City Hall Council Chambers


Can a politician accept campaign donations from big developers but make decisions independent of those donors’ influences? It’s a question that’s haunted the mayor both before and after the close of investigations about his ties with lobbyists, but it also comes up frequently in City Council races, especially in the communities City Limits covers at where a neighborhood rezoning in under consideration. Because every neighborhood rezoning proposal is ultimately decided as a private negotiation between the local councilmember and the mayor’s administration, residents have a right to wonder if their representative, behind closed doors, will end up serving their own interests or that of real-estate friends.

With the September 12 primaries approaching, City Limits used two methods to assess the money flowing between real-estate players and councilmembers: in one, we looked at which councilmembers received and accepted donations from top developers. In the second, we looked at councilmembers and candidates in particular rezoning neighborhoods to determine the percent of total donations received from people affiliated with the real-estate industry. The results can be found below, but the facts simply beg more questions.

It’s clear that money goes where power goes. Many Councilmembers do accept real estate donations—and the more powerful they are, the more they seem to receive. That can make it difficult to know how to assess the ethical impact of a particular councilmember’s pot of gold—whether to measure their take against that of their long-shot challengers, who are unlikely to attract a developer’s attention, or compared with other councilmembers, including the ones with more power and status.

The top developers

We looked at which councilmembers received the most campaign donations for the 2017 campaign cycle from the city’s top 20 developers, as ranked by NY Curbed in 2014. The NY Curbed ranking takes into account the square footage of building space for which each developer filed a permit between 2011 and 2014. Taking into account donations from company employees, as well as those listed from the head of the company and their spouse, we were able to detect a total of about $90,000 in donations from 13 different companies, including Extell, Related, Continuum Company, HFZ Capital Group, Rose Associates, the Chetrit Group, and others.

The analysis looked at donations received—and accepted, not refunded—by candidates for City Council in this year’s election cycle as of August 28, as well as current Council members who collected donations for this year’s election cycle but will not be running for office.

The top five recipients, in dollar amounts, are Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with $15,500 in donations; Councilman and Land Use Chair David Greenfield, with $13,500; Councilman Brad Lander, with $10,500; Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer with $7,250; and Councilman Daniel Garodnick, with $6,950. The analysis does not count another $1,000 received from Two Trees Management by Mark-Viverito but refunded, or $2,350 that Greenfield refunded to the Chetrit Group. A variety of other councilmembers received smaller donations from the top twenty developers.

Mark-Viverito and Garodnick, who will both be termed out of the Council, both considered running for a citywide elected office and have been collecting donations at the maximum contribution limit set for citywide office holders of $4,950 (the maximum contribution limit for a Council candidate is $2,750). The two of them therefore each collected more donations overall than any other councilmember. It’s therefore useful to look at not only who received the most donations from the top real-estate developers, but also what percent of their total funds these donations constitute.

Top Developers’ Donations to Councilmembers
Councilmember Donations from top developers Share of total donations
Melissa Mark-Viverito $15,500 1.6%
David Greenfield $13,500 1.6%
Brad Lander $10,500 2.6%
Jimmy Van Bramer $7,250 1.4%
Daniel Garodnick $6,950 6.0%

Real estate donations detected by this analysis make up 1.6 percent of Mark-Viverito’s total funds, 1.6 percent of Greenfield’s funds, 2.6 percent of Lander’s funds, 1.4 percent of Van Bramer’s funds and 0.6 percent of Garodnick’s funds.

It makes sense that the Speaker, the most powerful position in the Council, and the Majority Leader, the second most powerful position, would draw the most donations from developers. Greenfield as Land Use Chair is also one of the most important people on the Council from a developers’ perspective. (Greenfield announced late in the election season, and after some prodigious fundraising, that he is leaving the Council.) Van Bramer, in addition to being majority leader, is also attracting donations as a candidate to be the next speaker.

“Council Member Van Bramer has lived in Western Queens his entire life,” wrote Dorothy Morehead, a Sunnyside resident and community activist—and also a real estate broker—in an e-mail after City Limits reached out to Van Bramer for comment. “Preservation of our communities has been his #1 priority–good schools, affordable housing, safe streets, dependable mass transit are all issues which he and his team work on every day.”

What might be more surprising is the amount of donations received and accepted by Lander from a variety of developers, including Extell Development, Artimus Construction, Silverstein Properties and Two Trees Management.

Lander, who represents Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and other west Brooklyn neighborhoods, is the co-founder of the Progressive caucus, representing the Council’s most left-leaning branch. He has led a community planning effort in the Gowanus area that considered the potential to rezone some parts of the Gowanus to allow for a broader range of uses, including housing, and is currently engaged in a mayor-lead study that explores the same possibilities along the Gowanus. That all begs the question of whether developers hope to buy Lander’s favor.

“Brad is not accepting contributions from developers with property in the Gowanus area, and fewer than 3 percent of his overall contributions come from developers. Of the top fundraisers in the Council this cycle, he has the most individual contributors and the lowest average contribution amount,” wrote a spokesperson for Lander in an e-mail. “Brad is a consistent, long-standing advocate of both tenants’ rights and stronger campaign finance laws. He authored the strongest law in the country requiring ‘independent expenditures’ to reveal their donors – a law prompted in large part by the real-estate industry’s ‘dark money’ spending in 2013, and which is already having a significant impact. This fall, Brad will go further still, pushing to substantially lower NYC’s campaign contribution limits for all offices, to improve our system even further.”

It’s for the most part true that Lander has the most individual contributions and the lowest average contribution amount among the top fundraisers in the council (Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley received fewer individual donations, but at just a tad lower average amount).

Donations and rezonings

But “developers”—the people and companies who actually get buildings built—aren’t the only people who have a stake in development. Businesses that design, construct, own, manage, broker sales of, or facilitate legal moves related to real estate also have a lot riding on city development policy.

So City Limits conducted a second type of analysis—using search and find to uncover every person that identifies “real estate,” “realtor,” “realty,” “architect,” “architecture,” “construction,” “properties,” “developer,” “development,” or “property management” under name, occupation or firm. We double checked that those that fell under developer or development weren’t referring to non-real estate entities, and excluded construction unions and nonprofit affordable housing developers when we could. We also added in any donations from those who listed their employer as one of the top twenty developers.

Our analysis examined 10 neighborhoods in the city where a rezoning is either under consideration or, in the case of East New York, has already been approved by the City Council. The Bushwick and Jerome Avenue rezonings overlap with significant chunks of two councilmembers districts’, so we included both councilmembers; in other districts, we focused on the councilmember whose district overlapped with the vast majority of the rezoning study area. That yielded a total of 12 councilmembers in the study, which takes into account donations received and accepted in this election cycle by Tuesday September 5.

Mark-Viverito, representing East Harlem, received the largest number of dollars—$93,620—from people affiliated with the real estate industry, which places her fourth highest in terms of percentage of total donations—9.9 percent. Van Bramer, representing Long Island City, received $51,034, or 10.3 percent of total donations. We found that $33,336, or 8.5 percent of Lander’s donations fit this category. Donovan Richards, representing Far Rockaway, and Margaret Chin, representing Chinatown and the Lower East Side, both received smaller dollar amounts of such donations, but because they fundraised less over all, those donations constituted more than 12 percent of their total donations. Ydanis Rodriguez (Inwood) ranked sixth in terms of dollar amounts, receiving $9,980 of donations that fit the criteria, and Fernando Cabrera (Jerome Avenue) ranked sixth in terms of percentage of total donations (7.4 percent).

Like Van Bramer, both Richards and Rodriguez are running for the position of City Council speaker, and are therefore likely to attract more donations from real estate figures—and Richards also serves as chair of the zoning committee.

A spokesperson for Cabrera responded to a request for comment by emphasizing that the vast majority of his donations are from unions or working people giving small donations; we checked and found that about 28 percent of his donations are from unions.

Donations found with Real Estate Search Terms to Councilmembers in Rezoning Areas

Councilmember and Rezoning neighborhood Donations Received Percent of total donations
Melissa Mark-Viverito – East Harlem $93,620 9.9%
Jimmy Van Bramer – Long Island City $51,034 10.3%
Brad Lander – Gowanus $33,336 8.5%
Donovan Richards – Far Rockaway $16,720 12.6%
Margaret Chin – Chinatown/LES $15,900 12.5%
Ydanis Rodriguez – Inwood $9,980 3.9%
Fernando Cabrera – Jerome Avenue $7,925 7.4%
Rafael Salamanca – Southern Boulevard $6,175 2.9%
Rafael Espinal – Bushwick and East New York $5,095 4.7%
Debi Rose – Bay Street $5,075 4.3%
Antonio Reynoso  – Bushwick $1,600 1.3%
Vanessa Gibson – Jerome Avenue $1,350 2.2%

It’s an imperfect method—one that will sweep up architects who are really just academics, construction workers who are also anti-displacement activists, and real estate agents not seeking to influence politics. It also doesn’t distinguish between a candidate who receives hefty donations from big developers and candidates who receive many smaller donations from local construction contractors, small-time realtors, et cetera.

For instance, our analysis finds that Margaret Chin received $15,900, or 12.5 percent of her donations from the real estate industry. But a closer look found many of these donations came from smaller companies; compared to Lander, Van Bramer, and Mark-Viverito, she received fewer donations from large developers, including no money from the top developers in our first study.

“Margaret has a broad base of support from people of many different backgrounds who work in a variety of different fields,” wrote her campaign manager Paul Leonard in an e-mail to City Limits. “And as a Councilwoman working for years to create hundreds of badly needed units of affordable housing, it’s natural that she would have relationships with many small business owners, some of whom are real estate agents. By and large, these are small dollar contributions from small business owners and community leaders. There is not a single large developer on this list, and she is not expecting nor would she accept their support.”

Leonard also noted her fight concerning development in the Two Bridges area. Still, her three challengers in the September 12 primary accuse her of serving the interests of real estate. Among them, Christopher Marte has fundraised the most—about $82,000—and received $3,130 or 3.8 percent of his donations from people affiliated with the real estate search terms, while candidates Aaron Foldenauer and Dashia Imperiale received little if anything from real estate.

Marte emphasized he was running to combat overdevelopment, preserve existing housing, enact the Chinatown Working Group Plan, and pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act to protect business owners from displacement. “All of my donors, regardless of occupation, have invested in me because they share my vision for the District,” he wrote.

In only one rezoning neighborhood—East Harlem—is a councilmember being termed out. A roster of four Democratic candidates are contending for the primary nomination. In debates they’ve had to address neighborhood concerns about rapid gentrification and the controversial neighborhood rezoning proposal currently moving through public review.

Donations found with Real Estate Search terms to Candidates in District 1 & District 8

Candidate Donations Received Percent of total donations
Robert Rodriguez – East Harlem $16,995 12.0%
Christopher Marte – Chinatown/LES $3,130 3.8%
Diana Ayala – East Harlem $1,205 1.4%
Aaron Foldenauer –  Chinatown/LES $200 0.7%
Dashia Imperiale – Chinatown/LES $100 0.5%
Israel Martinez – East Harlem $20 1.8%
Tamika Mapp – East Harlem $0 0.0%

A City Limits review of donations to the four candidates found Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez received 12.0 percent of his $140,097 donations from the real-estate industry. Other candidates in the race—Diana Ayala, Tamika Mapp, and Israel Martinez, have all received little or nothing. Rodriguez is also the leading candidate in the race, as far as fundraising and endorsements go—so perhaps real-estate players are lining up support for the candidate they see as most likely to win.

“These donations reflect a small percentage of the overall backing this campaign has received,” said Jennifer Blatus, a spokesperson for Robert Rodriguez, in an e-mail. ”Robert Rodriguez is proud to have the support of school administrators, firefighters, police officers, transportation workers, corrections officers, as well as real estate professionals and property owners. These donations do not influence any decision making. Robert is dedicated to serving the people of El Barrio and the South Bronx and will continue to represent their best interests.”