REBNY is donating more than ever. But so are its independent-minded constituents

Group has given $153K to the Democratic Assembly since 2018, while individual landlords & real estate-linked firms have donated at least twice as much: analysis

From left: Taconic CEO Charles Bendit, A&E Real Estate Holdings Douglas Eisenberg, Blackstone's Kathleen McCarthy, REBNY president John Banks, and New York State assembly member Carl Heastie (Credit: Getty Images and iStock)
From left: Taconic CEO Charles Bendit, A&E Real Estate Holdings Douglas Eisenberg, Blackstone's Kathleen McCarthy, REBNY president John Banks, and New York State assembly speaker Carl Heastie (Credit: Getty Images and iStock)

After midterm elections led to the ouster of many of the Real Estate Board of New York’s favorites in the State Senate, the industry’s trusty political lobbying arm is playing catch up to influence the Assembly ahead of the June rent laws showdown in Albany. And the trade group appears to also be jockeying with its own constituents for a seat at the negotiating table.

Campaign finance records show that REBNY has donated at least $153,500 to New York State Assembly Democrats since 2018, more than it has in any single year on record, even in the lead-up to the expiration of 421a.

But even though REBNY’s donations to the assembly have exploded recently, the group’s efforts do not appear to be keeping pace with donations from individual developers, landlords and real estate-affiliated law firms. REBNY isn’t giving the bulk of the real estate money to the Democratic Assembly— its deep-pocketed members are. It is individual REBNY members and landlords who are taking action to ensure that rent law reforms don’t go too far.

Real estate players who gave to the Democratic Assembly in 2018 include the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village owner Blackstone Group, which gave $1,500 to Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz and $1,000 to Assemblymember Dan Quart; RXR Realty’s Scott Rechler, who gave $1,000 to David Weprin; and Stephen Ross’ Related Companies, which gave a total of $2,100 to Cymbrowitz, Cathy Nolan and Robert Rodríguez.

An analysis by The Real Deal found that individual real estate donors overall gave $367,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and individual campaign committees since 2018— more than twice that of REBNY’s donations to New York’s lower house in the same period. Most of the donations are relatively small dollar amounts, with the median donation at just $500.

REBNY declined to answer questions about its donations, or queries related to constituents’ independent lobbying efforts.

In a statement, its senior vice president for communications Jamie McShane said REBNY “will continue to support candidates who will work to create housing, jobs, and economic opportunities for all New Yorkers.”

Campaign finance records show that real estate law firm Greenberg Traurig donated $6,300 to the Democratic Assembly and individual campaign committees through its PAC in 2018.

Sam NeJame, chair of Greenberg Traurig’s New York state government practice in Albany and a currently registered lobbyist for Tishman Speyer and Brookfield, was tapped by REBNY in 2017 to negotiate to bring 421a back online, City & State reported. In a statement to TRD, NeJame said, “Greenberg Traurig has traditionally been committed to participating in the civic discourse as a firm and through our individual attorneys. Political giving is a component of that participation.”

Industry players from outside the city are also closely watching the unfolding legislative battle. The lobbying from real estate interests is essentially a counterweight to the pressure that tenant organizers are putting on legislators to punish landlords, said Albert Annunziata, executive director of Building and Realty Institute of Westchester.

“My understanding is that the assembly has gotten swept up in the fervor of the tenants’ policy of ‘out for blood,’ politically and economically speaking,” he said.

His group is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen, by meeting individually with members of the Assembly. BRI donated $1,500 to Assemblymember Amy Paulin, who has not signed on to any of the nine rent reform bills that tenant advocates are pushing for.

Paulin, who is married to Savills broker Ira Schuman, did not respond to requests for comment.

Brokering a compromise. In secret.

In this legislative session, some of the city’s largest developers and landlords have tweaked their political strategies. Instead of letting REBNY handle quotidian influence campaigns, they’re hiring their own lobbyists and setting up their own closed-door meetings with Albany lawmakers and influential affordable housing groups.

William Zeckendorf was among the first to take matters into his own hands, hiring Patrick Jenkins, a longtime friend of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, as a lobbyist for two weeks and $5,000. In the end, the pied-a-terre tax the luxury developer opposed was killed, and an easier-to-swallow one-time sales tax took its place. A day before the contract expired, Zeckendorf extended the contract with Jenkins to June 2020 for $15,000 a month. Zeckendorf could not immediately be reached for comment.

Other investors and developers are also finding ways to contend directly with affordable housing stakeholders in a bid to broker a more favorable outcome. In March, Taconic Investment Partners, Blackstone and A&E Real Estate met with nonprofit housing groups Community Service Society of New York, Enterprise Community Partners, and the New York State Association For Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH) in a closed door meeting, Gothamist reported.

To help make its case in Albany, Taconic, which added two rent-stabilized buildings in the Bronx to its portfolio in 2018, hired lobbyists Brown & Weinraub and Capalino & Company for $7,500 a month. Blackstone, the largest residential landlord in New York City, prefers to handle its lobbying internally, and Douglas Eisenberg-run A&E hired lobbying firm Geto & De Milly, Inc. for $15,000 a month, campaign records show.

Taconic, Blackstone and A&E declined to state what they sought in the meeting, or comment about their lobbying efforts.

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Multiple sources said there was no coordination with REBNY, which said it was unaware of the closed-door meeting until it was reported in Gothamist in late May.

“My feeling is we need developers”

Prior to 2018, Republican control of the senate ensured that, however progressive the Assembly members’ voting record was, any pro-tenant legislation faced stiff opposition in the opposite chamber. Now, without a Republican-controlled senate to shield the people’s house, REBNY is pouncing on Assembly members in New York City and across the state who may be on the fence about expanding rent regulations.

“Ever since [the] senate turned Democratic, if there is a call to action, it’s to make the rent laws tougher and make it harder for landlords to do business,” said Ken Fisher, of law firm Cozen O’Connor.

Many of REBNY’s biggest donations since 2018 have been delivered to Assembly members representing New York City. The group donated $31,100 to Robert Rodriguez in the Bronx, $13,250 to South Brooklyn Assembly member Helene Weinstein, and $11,850 to Manhattan’s Dan Quart, campaign finance records show.

Targeted campaign contributions to key Democratic Assembly members may be getting the message across, as neither Paulin, who received $3,500 from REBNY and $16,050 overall from the industry in 2018, nor Syracuse Assemblymember William Magnarelli, who received $4,400 from REBNY’s PAC and more that $14,000 overall from the real estate industry in 2018, have signed on to any of the proposed expansions to rent regulation. According to Magnarelli, Good Cause Eviction would negatively impact development in upstate New York.

Magnarelli, who is also a real estate lawyer, said he could not remember sitting down with the trade group that donated $4,400 to his campaign. Magnarelli said he believed that Julia Salazar’s contentious Good Cause Eviction bill would damage upstate New York, where he said there is a surplus of housing.

“It would dampen development for low and mixed-income housing— I think it would hurt it. Right now we basically have a glut of housing in upstate New York. We have houses that have to be demolished in Syracuse. My feeling is we need developers, we need people to put money in, and this would definitely discourage that.”

But REBNY may wish it had stepped up its efforts with Ulster County Assembly member Kevin Cahill, who this year introduced a bill to expand the Emergency Tenant Protection Act to allow municipalities to opt in to rent regulation, although he has remained opposed to the rest of the proposed bills. Cahill received $11,000 from industry-linked groups, and $250 from REBNY.

“The check will be toxic”

In a changing, fractious political climate, elected officials may be more willing to accept donations from individual landlords and developers than directly from the real estate trade group, according to Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser for Reinvent Albany.

Instead of halting their giving, real estate groups have ramped up contributions to Democratic Assembly members.

In 2018, the New York State Association of Realtors gave $15,000 to Assembly members Paulin, David Buchwald, John T. McDonald, Donna Lupardo and Helene Weinstein. Greenberg Traurig gave $6,300 to Assemblymembers Robert Rodríguez, Patricia Fahy, Amy Paulin, Keven Cahill and Helene Weinstein. Long Island Commercial Real Estate broker George Tsunis gave $4,400 to Assemblymember Aravella Simotas. Related gave $1,000 to Housing Committee Chairman Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz and Newmark Group’s Jeffrey Gural gave $1,000 to Binghamton Assemblymember Donna Lupardo. Rechler gave $1,000 to Queens Assemblymember David Weprin.

Longtime observers weren’t surprised to see individual developers and landlords ratchet up donations to the Democrats in the Assembly this session.

“This is grassroots democracy at its best,” said Cozen O’Connor’s Fisher. “It just happens to be business interests that are speaking up. REBNY is a well-funded organization, but even they have limits to their resources.”

“It would make sense for them to get individual developers to give donations— so that developers’ giving is de-linked from the monolith that is REBNY,” added Camarda.

According to Stephen Meister, founding partner of law firm Meister, Seelig and Fein, campaign contributions and direct attempts to persuade lawmakers may not be the most effective strategy.

“If REBNY goes to lawmakers with a check or attempt to persuade them, it’s going to fall on deaf ears, and the check will be toxic,” he said.

John Catisimatidis, CEO of Red Apple Group, said he is frustrated that REBNY continues to give to Democrats at all — especially those he blames for Amazon’s hasty retreat from Long Island City.

“My frustration is that there are Socialist Democrats, especially the ones that chased out Amazon. I’ve suspended giving money to people responsible for that vote,” Catsimatidis said.

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