When rookie legislators drastically changed the rent law last year, it proved the importance of elections to the real estate industry — which faces another reckoning next week.
In deep-blue New York, the June 23 Democratic primary will essentially decide many of the winners in November, when all 213 seats in the state legislature will be on the ballot. A slew of challengers are hostile to the industry’s interests, and a few are trying to oust incumbents who fit that description. Many of the key races feature candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, which opposes profit-making in housing and emerged as a force in the 2018 elections that shook the industry to its core.
The coronavirus has changed the dynamic of this year’s primary. Turnout will likely be muted and a high percentage of votes will be cast by mail, which could favor incumbents — an outcome generally welcomed by the real estate industry. But political insiders say the health crisis has made this year’s races especially unpredictable.
Housing is not a dominant issue at the moment, as New York contends with the pandemic and protests against police brutality, but some key races could alter real estate’s playing field for years to come. Here are the ones that matter most to the industry. (Names of some minor candidates have been excluded.)
Tremaine Wright | Jabari Brisport | Jason Salmon
Senate District 25
Longtime Democratic State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery is retiring, setting the stage for a heated primary in central Brooklyn. Assembly member Tremaine Wright, whose district overlaps with Montgomery’s, received her endorsement and the support of the county Democratic organization. Jason Salmon, a former Montgomery staffer, sought the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America, but the group instead backed Jabari Brisport, as did Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders. A public school teacher and DSA member, Brisport has made housing justice a key part of his campaign and told The Real Deal he hoped to form a socialist slate in the Senate. Brisport outraised both his opponents nearly two-to-one.
Marcela Mitaynes | Felix Ortiz
Assembly District 51
Assembly member Felix Ortiz, who is assistant speaker of the Assembly, has held his Sunset Park seat for more than a quarter century. Marcela Mitaynes, a DSA-backed tenant organizer who pushed for last year’s rent law, is hoping to stage an upset. Mitaynes also received endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Julia Salazar. She supports “good cause” eviction, fully funding public housing and raising taxes on the wealthy. Explaining his vote for a measure to provide some pandemic rental assistance, which was opposed by tenant advocates who wanted radical change, Ortiz said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Phara Souffrant | Walter Mosley
Assembly District 57
Phara Souffrant, a Haitian-American nurse and organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, is challenging Assembly member Walter Mosley, who said he prefers to engage developers, not shun them. Souffrant was arrested in an Albany protest leading up to the passage of the rent law and has said no one should have to pay rent. Mosley, who was elected to his Brooklyn seat in 2012, serves on the Assembly’s housing committee. Mosley objected when Speaker Carl Heastie steered the modest rent-relief bill around the committee to ensure its passage.
Zohran Mamdani | Aravella Simotas
Assembly District 36
Astoria Assembly member Aravella Simotas, who voted in favor of last year’s rent law, nevertheless drew a primary challenger backed by the DSA. Zohran Mamdani has made housing justice a key part of his campaign in Queens. A foreclosure-prevention officer, he has said that he hopes to pass “good cause” eviction and other measures to “decommodify” housing. But unlike the other DSA candidates, Mamdani did not receive the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez, whose district includes Astoria.
Yuh-Line Niou | Grace Lee
Assembly District 65
Community activist and businesswoman Grace Lee is challenging Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, a second-term progressive firebrand and staunch supporter of last year’s tenant-friendly reforms. Lee was spurred to run by her opposition to a Howard Hughes project, which she claims could harm children at a nearby private school that her daughter attends by stirring up mercury from the ground. Lee has said she would like to see more taxes on the ultra-wealthy, including a pied-à-terre tax, to compensate for budget losses in the coronavirus. Despite these positions, real estate interests prefer Lee in this Lower Manhattan race because she is seen as more open to development than Niou.
Diana Richardson | Jesse Hamilton
Assembly District 43
A key supporter of last year’s tenant-friendly rent law, Assembly member Richardson is being challenged by a former member of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Caucus, Jesse Hamilton. Richardson surprised supporters when she recently said, “I hope the tenant movement hears this loud and clear: Cancel rent is a failed campaign.” Hamilton was ousted from the Senate two years ago by Zellnor Myrie, another progressive lawmaker and an ally of Richardson and tenant groups. Although Hamilton lost in 2018, he narrowly won the part of the Senate district that overlaps with the 43rd Assembly District.
Julia Salazar | Andy Marte
Senate District 18
The real estate industry has ample reason to want democratic socialist Sen. Julia Salazar out of office. The legislator is seen by many as the tip of the spear for last year’s tenant-friendly legislation and a proponent of even further measures to socialize housing. But challenger Andy Marte, a former Vito Lopez staffer who criticized Salazar for trying to cancel rent and abolish the police, has an uphill battle. His fundraising has been weak and his campaign generated controversy by offering unauthorized coronavirus antibody tests to public housing residents, the Daily News reported.
15th Congressional District
With Bronx Rep. José Serrano not seeking re-election, a dozen Democrats are lined up to succeed him. City Council member Ritchie Torres, a product and advocate of public housing, received strong support from the real estate industry and has welcomed it, unlike contender Samelys López, who has spurned real estate dollars and calls housing a human right. Since López was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, her fundraising has far outpaced that of Torres. López pledged to work closely with Rep. Ilhan Omar, who proposed a bill to cancel rent during the pandemic. Other candidates in the jam-packed field include former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council member Ruben Díaz Sr., City Council member Ydanis Rodríguez and Assembly member Michael Blake.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez | Michelle Caruso-Cabrera
Congressional District 14
The real estate industry would surely love to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted, but she seems unconcerned with her main challenger, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. A former CNBC anchor and Republican, Caruso-Cabrera has raised over $2 million from prominent finance and real estate firms, about a fifth of what Ocasio-Cortez has raked in. Caruso-Cabrera has criticized the incumbent for derailing Amazon’s proposed Long Island City campus and supporting tax hikes on the wealthy, the Financial Times reported.
Correction: This article has been revised to reflect that Yuh-Line Niou is in her second term in the Assembly, not her first.