The corrupting role of campaign donations in setting land use and housing policy

In recent years, Federal and State investigators have reportedly probed the role of campaign donations in setting land use and housing policies. On the Federal level, the public corruption charges pressed against former New York State Assemblymember Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) revealed that lobbyists were able to obtain sought-after provisions in rent regulation renewals (such as the threshold for vacancy decontrol and high income deregulation), according to a 2015 report published by POLITICO New York. Such influence was made possible by the reported payment of large campaign contributions by real estate developers. Indeed, in the 2014 State election cycle, more than 10 per cent. of all donations entering the campaign finance system were made by members or firms associated with the top real estate lobbying group, the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY. The role of money in shaping housing policy was exposed during the trial against former Assembly Speaker Silver.

On the State level, investigators were reportedly ready to file a subpoena on REBNY, seeking information about the group’s political donations, its materials about a controversial tax abatement program, and its communication with lawmakers when the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) reportedly stopped the issuance of the subpoena, according a bombshell report published by the New York Times. Although no charges were brought against the Cuomo administration in the wake of reports that it had allegedly obstructed the work of State investigators and no charges were brought against the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) for reports about controversies in his own campaign finance activities, news reports continue to show how some participants in the real estate industry, whose officers or lobbyists make or bundle campaign donations, win valuable Government approvals. One developer, whose executive had made political donations to Mayor de Blasio, won a bid to develop the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, despite not making the best bid for the property, according to a news report. Another real estate company was able to purchase the assets of a nonprofit corporation after a lobbyist with close ties to Mayor de Blasio was involved in at least some form of lobbying on behalf of some the real estate interests involved in the transaction.

Ending the role of money in politics

We need comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation to eliminate the role of campaign donations from real estate interests in setting land use and housing policies. For tenants to receive each of the full benefit of rent regulations and protections against housing discrimination, tenants must unite to end the corruptive role of money in political campaigns that undermine the honest public service duty owed by elected officials to the public, particularly to tenants.