The Closing: Kathryn Wylde
The Partnership for New York City chief on representing big real estate, the fight for diversity, and her 14 cats
Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, considers herself an activist. She and her organization represent some of the biggest names in real estate, including Blackstone, Vornado and Tishman Speyer. The nonprofit advocates for pro-business policies that encourage investment in infrastructure and economic development, and helps finance projects and initiatives through a separate $150 million fund. Wylde now oversees a staff of 45 people and serves on a 100-plus-member board made up of some of the most powerful business leaders in New York. Wylde arrived in the city in 1968 to get her master’s in political science from New York University. To help pay for her graduate degree, she worked at Lutheran Medical Center, where she spent 11 years. During that time, Wylde helped spearhead redevelopment efforts in Sunset Park, which was designated as a federal poverty area. She first joined the Partnership as a volunteer in 1981, two years after it was founded by banker David Rockefeller. Wylde served as the founding CEO of the partnership’s housing arm and then was tapped to take over the organization’s new economic development fund in 2000. Wylde divides her time between Bay Ridge and the northwest coast of Puerto Rico, where she flies regularly to join her husband at their Quebradillas home. In an hour-long Zoom interview with The Real Deal, Wylde talked about everything from the private sector’s role in affordable housing and the Black Lives Matter movement to her Midwest roots.
DOB: June 22, 1946
LIVES IN: Brooklyn
HOMETOWN: Madison, Wisconsin
You grew up in Wisconsin. What was that like?
Boring. It’s the Midwest. I would say that New Yorkers are people who didn’t fit in where they grew up.
What were you like as a kid?
In what way?
I always had my own mind about what I wanted to be doing. And I was bored. I grew up in a very homogeneous community, and I was almost always in trouble, because I liked to make some excitement — cracking up my parents’ cars, out when I wasn’t supposed to be out. Those kinds of things.
What were your early career aspirations?
Political journalism. I was editor of every newspaper since the sixth grade. Grade school, junior high, high school and college. First woman editor of the Manitou Messenger at St. Olaf College.
What made you decide to switch career paths?
When I graduated from college in 1968, I tried to get a job in the Chicago newspapers. They said, “You could start as a typist, and work your way up to the society page for women.” That was not my ambition. So, I decided to go to graduate school in New York for political science.
You started working at Lutheran Medical Center around that time. What was your role at the hospital initially?
Community relations. Then I became assistant to the president for community development. The hospital was the only institution that had any resources in Sunset Park, which was a neighborhood in rapid decline. We set up a series of efforts, both in health and housing, to try and stop the devastation, stop the fires and renovate the houses that were abandoned.
Is that how you got into affordable housing?
As the multifamily buildings started being abandoned in the neighborhood, we worked with the local banks to get control of the properties. I got into the housing business that way. By doing.
Do you think that your time there shaped how you think about housing?
Yes, I think about housing from a community standpoint. I think of it as a local resource. And because I worked at a hospital, I understood the integration between the quality of your housing and the quality of your health.
How did you end up at the partnership?
I was on a panel with Harry Van Arsdale, head of the Central Labor Council, and Peter Brennan, the president of the Building Trades Unions, and they had been talking with David Rockefeller about the need to build affordable housing. Rockefeller said, “Give me a proposal.” It was the first time I met them, and at the end of the panel, they were surprised we were all on the same side, and they asked me if I would write the paper.
I don’t live in the 1 percent world; I work in the 1 percent world. It’s painful for me because there are such good people in this city, on both sides.
What was the proposal?
A home ownership program for working families to be able to build homes on vacant, city-owned land. I went with David Rockefeller from bank to bank, to all the bank chairman. It’s much faster when you start with the CEOs. I learned that early from Rockefeller. [Chemical Bank’s] Donald Platten said, “Yes, David, I will be the first construction lender for your program.” Then he said, “And now, David, I’m chairing a Clean Sweep Program.” And David said, “Yes, Donald, I will contribute to the Clean Sweep Program.” David got his project underwritten and I learned how philanthropy works in New York City. You give to my cause, and I give to your cause.
The Partnership’s members are some of the largest real estate firms, not just in the city, but nationally, and in some cases, internationally. Do members set the Partnership’s agenda?
It’s my job to represent them, their thinking and ideas, and make them actionable. We listen to what the private sector says from a public policy standpoint. From an economic development standpoint, we get our ideas from them, we flesh them out, we research them, we come up with projects and policy positions.
How do you handle public animosity toward corporations and real estate overall?
There’s an anti-corporate, anti-real estate environment that we have to prove our worth in every day. I try to be an honest intermediary, to help bridge those gaps. There are crazy stereotypes on both sides. I know both sides. I come out of the low-income advocacy community, the affordable housing community, and I live in the real world. I don’t live in the 1 percent world; I work in the 1 percent world. It’s painful for me because there are such good people in this city, on both sides.
What do you think of the de Blasio administration’s decision to cut capital funding to the city’s affordable housing program?
I think he doesn’t have a choice right now. He’s got to cut something. I think that there’s never been a time when affordable housing was more necessary, and I think that the private sector is going to have to take more responsibility.
The mayor has faced fierce criticism for his response to the protests over George Floyd’s death. Do you feel this could be the end for his political career?
Well, he’s term-limited as mayor. But I don’t know. George Floyd is only the most recent killing of a person of color. The Black Lives Matter movement has been an undercurrent of the mayor’s entire administration. I think it wouldn’t have blown up quite as much here, had it not been for Covid-19, which so disproportionately affected the black and Hispanic communities in the city. I think we’re going to come out of this better understanding the impact of failure to pay attention to what’s going on in our low- income communities.
Real estate is not a diverse industry. Do you think companies will react to what’s going on right now, and try to diversify their workforce?
I don’t think anybody’s going to have a choice. It’s going to be the ultimate accountability moment on the race issue. It has to start with education, but employers have to be involved from the beginning.
How does it make you feel to be ranked among the most powerful women in NYC?
I think I react the way most people do — that it’s sort of silly. But I’m only as powerful as the people I represent. As long as I’ve got the support of the leadership of the business community, I can speak on their behalf, and hopefully that carries some weight. Our members employ a million New Yorkers in the city. They’re a huge percentage of the tax base. What gives me power is being able to reflect their concerns, their interests, the ways they want to contribute to the city.
Do you have any hobbies?
Animal rescue. I rescue them, I get them adopted here and in Puerto Rico. I’m particularly fond of dogs and cats. We have 11 dogs in Puerto Rico.
I saw one of your cats scurry across your keyboard. How many cats do you have?
I don’t think I should say in print. Between New York and Puerto Rico, we have 14 cats.
Do you have any plans to retire?
Covid cancelled them. I’m stuck for a while. Otherwise I would have. For now, I have to put retirement on hold.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.