The Real Deal New York

The Exit Interview: Alicia Glen talks Amazon, affordable housing

Deputy Mayor plans to step down in early March
By Kathryn Brenzel | January 21, 2019 04:30PM

Alicia Glen (Credit: Getty Images)

With a little over a month left, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen’s office still looks busy. The whiteboard is covered. A pair of red heels are at the ready in the corner to the left of her desk. There are papers everywhere. The space is still very much on-brand for Glen: There’s a pillow that says, “Make a Power Move,” a nameplate on her desk that says “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss” and a book titled “Get Sh*t Done.” There’s also a large exercise ball from well-intentioned staffers that she admits hasn’t gotten much use.

Glen plans to step down sometime in the first week of March — five years after she took charge of the city’s housing and economic development initiatives. As an alumna of both Goldman Sachs and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, many saw her as someone who spoke the real estate industry’s language — a perception that both earned her praise and criticism. During her tenure, the administration financed the creation and preservation of a record number of affordable housing units, Midtown East was rezoned with plans for two massive office towers underway and the city landed (with the help of $3 billion in incentives) one of Amazon’s new campuses. She said she was surprised more people weren’t excited about the latter.

“By the way, if we had done it in Hudson Yards or Lower Manhattan, people would’ve said, ‘why aren’t you doing this in an area where we need to do economic development,’” she said. “You get nostalgic, and you get sort of, it’s almost like a badge of honor to hate everything.”

Her departure also comes as several other administration officials are leaving, and at a time when the future of the New York City Housing Authority remains unclear. A plan has not yet been approved for overhauling the agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has reportedly threatened a federal takeover if a deal isn’t reached by Jan. 31. Whatever is ultimately decided, it will be Glen’s successor who will be grappling with changes to the public housing agency.

Why are you leaving now?

There’s never a perfect time to leave these jobs. To some extent the five-year mark was a little bit arbitrary, but it also coincided with a large number of very big things getting done, things that I came here to do. We not only met our goals with respect to housing production, we blew them out of the water. [And] once we were able to land the Amazon deal, that was also a really great moment of proving the notion of a true five-borough economy.

You were viewed as sort of the real estate industry’s liaison. Why do you think you were seen this way?

First of all, this job by definition is a combination of policy but also making sure transactions are getting done. Not just being a liaison, but in order to effectuate the agenda in a smart way and having come from a world where I had real hands-on experience working with for-profit developers, nonprofit developers, investors, lenders — having been an investor and lender myself— I think that all those skills were very much why the mayor picked me and also why folks who are out there in the industry correctly saw me as a point of entry.

Do you think your successor will be seen the same way?

They don’t necessarily have to have the same background that I have, but I think you do have to be transactional, and you have to understand the way in which policy, finance, politics and deal-making all come together in order to be really effective.

Recently there has been some criticism that your focus in terms of affordable housing was disproportionately on new construction rather than fixing up existing public housing.

We knew that we had a real challenge with the housing authority, and the years and years and years and decades of disinvestment from the federal government. We inherited a very challenging situation. [But] these two things aren’t about cannibalizing each other. We need to do all of them. The future of public housing in NYC is going to be that a lot of those units that have been managed by the housing authority really need to be converted into Section 8 housing projects and run by other people. That’s something that took a while to get into the ether and get socialized and accepted. But now it’s gaining a lot of momentum.

Do you think HUD will take over NYCHA?

We don’t think that it’s the right thing for the housing authority. At the end of the day, they don’t have a great track record in Trump-land of caring about low-income people and affordable housing. So, we continue to negotiate with the federal government about what we can do and frankly what they can do. They can threaten all they want but at the end of the day, what are their solutions? What are they bringing to the table? The story continues to unfold, but we hope we could get to a good place.

Last week, there were calls to include a “racial impact study” in addition to environmental impact studies for rezonings under mandatory inclusionary housing. What do you make of that?

I’m not familiar with this particular issue, but MIH is by definition an economic diversity strategy and also a strategy that says when the market is really hot, the people deserve a piece of that. For many, many years, the people didn’t get their share of that incredible market growth. That’s why there are all those people who are rightfully pissed off in places like Williamsburg, right? Their neighborhood got upzoned and rezoned, and they were told they were going to have all this affordable housing except it wasn’t required. We changed the game immensely by saying, as neighborhoods grow and evolve, it’s not just a hope there’s going to be affordable housing.

There was a lot of criticism that the city and state gave up too much in the Amazon deal. Do you think reforming the as-of-right incentives that made that happen is a more productive conversation?

One of the things that is always true, and what we did when we came into office with 421a for example, is that you should constantly be evaluating what your incentive policies are because markets change. And neighborhoods change. To the extent that people want to talk about whether or not incentives for commercial projects and development should reflect the changing market? I think that’s a really healthy debate.

The mayor and governor weren’t at the REBNY gala last week. Do you think their recent speeches, which respectively included plans to seize property from bad landlords and reform rent regulation, had something to do with their absence?

I’m not going to engage in speculating as to what the mayor and the governor do with respect to what events they decide to go to. Things are very political right now. Everyone’s running for president, everything is very fraught in the ether. But I do hope that out of all that comes some really smart reforms. I don’t know why anyone goes to these events sometimes. It’s a lot of schmoozing. I go because these are folks I work with, and I go to a gazillion events. I don’t think people should read too much into it.

What comes next for you?

I haven’t decided, but I know it’s going to have something to do with building and improving cities and continuing to fight for what I hope is a fact-based decision-making process around policy and deals. I don’t like this whole discussion around how we should only focus on the lowest, lowest income people, or we should only care about what big business thinks. There’s a big continuum here. I’m going to continue doing what I’ve done my whole career which is be part of that conversation but hopefully be part of the solution. Not sure how that’s going to play out, but I’m not going anywhere.

So, a developer? A lobbyist?

Nothing against lobbyists, but I’m not a lobbyist person. I can pretty much rule that out.

Any contenders for your job at this point?

If there were, I’d have to kill you.

This interview was condensed for clarity.