Mayor questions allowing condo construction during pandemic

De Blasio also takes dim view of property tax deferral for landlords

Mar.March 22, 2020 07:21 PM
Mayor Bill de Blasio (Photo by William Farrington-Pool/Getty Images)

Mayor Bill de Blasio (Photo by William Farrington-Pool/Getty Images)

Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated Sunday that not all construction might be “essential” after all.

During a press conference, the mayor said it was “important” to discuss with state officials whether all construction should remain exempt from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order requiring employees of non-essential businesses to stay home.

De Blasio noted that he doesn’t consider luxury condo construction a priority, but asserted that the city is working within the parameters laid out by the state. Guidelines issued by the Empire State Development Corp. allow construction, including work by skilled trades and companies performing essential infrastructure or emergency repair work.

“This is something, I know, like every other piece of the equation, that’s being constantly assessed,” he said. “I care about the safety of those construction workers. I want to be clear, if any construction worker is sick, they should stay home.”

City Council members and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have called for a halt to all non-essential construction. Last week, Boston shut down construction sites for at least two weeks to stem the spread of coronavirus. Other cities have classified the industry as an essential service even as they shut others down. In New York, Cuomo appears to be calling the shots.

De Blasio said the city still has the right to shut down sites where conditions are unsafe, but did not say outright whether he thinks certain types of construction should halt amid the pandemic.

“I’m not offering personal opinions in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “Any approach, any rule can change, by the week, by the day, depending on changing conditions.”

But on Friday, he did embrace a suggestion that landlords get a break if they give financially strapped tenants a reprieve on rent during the pandemic. On Sunday, though, he was cool on the idea of delaying property tax payments due in April. The mayor said he is “willing to consider all options” but unless the city sees an infusion of significant federal aid soon, he’s hesitant to forsake revenue.

“All local governments are hemorrhaging money,” he said. “It is not my instinct to take away other forms of revenue because we literally will not be able to pay for essential services.”

The city hauled in $28 billion in property tax revenue in 2019 and has enjoyed robust increases in tax revenue throughout de Blasio’s mayoralty, thanks to a surging economy. City government’s head count has swelled to more than 333,000 from just over 297,000 when de Blasio took office in 2014. And the mayor and City Council have put several billion dollars into reserve in case of an economic downturn.

But the coronavirus will cost the state billions of dollars, officials have estimated, and will sink city revenues by $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and between $3.5 billion and $4.6 billion the following year, City Comptroller Scott Stringer said Monday.

Some landlords have called for a delay in property tax payments, as some tenants struggle to pay rent and landlords are barred from evicting tenants.

Cuomo signed an executive order Saturday requiring state-chartered banks to offer to defer mortgage payments for 90 days for homeowners in financial distress because of the pandemic. The order does not apply to commercial loans secured by property.

Industry groups such as the New York Building Congress cheered when Cuomo exempted construction from his workplace ban, which is designed to allow for social distancing and keep the coronavirus from spreading faster than hospitals can accommodate its victims.

Construction crews work in very different environments from office workers, but they do tend to pack into elevators. Experts have called for people to stay six feet away from each other to prevent transmission of the virus.

Write to Kathryn Brenzel at [email protected] 

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