The Eric Adams city hall has already been as tumultuous as anyone could have expected. The former borough president and police captain is attempting to hire his own brother for a $200,000 gig overseeing his security, a move that would seem to flout the city’s anti-nepotism laws. He’s already tapped a deputy mayor for public safety who was embroiled in a corruption scandal not long ago. Other hires are snagged, as members of his team weigh how much vetting they need to do for political allies.
But the Left shouldn’t underestimate Adams, who remains popular for now and is able, with his natural charisma, to brush past scandal and controversy. Adams has already drawn the ire of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for referring to blue-collar workers as “low skill” and arguing they don’t have the academic pedigree to occupy corner offices in Midtown, but the collision between the two famous Democrats didn’t lead to Adams giving any ground. He shot right back, referring to the congresswoman as the “word police” and moved on. For once, it wasn’t clear AOC knew how to respond.
The clash was an illustration of what won’t work against Adams. The Brooklyn Democrat has a long history of making incendiary or odd statements and surviving to battle another day. He is right — policing his language won’t get you very far. Instead, progressives and socialists must home in on policy and the places where Adams’ decisions can directly impact the working class.
Most housing law in New York City is controlled by the state, not the city. Adams, who is unabashedly pro-landlord and pro-developer, has no real power to gut tenant protections in the five boroughs. Progressive Democrats in the state legislature won’t let it happen.
There is one key power Adams, as mayor, does have: the appointment of Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) members, including the chair. Those who follow politics and housing issues know the RGB well, but the average New Yorker might not. For the more than one million New Yorkers who live in rent-stabilized apartments, the board decides how much or how little their rents will be raised. The board never lowers rents, but it did, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, freeze them in certain years.
This was a big deal. Under Michael Bloomberg and previous mayors, landlord-friendly appointees were happy to keep hiking rents on rent-stabilized units. Landlords always had ready excuses: the cost of energy is going up, taxes are too high, you can’t do business in this town and properly maintain buildings if rents are static. Bloomberg’s appointees were, without fail, receptive to these arguments.
Appointees serve staggered terms, but Adams will have the opportunity, right out of the gate, to appoint at least a majority of the nine members, including the chair. The real estate industry is likely readying names to send the mayor’s way. For a mayor who once declared, “I am real estate,” and fundraised more aggressively from the industry than any of his rivals, it will be a clear opportunity to do the bidding of the city’s power elite. Landlords will be ready to argue to Adams that rent increases are required because of inflation, with cost increases for energy and labor.
Here is where the Left — progressive Democrats, democratic socialists, the constellation of nonprofit and advocacy groups — should dig in and prepare for a long war. In tweeting about the phrases Adams used, Ocasio-Cortez was wasting her time. Instead, in the coming months, she and her allies should use their clout to pressure Adams to appoint tenant-friendly members to the board. In the city council, where leftists and progressives might, together, hold a plurality of seats, it will be crucial to exercise bully pulpits and put Adams on the defensive. Marches, rallies, frequent press conferences, postcard writing — all of it should be on the table. The board’s vote won’t come until June, giving time for politicians, advocates, and community groups to build a proper campaign.
As the months tick down, it’s vital the Left does not get distracted. Adams will offer plenty of bait for social-media-happy progressives who want to play Whac-a-Mole with the latest controversy. You can’t knock how Adams speaks and hope to win. He’s been doing it this way for thirty years. He won with the support of the black and Latino working class and he’s prepared to punch back. Outrage cycles won’t carry the day.
Instead, it’s up to the Left to focus hard on rent. Rent is what most New Yorkers care about. A majority of the city rents and a sizable chunk of that majority occupies rent-stabilized apartments or hopes to in the future. The very voters who put Adams in office are those most vulnerable to his pro-landlord bent. For many low-wage workers, the pandemic has been a disaster, and rent hikes could threaten them with homelessness. For the landlord class, this isn’t of real concern: a vacant apartment offers an opportunity for a better-heeled tenant to come through.
If a mass movement, or something close, materializes for a rent freeze or manageable increases, Adams might change course. He is a politician whose convictions shift with the political winds. But to make that happen, the Left must organize in a deeply serious and aggressive way. This will be a tremendous challenge.