Real estate industry forced to take sides on Cuomo

REBNY, Building Trades call for impeachment process to play out — a pro-governor stance

New York /
Aug.August 04, 2021 07:20 PM
Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Inset: CHIP's Jay Martin, REBNY's James Whelan and GFP Real Estate's Jeff Gural (Getty)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Inset: CHIP’s Jay Martin, REBNY’s James Whelan and GFP Real Estate’s Jeff Gural (Getty)

To put it mildly, things are not looking good for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Most of the entire political establishment has deserted him in the wake of investigators confirming allegations that he sexually harassed 11 women and ruled by “fear and intimidation.” Previous holdouts including Speaker Carl E. Heastie and President Joe Biden called Tuesday for him to step down.

But the response from the real estate industry, which had considered Cuomo largely an ally, has been mixed.

Perhaps the most outspoken industry figure on the matter has been Jeff Gural of GFP Real Estate, a former donor to Cuomo, who on Wednesday told The Real Deal, “I can’t wait for him to resign. I think he’s a bully.”

But others have talked about letting the impeachment process — which is still in the investigatory stage — play out. That happens to be the governor’s survival strategy.

Industry players were among the biggest backers to Cuomo in past election cycles and were counting on Cuomo to extend the lucrative 421a tax break for multifamily developers that is due to expire next year.

James Whelan, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said in a statement that the findings “warrant a fair, thorough and expeditious impeachment process.” That could give Cuomo two months to recover and survive an initial impeachment vote in the state Assembly.

Asked to comment, a spokesperson for the Durst Organization, whose CEO, Douglas Durst, chairs REBNY and is among New York’s largest developers, referred TRD to the trade organization’s statement.

Gary LaBarbera, the head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York who has been one of Cuomo’s most vocal supporters, had a spokesperson issue a statement saying, “We’re letting the process play out, and in the meantime, we’ll keep building the offices, housing, hospitals and infrastructure of New York’s future.”

But two other key labor groups in the industry said it was time for Cuomo to go.

“We urge the governor to resign and to take responsibility for his well-documented actions and how they have hurt women, and those who have devoted themselves to advance the interests of all New Yorkers,” said Kyle Bragg, president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which had previously supported Cuomo.

And Hotel Trades Council President Rich Maroko said in a statement, “It is clear from the conclusions of the report that Governor Cuomo cannot continue to lead the state. If he does not resign, the Assembly should move promptly to impeach him.”

Most of Cuomo’s most prolific donors have yet to say anything at all.

Scott Rechler, the CEO of RXR Realty, a donor who was appointed by Cuomo to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board and as vice chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, did not return a request for comment.

Nor did a representative from Brooklyn-based Two Trees Management, whose executives recently gave money to Cuomo’s re-election campaign. Related Companies, whose chairman, Stephen Ross, gave $25,000 to Cuomo in late June, also did not return requests for comment.

John Catsimatidis, the billionaire real estate developer and CEO of Gristedes Foods, told TRD that Cuomo “deserves a fair trial and not be tried in the press.”

Catsimatidis, who recently gave $25,000 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign, said he donated after the governor helped with the reconstruction of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

(He threw in a warning for whoever is governor next year: “If there is no 421a, I would spend the next billion dollars building in Florida.”)

Gural, a casino owner, previously gave $175,000 to Cuomo as he and other gambling interests sought to legalize Las Vegas-style casinos in New York, according to the Wall Street Journal. That bet did not pay off, and Gural later said the governor pressured him into donating.

He said he has confidence in Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who would succeed Cuomo if he were to resign.

“She’ll want to help and not govern like a dictator,” he said.

A trade group representing smaller landlords than REBNY’s leading members is also looking for a new governor. Jay Martin, the executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, said, the report released Tuesday “details a disturbing pattern of behavior that is simply not permissible by any boss, in any workplace.”

He added, “If Andrew Cuomo cares about New York state, he will step aside immediately.”

But the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners of rent-regulated housing, declined to comment, which arguably puts the group in Cuomo’s camp.

Tenant organizations have generally seen Cuomo as an adversary — someone who sides with developers over tenants and affordable housing advocates.

“I’ve known this guy since the 1980s and they didn’t call him the prince of darkness for nothing,” said Michael McKee, the treasurer of TenantsPAC.

He said the findings do not surprise him. “Anyone who knows him, knows he doesn’t have friends, he has minions,” said McKee.

Cuomo’s ties to the real estate industry go back to his first term.

In 2012, the New York Times reported that a committee largely funded by real estate had raised more than $12 million for Cuomo, making it the largest-spending advocacy organization in Albany. Some of those donors were pushing for a cap on local property taxes that the governor had proposed. It was enacted.

Cuomo later set the terms for the renewal of 421a passed in 2017, ignoring a deal reached by REBNY and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Instead, he forced developers to include prevailing wage requirements sought by LaBarbera in the bill — a move that caused the tax break to lapse for more than a year.

Cuomo has upset the real estate industry at other times, too. In 2019, Cuomo ignored pleas from landlords to stop pro-tenant reforms to rent stabilization. Instead he praised them as “the most sweeping, aggressive protections in state history.”

Recently, the governor proposed an amendment sought by building owners to Local Law 97, New York City’s carbon emissions cap. The proposal, backed by REBNY, was dropped.

In a recorded statement Tuesday, Cuomo denied any illegal acts and said “politics and bias are interwoven” with the report, which was conducted by independent lawyers selected by Attorney General Letitia James. Cuomo’s staff has been portraying James as interested in succeeding Cuomo as governor, although Cuomo had made that possible by pushing for her to become attorney general in the first place.

Kathryn Brenzel contributed to this story.





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