New York State

Who is the real estate industry giving to in Albany?

REBNY’s political capital had to go somewhere during the fight over rent regulations.

NYC Apartments

NYC Apartments Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock

In January, state Sen. Michael Gianaris said that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee would no longer take campaign contributions from real estate developers. The decision came as a major debate over rent regulations was heating up, and in the wake of a number of progressive candidates attacking the industry. 

But in 2019, a number of Democratic state senators raked in thousands of dollars from the Real Estate Board of New York, a leading industry organization. Thirteen state Senate Democrats accepted campaign donations from REBNY from January to July 2019. In that same time period, four Democratic members of the Assembly took contributions from REBNY, while the governor continued to receive large dollar donations from REBNY as well as from individual developers.

For years, real estate developers would contribute large sums to state Senate Republicans, who were largely aligned with their interests in Albany. But the industry began hedging its bets before the elections last fall by giving to Democrats, and this year, with Democrats fully in power, REBNY has only given to a few Republican lawmakers. 

“They were the largest (Republican) contributor because the wanted to get rid of or moderate rent control laws,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany. “And they did that by making huge contributions to leadership and seeking to keep the Republicans in the majority in the Senate.”

Two of the Senate Democrats who voted against the rent regulation legislation in June, state Sens. Anna Kaplan and James Gaughran of Long Island, received money from REBNY this year. Kaplan received $5,000 in January and an additional $2,500 in April. Gaughran has received the most of the state senators from the group thus far this year – $11,000 in January, $2,500 in early June and another donation of $2,500 in July. Neither lawmaker responded to requests for comment. 

Other state senators who took money from REBNY ultimately voted in favor of the rent regulation changes, including state Sen. Kevin Parker, who received $12,500, and state Sen. Luis Sepulveda, who received $7,500. State Sen. Jamaal Bailey received two gifts of $1,000 and $2,500 on June 11, the same day the rent regulation deal was reached in Albany. Upon the passage of the bill, Parker and Bailey’s statements praising their Senate colleagues for approving stronger rent regulations were featured in the press release about the bill.

Three Democratic assemblymen also received donations from REBNY: Peter Abbate, Jr., $500; Dan Quart, $2,000; and Andrew Hevesi, $3000. 

REBNY gave $15,000 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign in March 2019, despite the fact that he snubbed them in January by skipping their annual gala. In the second quarter, his campaign arm did not receive a contribution from the group. Well-known developers also gave personally to Cuomo’s campaign, including Douglas Durst, Scott Rechler and Winston Fisher. Durst, along with developers William Rudin and Richard LeFrak, reportedly called Cuomo just before the rent regulation bill was agreed upon and were told to call their legislators. In June the governor signed the final bill that made it through the state Legislature.

In a written statement provided to City & State, REBNY President James Whelan said, “Our members support candidates who will work to create housing, jobs, and economic opportunities for all New Yorkers.” 

Whelan also criticized the rent regulation legislaiton that ultimately passed. “We have many concerns about the new rent laws, we estimate they will result in almost $1 billion less property tax revenue generated by the City’s rent regulated stock on an annual basis and up to 272,000 units at risk for financial distress within five years,” he said. “The new laws won’t address the City’s housing crisis since they won’t make existing apartments more affordable, ease vacancy rates or create a single new affordable unit.” 

In recent years, real estate contributions have become particularly controversial, especially among progressive voters. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez made it a point to not accept contributions from the real estate industry, making it clear her priority was advocating for tenants. It was also a priority to state legislative candidates like Julia Salazar and Alessandra Biaggi to swear off real estate contributions. In 2018, New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer described the apparent progressive litmus test for lawmakers as a way to indicate that constituents’ concerns over skyrocketing rents were being taken seriously.

In the lead up to the renegotiations of rent control laws, Gianaris doubled down on a campaign promise that he would no longer accept campaign donations from real estate entities because the rent regulation laws were going to be renegotiated during the upcoming session. He told City & State it was important to lead by example and make the statement that Democrats would be standing with tenants during the renegotiation of rent regulations. The New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which Gianaris chairs, made the decision in mid-January to refuse real estate contributions going forward. Gianaris was clear that Senate Democrats were free to make this fundraising decision for their own campaigns.

“It depends on your district, most importantly,” Kaehny said. “And whether or not you’re identified as one of the leaders in winning back the Senate for the Democratic Party. For others, who may be long time incumbent Democrats and may have even amicable relationships with various real estate industry figures, they don’t feel that there is anything wrong with it. So it is a matter of where and who you are.”