With New York City mired in a historic affordability crisis, the Lower Manhattan Assembly race between Deborah Glick and challenger Ryder Kessler appears to be a microcosm of a broader debate among Democrats when it comes to development and housing: where to build, how much to build and how to make more units affordable.
She’s a veteran incumbent who fiercely opposed a neighborhood-scale rezoning that will add thousands of apartments to SoHo and NoHo. He’s a tech entrepreneur backed by the pro-development group Open New York who has called for more housing in his district and wealthy neighborhoods across the five boroughs.
With New York City mired in a historic affordability crisis, the Lower Manhattan Assembly race between Deborah Glick and challenger Ryder Kessler appears to be a microcosm of a broader debate among Democrats when it comes to housing and development: where to build, how much to build and how to make more units affordable.
Glick wants new residential buildings in New York City, but says they should go up outside the congested district she has represented since 1991. Kessler says the “high-opportunity” neighborhoods that make up Assembly District 66—like the West Village, Tribeca, SoHo, NoHo and pieces of Battery Park City and the Meatpacking District—are prime locations for more mixed-income housing.
But both candidates resisted the notion that the race is a referendum on the SoHo rezoning and new housing development overall.
“I don’t think this is the only issue. I think that my opponent may think it is, but I believe there are a wide range of issues that I’m known for,” said Glick, the first openly gay candidate elected to the state legislature and a champion for abortion rights.
Kessler, a Manhattan Community Board 2 member who founded a digital platform to make charitable contributions by credit card easier, also disagreed with that characterization of the contest.
“I would object to the framing that it’s some referendum or some exemplar of a battle between ideologies,” he said. “I think it’s about the status quo that’s not working and has led to rising rents, more evictions and more homelessness.”
The race is one of several state Assembly races across the city where first-time candidates are targeting veteran Democrats they say have failed to adequately address New York’s affordability crunch. Coming on the heels of the December Council vote to approve the SoHo-NoHo upzoning, the race may be the clearest example of the divide.
READ MORE: Newly-Approved SoHo Rezoning Promises Affordable Homes. How Much Will they Really Cost?
From 2014 to 2021, just 751 income-restricted apartments have been built or financed in Manhattan Community Districts 1 and 2, the two districts that make up most of Assembly District 66, according to data shared by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. That is about 2 percent of the borough’s total share and by far the lowest amount of any community district in Manhattan.
“We have developed few units relative to the population of the city,” Kessler said. “When we think, ‘What can we do to lower rents?’ one piece of that puzzle is building more housing, and more housing in high opportunity, transit-rich neighborhoods.”
New York City housing production trails population growth by a wide margin, leading to a crushing example of supply and demand for low-income renters priced out of much of the housing stock. Fewer than 1 percent of apartments priced below $1,500 are vacant, the lowest rate in at least 30 years, the results of the most recent city survey show. More than 60,000 people stay in a New York City homeless shelter each month, according to a daily tracker maintained by City Limits.
Kessler says the Soho-NoHo rezoning, which city officials say will bring 3,000 new units, including about 700 with rents capped for middle- and low-income tenants, to a 56-block span outside the iconic neighborhoods’ historic zones, should be just the start of new housing production in Manhattan. Kessler and SoHo plan supporters say the new land use rules will not result in the type of displacement and upheaval seen after rezonings in lower-income communities of color previously pursued by former Mayor Bill de Blasio. The area is one of the wealthiest in New York City and, whatever the rental prices, additional development could allow more people to locate there instead of moving to cheaper neighborhoods and driving up costs, Kessler said.
“The ideological left and the progressive movement understand now that to enact our progressive values, we have to think about generating housing density, integrating neighborhoods and real changes to our streetscape to make them more affordable, equitable and sustainable,” Kessler said. “Homelessness starts with rent prices that elected officials in Downtown Manhattan are doing nothing to bring down.”
He specifically took aim at Glick for suing to block a 100-percent affordable senior housing complex on the site of a privately-owned park open to the public known as the Elizabeth Street Garden. The proposed project, Haven Green, would feature 123 affordable units for seniors.
Glick countered that she does not oppose the concept of Haven Green, just the location.
“I oppose destroying and eliminating the open space in an area that has very little open space,” she said. “You shouldn’t be putting two goods against each other—affordable housing, senior housing and the open space.”
When it comes to land use changes and pledges to develop more affordable housing, Glick said she does not trust the city to follow through and hold developers accountable—or to tell the truth in the first place. She cited the example of the 14-block “Far West Village” rezoning, which she said she supported on the condition that the new residential towers include affordable units—only to see one portion abruptly changed to commercial use before a binding vote.
“When you’ve been burned like that, you don’t necessarily think that whatever the city is selling you can get affordable housing out of this,” she said. “It has not demonstrably happened around the city. If anything you get gentrification and displacement.”
Thus, she said, she fears that the SoHo-NoHo rezoning will lead to long-time renters and owners losing their homes as the boutiquification of the area deepens.
“I think that there won’t be a lot of affordable housing and I think that there will be more commercial development,” she said. “The city has very little respect for its historic neighborhoods, which is a part of what drives tourism. People go to other countries because they have preserved their history.”
She also pointed to projects she has backed in the district, including supportive housing facilities, and said she would advocate for an affordable residential tower at 5 World Trade Center, a Port Authority-owned property where developers have eyed a nearly 1,400-unit high-rise.
“I think 5 World Trade, which is a quasi-public site, needs to have substantially more affordable housing,” Glick said. “People have called for 100 percent. I don’t think they’re wrong.”
Project supporters, like Downtown Alliance President Jessica Lappin, say the building costs are too expensive to accommodate a 100 percent affordable tower. Glick said that, at the very least, they have to do better than the current proposal for a quarter of the units to be income-restricted.
As a state lawmaker, Glick does not have a say on rezoning matters settled by the City Council and the mayor, but she has used her platform to amplify the anti-development concerns of some constituents, like local preservationists and community board members.
She has supported state measures that would increase housing, like the legalization of accessory dwelling units—extra apartments in basements, backyards, and attics that, in many cases, are already getting rented out. In addition, Glick co-sponsored a bill to enact Good Cause Eviction protections that would have prevented landlords from ejecting tenants after a lease expires in most cases.
On the other hand, she has opposed legislation initially backed by Gov. Kathy Hochul to lift a state cap on floor area ratio (FAR) for new development and allow New York City to set limits on new projects as it sees fit. FAR refers to the maximum square footage of a building allowed by local zoning rules, based on multiples of the lot size. FAR is currently capped at 12, meaning 12 times the size of the property lot.
The race between Kessler and Glick has been covered extensively by local publications, such as the Village Sun, and received some outsized attention, like when Bravo TV host Andy Cohen tweeted that his followers should vote Glick out because she did not support surrogacy legislation. (“My concern for women’s health during the discussion should not have been dismissed by some celebrities, but perhaps they weren’t paying attention. In the end, the bill passed and I voted for it, but there were additional protections for surrogates,” she told City Limits.)
Big money and endorsements have also poured into the race. Several labor unions are backing Glick, chair of the Assembly’s education committee, and her campaign has received funds from the state Democratic Party. The Working Families Party has endorsed Kessler.
The two candidates have each raised about $171,000 this election cycle—a large sum for an Assembly race. Kessler gave himself an additional $70,000 to bring his total to more than $241,000.
But at the district’s early polling place Friday morning, just a trickle of voters arrived to cast their ballots. Of the five people who talked with City Limits after exiting St. Anthony Padua Church at the corner of Houston and Sullivan streets, three said they had picked Glick, but did not consider housing production a major concern.
One said he wanted to retain the influence of an incumbent. Another said Glick showed up to a fundraising house party he hosted in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. And a third cited her leadership on abortion protections in light of the Supreme Court’s pending ruling to strike down Roe v Wade (the court issued its ruling minutes after that interview).
A fourth Glick supporter said the recent rezoning and the candidates’ stances on new housing did factor into her decision.
Sarah Soffer, a vocal opponent of the SoHo rezoning, said she believes Kessler and Open New York are a front for developer interests and had previously volunteered for Glick, in part, because the incumbent had spoken out against new development.
“I don’t think that the solution to housing in New York City is to shoehorn it into the most congested neighborhood in the whole city,” Soffer said. “To add more housing to an area that [when you] literally walk down the streets, and most times, there’s physically no place to walk on the sidewalk.”
Open New York has repeatedly refuted that characterization that they are “secret shills for the real estate industry” (according to the FAQ section of their website) and say they instead champion upzoning “high-opportunity” neighborhoods—i.e. areas with more rich residents where new development will trigger less displacement.
In a phone call Friday, Kessler’s fellow Community Board 2 member, Chris Dignes, said wealthy neighborhoods across New York City have to accept new housing. Dignes, the lone board member to support the SoHo rezoning, said Kessler understands that.
“If New York City wants to continue as a thriving community that isn’t just a haven for the richest people in our country and others, we’re going to have to start making changes,” he said.