High expectations: A look at John Banks’ 4 years at REBNY

Industry players weigh in on outing president’s legacy

John Banks
John Banks

John Banks’ tenure as head of the Real Estate Board of New York was relatively short. But real estate players gave him generally good marks for the way he steered the trade organization through a tumultuous time for the industry.

Given the demands of the position, though, there wasn’t much shock or disbelief when REBNY announced Wednesday that Banks will be retiring effective the end of this month. Executive vice president Jim Whelan, considered more aggressive than Banks, was appointed to lead the organization.

Steven James, president of Douglas Elliman in New York City, noted that Banks had his hands full ever since he took over for former REBNY president Steven Spinola – who had served on the job for 30 years – back in 2015.

“He stepped into a job that had a lot going on and high expectations to solve them,” James told The Real Deal.

REBNY said yesterday that Banks — a former executive at Con Edison who was the first African-American to helm the real estate group — plans to retire after 33 years in the private and public sectors to focus his attention on his family and philanthropic causes.

Banks himself was not made available for an interview.

Sources said Banks arrived at the decision in the spring, and REBNY formalized the change at the group’s last scheduled board of governors meeting before its summer break. Banks, 57, said it had nothing to do with the industry’s recent rent law losses, which will damage multifamily owners.

But the timing also happened to coincide with the victory of Democratic Socialist Tiffany Cabán in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. While the DA’s office has little to do with regulating the real estate industry, REBNY nonetheless donated $28,500 in the final days of the race to Cabán’s main opponent, Queens borough president Melinda Katz.

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The race is seen as a bellwether for the far-left progressive movement sweeping through New York politics that helped lead to a crushing blow for the real estate industry earlier this month when state lawmakers in Albany passed a package of tenant-friendly reforms to the rent stabilization laws.

“No one was happy about the outcome,” James said. “Whenever you’re the front man, people will point fingers.”

During his term at the head of REBNY, Banks chalked up some major achievements: He helped broker a deal for a replacement to the expired 421a tax abatement, got REBNY’s long-awaited Residential Listings System over the finish line, advocated to clear backlog of items on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s calendar and helped with the East Midtown and Garment District rezonings.

Banks oversaw REBNY’s effort to support initiatives like congestion pricing and the Garment District rezoning, and fended off unfavorable legislation like the proposed pied a terre tax.

He also worked to give REBNY a fresh face, offering buyouts to tenured staffers and bringing in new personnel.

“He recruited a younger, more diverse staff who brought in new energy and new ideas. He made impactful changes to the organization and really moved it forward into the modern era,” he said. “It is now poised for a successful future. That will be his legacy.”

Banks also implemented the first diversity committee at REBNY, which has long been criticized for being dominated by older, white men. And he earned the respect of those who sat on the other side of the negotiating table such as Building & Construction Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera and 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa, who praised Banks as an honest representative for the real estate industry.

Frank Marino, CEO of the Marino public relations agency and a REBNY board member, said that while Banks will be measured against his predecessor, he left his mark on the real estate board.

“Taking over from Steve was no small task,” he said. “He did it the right way and put his imprimatur on the place.”