return, they built 29 mixed-income projects, which produced almost no housing that was actually affordable to people in the neighborhoods in which they were built. A dozen more such projects are now in the pipeline for these three developers.

This mode of development is perfectly in line with Glen’s previous work on Wall Street. At the Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group, she did 12 such deals with L+M and 11 others with BFC and BRP. Through “social impact bonds” and other tools, Glen ushered enormous pools of private equity capital into working-class neighborhoods, producing profits for investors while boosting neighborhood land values and housing costs. It was still speculative capitalism and it was still gentrification, but it was packaged as some kind of social good. Invoking Matt Taibbi’s famously evocative (if biologically inaccurate) characterization of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” Glen described her work thusly: “We’re not all evil squids. We’re nice little calamari.”

Shortly after de Blasio’s re-election, I asked a City Hall staffer whether we could expect Glen’s resignation. “Why would he fire her?” the staffer responded. “Alicia Glen is the goose that laid the golden egg.” This, in short, is why Alicia Glen is still deputy mayor. Despite pressure from the tenant movement, despite her spats with the press, and despite her own propensity to say exactly what she shouldn’t say in public, Glen delivers big deals to a mayor who is pursuing what he calls “the strongest, most progressive housing policies in the nation.” She is remarkably good at tying public investment to private profits, and while the mayor would never characterize that as one of his goals, it’s exactly what he needs in order to meet his metrics. Her connections with favored developers like L+M and BFC, as well as with a myriad of others, are what enables the administration to hit the large, round numbers it likes to tout: 300,000 units of “affordable” housing to be built or preserved over ten years.

Hitting those numbers, however, comes at a cost far beyond the sticker price. It means giving away scarce public land for subpar private luxury development; it means “preserving” affordable housing at rents current tenants can’t afford; and it means luring luxury development into the city’s poorest neighborhoods. While 300,000 units may sound like a major accomplishment, Glen’s methods ensure that any real gains will be undercut by rising overall land and housing costs that drive rents upward for other city residents.

There are, of course, a lot of other ways the city could combat gentrification and produce affordable housing, but they don’t produce large returns on investment (which, in a city where real estate is a dominant industry, the mayor tends to care about), and they would be much easier to do with deeper subsidies from the state and federal governments (which are not forthcoming from either Cuomo or Trump). Instead, with Alicia Glen’s expert assistance, de Blasio further enriches the real estate industry through policies and projects that can be marketed as affordable housing solutions — a form of managed gentrification, or the “nice little calamari” approach to urban planning.

The very thing that the city’s tenant movement resents about Glen — that her vision of affordable housing begins and ends with investor profits — is exactly what the mayor prizes: her ability to structure big deals with big-money players. The more she does to screw tenants, the more valuable she is to the administration. As long as Glen continues to connect big real estate players with city housing programs, de Blasio will likely keep her on as deputy mayor, no matter what embarrassing statement she makes next.