Lawyers representing real estate developers and major employers say they are wary of the impact on their clients of a change in policies under mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.
“I don’t think people are feeling good about what’s to come vis-à-vis real estate development and even issues for the financial community,” said Warren Estis, founding partner of real estate firm Rosenberg & Estis, who represents developers, landlords and financial institutions.
“Everyone is concerned. We don’t really know where he’s going,” he said.
As an example, Estis pointed to proposed reforms to tax incentives. De Blasio has said the city should restrict tax incentives to projects that would not have gotten off the ground without a tax break or to those that provide significant public benefits.
De Blasio has said he will require developers to include affordable housing in rezoned areas and that he wants to create 50,000 new affordable housing units.
“There’s nothing on the table that he’s proposing to benefit the real estate industry or to spur future development of condominiums. He seems more concerned with low-cost housing,” Estis said. “The more incentives you have and more favorable tax treatment, the better development you will end up having.”
Ross Moskowitz, a real estate partner at Stroock Stroock & Lavan, said real estate developers in the last 18 months have been pushing to finish projects and close deals before the next administration takes office. “There’s an unknown” about what to expect after 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and “therefore there’s a natural inclination to worry,” he said.
Moskowitz said he also questions whether reducing the value of tax incentives may deter new construction.
“If there are hurdles put out or an environment created that would disincentivize the real estate community from doing new construction, that could have a huge impact on the budget of the city,” he said.
Still, de Blasio’s campaign has reportedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate interests, and he has supported controversial construction projects, such as Atlantic Yards, anchored by the Barclays Center, and a proposal for development along the polluted Gowanus Canal.
Steven Sinacori, a real estate partner at Akerman who is on de Blasio’s inaugural committee, said de Blasio is supportive of developers. “What he is asking for is they also be able to provide affordable housing,” Sinacori said. “I think you can be pro-development and also pro-affordable housing.”
“[De Blasio] will be good for development and be good for the city. He has said that he wants to continue to support development and it’s just important that we also provide a level of affordable housing that meets the level of the population,” Sinacori said.
Howard Weiss, chair of the land use group at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, said that to assume that de Blasio’s call for affordable housing would impair market-rate housing and economic development is “jumping to an unfair conclusion.”
Weiss, who represents commercial and residential developers, said, “until we see very concrete proposals” he does not see that de Blasio’s platform will negatively impact his clients.
Joni Kletter, an associate of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, and a member of de Blasio’s inaugural committee, represents employees.
Kletter said many plaintiff lawyers are interested in seeing changes to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, which is charged with enforcing human rights law that prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“The plaintiffs employment bar is hopeful that the commission will have more ‘teeth’ under de Blasio [in that] it will be better staffed with more investigators and trained lawyers [and] legal staff; cases will move faster; and it will be more efficient with more prosecutions and affirmative relief,” Kletter said.
At this time the commission can be slow and difficult to navigate and the awards are often not substantial, she said. “For attorneys who are committed to employee rights and workers rights, it’s an exciting time,” Kletter said.
De Blasio’s platform has been supportive of workers, including a call for raising wages in city-subsidized projects, expanding coverage of paid sick days for workers; advocating for city control of minimum wage rates; and creating a legal services fund to support low-income workers challenging wage theft.
But Felice Ekelman, a Jackson Lewis shareholder representing employers, said “what we really need is better outreach and management education.”
Ekelman noted that New York City has some of the most complex employment laws, some applying to companies with as few as four employees.
“We have very protective laws that a lot of employers don’t really understand,” Ekelman said. The city commission and city government could improve compliance if they taught the laws and offer training to employer groups, she said.
For instance, there is a new city law requiring businesses with at least 20 employees to offer five paid sick days a year beginning April 1, while those with at least 15 workers would have to comply the following year. “What the city should do between now and then is go on an education blitz,” Ekelman said.
Katharine Parker, a partner at Proskauer Rose representing management, said she is watching a city bill that would prohibit employers from considering a job applicant’s credit history. Parker said the bill, which Bloomberg opposed, is problematic because it doesn’t have carve outs for employees who focus on financial matters or positions overseeing company finances.
“During the Bloomberg administration, the mayor evaluated proposed laws with a mindfulness of the concerns of business and I don’t know if the new mayor is necessarily going to have the same concerns or the same sensitivities to the burdens on businesses,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sid Davidoff, a Davidoff Hutcher & Citron lobbyist who is a supporter of de Blasio, said he predicted clients such as restaurants, grocery stores and vendors will be faced with less onerous restrictions and fines from city agencies.
Rebecca Osborne, a partner with Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard who represents employees, said she would like to see more protections for immigrant workers and also for de Blasio’s appointments to reflect racial, ethnic and gender diversity.
Other lawyers are looking for diversity in the city’s selection of outside counsel. Thomas Oliva, a medical malpractice plaintiffs attorney at Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro & Halperin and a board member of the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County, said the Corporation Counsel’s office under Mayor David Dinkins sought to work with black and Hispanic attorneys as outside counsel.
But since that time, “it’s rare when I come across a Latino or African American attorney nowadays” as outside counsel for the city’s Health and Hospital Corporation, he said.
Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, said de Blasio “comes into office with a much deeper understanding” of Legal Aid’s challenges and services compared with the previous four mayors with whom he has worked.
“We certainly are prepared to make the case that investing more resources in our civil legal services and our criminal and juvenile justice services will both help often-forgotten low income New Yorkers, and will benefit the city tax payers” by preventing problems, Banks said.
He said Legal Aid has been talking with de Blasio’s transition staff “about the kinds of policy changes that we think would benefit our clients and the city,” making suggestions on evictions and homelessness, education, criminal and juvenile justice, child welfare, mental health, housing and immigration.
Each time a new mayor is elected, Legal Aid contacts the team on priorities for reforms, reviewing pending litigation and discussing how to avoid unnecessary litigation, Banks said. “There’s certainly much greater receptivity this time around than in prior transitions,” he said.
@ | Christine Simmons can be contacted at email@example.com and on Twitter @chlsimmons.