Jim Whelan eyes return to government — but not while it makes him nuts

REBNY president says legislators “not grounded in economics”

Jim Whelan: Legislators Not Serious About NY’s Housing Crisis

A photo illustration of REBNY’s Jim Whelan and the New York State Capitol building in Albany (Getty, REBNY)

Jim Whelan wants to return to government someday. Not today, though — because it’s driving him mad.

At a Crain’s breakfast Tuesday morning, the Real Estate Board of New York president made clear in his remarks that he aims to eventually work for a public official again, but not one like the current crop of legislators.

“We’ve tried to put facts on the table,” he said of REBNY’s lobbying efforts. But few New York lawmakers understand the business of housing development, he said, even as the public has come to accept that more homes are needed.

Whelan said that REBNY doesn’t see any sign that state legislators are “motivated” to increase production of rental housing. From REBNY’s point of view, that starts with replacing 421a, the tax incentive that offset high property taxes on new rentals in New York City.

State legislators let the tax break expire in June 2022 and declined to extend a June 2026 construction deadline that threatens projects still eligible for 421a, which critics called too generous for the amount of affordable housing it generated.

Whelan said the tax break was responsible for 70 percent of rental housing production in the city, which has fallen to 11,000 homes per year — barely one-fifth of the mayor’s target.

Even with 421a in effect, housing creation did not keep pace with population growth. “We’ve been underperforming for some time,” Whelan said.

He noted that the state also failed to pass a bill to make more office-to-residential conversions possible or to raise the citywide cap on floor-area ratio, which limits the density of new housing. Ironically, state legislators from Manhattan, the skyscraper capital of the world, led the opposition to raising the FAR cap.

“It’s pretty clear that the state legislature has to be part of the solution,” Whelan said.

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Asked if that solution should be a compromise that includes good cause eviction, Whelan railed against that measure, which would give nonpaying tenants more protection from eviction if their rent rises more than 3 percent or inflation plus 1.5 percentage points, whichever is greater.

“Good cause eviction is only going to result in an increase in homelessness,” Whelan said, because it would “shut down the production of rental housing in New York City.”

Housing starts plummeted in Minnesota cities that enacted good cause, he claimed, referring to a rent control law passed in St. Paul. Council members last year watered down the law after just five months because rental development virtually stopped.

New York state legislators’ cluelessness was exemplified by their proposals this year to accelerate office conversions, Whelan said. Politicians demanded substantial affordable housing in conversions without offering any way to pay for it, the REBNY leader complained.

“Nobody in their right mind would do [such] a conversion … without an offsetting abatement,” he said.

“They don’t seem to be grounded in economics,” he said of legislators’ proposals. “They don’t seem to be grounded in math.”

Still, the former top aide to then-Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said hopes to return to that side of the table at some point. He offered some praise for Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, but said he was waiting for someone like Doctoroff or former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to come along.

“I don’t want REBNY to be my last job,” Whelan said. “I’d like to go back to government.”