Editor's note: The industry’s image problem

Dec.December 01, 2019 01:00 PM

Stuart Elliott

It’s been a tough year for real estate – but a good time for lobbyists.

The industry seems to have lost the thread when it comes to getting politicians and the public on its side.

Amid the leftward political lurch at the city and state level, there have been stinging losses on rent reform, the proposed Amazon campus in Queens and a city law establishing carbon-emission limits for large buildings, among other defeats for the real estate business.

As the industry loses clout, it’s seeing political influencers as even more essential for cooking up strategies, creating alliances and constructing narratives to advance its cause, as reporter Sylvia Varnham O’Regan details. The $102 million-plus paid to New York City lobbyists last year was up 42 percent from 2014, according to the city clerk’s office.

But the underlying issue is more basic: Too many people think the real estate industry is about making money at all costs.

Real estate has to come up with a new story. If the industry is smart, it will realize that the process of crafting a fresh raison d’être is just getting started. In a story on the normally powerful-but-less-so-lately Real Estate Board of New York, its new president, Jim Whelan, hints at real estate’s revamped role for how it makes this city great.

“Our conversations have to be based on data and good public policy, and not simply what’s in the best interest of the industry,” he told reporter Kathryn Brenzel. 

Since the perception of the industry is already at a nadir, there should be more realization that creating a new dialogue with progressive politicians doesn’t mean giving in.

And developers and landlords need to remember that when they are bemoaning the new political climate, they should avoid doing so from the confines of the Pierre Hotel’s posh dining room. During a panel discussion there last month, Scott Rechler, chair and CEO of RXR Realty, said, “We’re talked about by the activists as the enemy. You think about Occupy Wall Street after the banks collapsed — we’re that today; real estate’s that today.” 

It’s going to take more self-awareness and reflection on the industry’s part. But it also doesn’t mean doing a political 180 and going full Elizabeth Warren as some would have it. Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, says, “The real estate industry has to realize that their best hope is to have a vision and an agenda that will provide housing for working people.”

No doubt, that is part of the equation. But the real estate industry also has to brainstorm beyond that.

Despite the Amazon debacle, the real estate industry is creating spaces for new businesses and new jobs that benefit all New Yorkers. In an otherwise digital world, the industry is still taking care of the bricks and mortar, building and brokering the places we call home. And to its credit, real estate is helping foster what some consider a golden age of architecture and building towers that stretch to new heights.

Obviously, all of this shouldn’t benefit just the wealthy elite.

But on the other hand, those in real estate shouldn’t be expected to stop making money, even if State Sen. Julia Salazar, a professed Marxist, says she doesn’t “believe that housing should be for profit.”

Let the brainstorming and dialogue begin. 

Elsewhere in this issue — our last of the decade! — there are lots of meaty stories. 

Check our cover story interview with the ever-controversial HUD Secretary Ben Carson as he nears the end of his tenure; plus stories on the tech firms gobbling up office space; the latest travails of notorious investor Adam Hochfelder; our annual ranking of retail brokerage firms; how Hamptons brokers drum up business in the off-season; and much more.

Enjoy!