Van Bramer’s Big Real Estate Problem

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer claims to be part of the “resistance.”  After the last presidential election, he led a march across the Queensboro bridge to protest Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.  He then held a “resistance” town hall.  Van Bramer’s track record, however, makes these activities and claims hard to take seriously. A recent analysis of campaign contributions conducted by Queens Anti-Gentrification Project reveals that the Council Member received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate for the 2017 campaign cycle.  We also found that Van Bramer has appeared as keynote speaker at multiple real estate conferences in Long Island City.

“his campaign received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate, with 16 donors who sit on the boards of the Long Island City Business Improvement District and Long Island City Partnership”

Donations
Queens Anti-Gentrification Project completed an analysis of donations received by Van Bramer’s re-election campaign as of June 8th, 2017. We found that his campaign received at least $106,834 from sources related to real estate, with 11 donors who sit on the boards of the Long Island City Business Improvement District and Long Island City Partnership, the organizations leading the charge of luxury development in Long Island City. In total, Van Bramer is reporting that he has raised almost half a million dollars – more than almost every other Queens candidate – and is still continuing to fundraise. The full list of donations can be found here.

The $106,834 figure is an estimate based on research of available data; however, the actual number may be higher.  It is impossible to identify many contributors due to increasingly lax campaign finance laws regarding the collection of donor information.  Our research methodology included: a line by line analysis of every donor (as of June 8th, 2017), then summing up donations from developers, brokers, land use lawyers, architects, and family members of these individuals and entities. If it was unclear whether a donation was made by someone connected to real estate interests, research on that individual’s name was carried out. If a matching name was discovered that clearly had links to the real estate industry, they were then included in this analysis along with a link to the website which implicates them.  In several instances, we discovered that names or employer names had misspellings.  We believe this may have been done intentionally. For example, the spelling of David Wolkoff’s name (misspelled Walkoff), or the spelling of the law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell (misspelled David Polk & Wordwell).

Below are a few highlights of real estate related campaign contributions:

  1. The Wolkoff family: $6,500 from David & Gerald Wolkoff, owners of the former 5Pointz graffiti mecca which was destroyed despite community opposition and recently replaced with a pair of high rise towers.  Stephanie Wolkoff also chipped in $2750.  In previous election cycles Van Bramer received close to an additional $8,000 from this same family. (Some of this money was returned)  Read more here.
  2. Modern Spaces Real Estate: Modern Spaces employees donated on 7 separate occasions, totaling $3,700.  Modern Spaces is a major brokerage firm founded in LIC that specializes in luxury real estate.  Real estate mogul Jonathan Kushner has a stake in Modern Spaces.
  3. LIC Partnership Board and/or LIC BID: $11,300 in donations were received from 11 board members of the LIC Partnership and/or LIC Business Improvement District.
  4. Criterion Group: $16,250 in donations were received from individuals related to Criterion Group, including three members of the Manglick family, also connected to Sak Structures LLC, the officer manager at Sak Structure LLC, and Caaminee Pandit, the director of acquisitions and real estate development for Criterion Group, LLC.
  5. Rockrose Developers: $4,500 in donations received from Rockrose Developers(Henry Elghanayan and his son Justin) who, in spite of community opposition, plan to destroy a vital LIC green space in order to build an 18 story building. Read more here.
  6. Plaxall Developers: Leonard Quigley and Paula Kirby(also connected to the LIC Partnership), donated a total of $4,125.

A detailed analysis by Queens Anti-Gentrification Project can be found here.

Van Bramer’s donors directly benefit from the frantic pace of development in Long Island City and have a vested interested in securing the passage of the triple threat – the BQX, Long Island City Core Rezoning, and development of Sunnyside Yards – which Van Bramer is pushing for both publicly and behind the scenes.

Appearances at Real Estate Conferences
These campaign contributions are not surprising considering that Van Bramer has been very vocal in his support for real estate development in Long Island City. The Council Member, by appearing as keynote speaker at real estate conferences, holding numerous meetings with developers, and, generally pushing for policies that benefit developers, has shown very clearly where his interests lie.

On September 23, 2014, Jimmy Van Bramer was the keynote speaker a real estate conference, “Future of Long Island City”, consisting almost entirely of representatives from the real estate industry. One ad touted the conference for “bringing together the top real estate figures in one of NYC’s hottest submarkets. With its booming residential and commercial sector, and its ease of access to Manhattan, there is a huge future to look forward to in Long Island City.” The invitation also promised “plentiful schmooze time,” insinuating opportunities for attendees to network with others in the industry, and speak off-the-record with the influential Council Member.

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The following year, in 2015, Van Bramer was yet again the keynote speaker at an LIC real estate summit hosted by the Long Island City Partnership, in which he was introduced as a “Great Champion of the LIC Partnership.”

During his remarks (Click here for the video), Van Bramer said “I feel the envy from other Council Members all over the city of New York when they talk about Long Island City. They see it from Manhattan, or they drive through it, or they come to an event here, and they say that’s incredible what’s happening there: all those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place.” Van Bramer added, “Where Long Island City goes, New York City goes.”

“All those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place.” – Jimmy Van Bramer

But who is benefiting from these supposed victories? For those in and around Van Bramer’s district who are threatened by displacement, concerned with the environment, or struggling with the rising cost of living – these buildings do not symbolize “victories,” but tall concrete specters of what’s coming to their neighborhood – unless, of course, they are stopped.

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Again, in 2016, Van Bramer was the keynote speaker at a real estate conference hosted by the same LIC Partnership. This time, the conference was interrupted by a grassroots group, Queens is Not for Sale: “We are here today because we represent the people of Queens that the Mayor’s affordable housing plan has left out.  We are domestic workers, fast food workers, taxi drivers, day laborers, seniors, among others.  Queens is being billed as the ‘new frontier.’ This ‘new frontier’ has been our home for many years. This is about displacement.”

This June, Van Bramer headlined the LIC Summit.  Other speakers included Modern Spaces, Rockrose, and Plaxall.  At the conference, discussions took place regarding LIC’s future as a tech and science hub.

Conclusion
As addressed previously, Trump’s base of power and influence is the real estate industry.  While Trump spews anti-immigrant rhetoric in the news, the diverse, working class immigrant communities along the 7 train are faced with the imminent threat of displacement – driven by luxury real estate developers and their lust for profits.

As shown above, it isn’t the xenophobic president, Donald Trump, however, who is defending these interests in Queens.  It is none other than the self-anointed “resistance” fighter, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, local stalwart of luxury real estate, who refuses to acknowledge the displacement crisis and refuses to oppose the three looming luxury development proposals in his district (BQX, LIC Core Rezoning, & development of Sunnyside Yards) that would lead to the displacement of thousands of working class people along the 7 line.

Despite their difference in public rhetoric, both Trump and Van Bramer are firmly aligned with a real estate industry that shows no regard for the working class. The difference is that Van Bramer, instead of scapegoating immigrants, uses them as human shields by holding symbolic protests while at the same time taking huge amounts of cash from the same real estate industry that is displacing them.

No matter how many protests Van Bramer conducts, his position is clear when it comes to the people of Queens. Van Bramer’s “resistance” protests are meant to create a progressive public image. We will not let this carefully constructed persona fool us.

Clarifying the nature of Van Bramer’s “resistance” is just one part of a larger fight for basic housing justice in Queens and beyond. Behind Van Bramer’s rhetoric is the assumption that there are only two options, luxury development and luxury development with a small amount of “affordable” housing.  However, the frequently ignored demands for full funding and expansion of public housing, and the creation of low-income housing without displacement are realistic and attainable. As the stock of rent-regulated housing dwindles, thousands are forced to sleep on the street, and thousands more languish on public housing waiting lists, the necessity for such demands becomes more important than ever.

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RESOURCES FOR RESEARCHING PROPERTY AND LANDLORDS IN NYC

If we want to win, we need to be informed. Currently there’s imbalance in information between those fighting against unjust conditions and those that are in power. There are many projects that aim to level the playing field – this is one such project, albeit a small contribution.

Below are resources for doing property, building and owner research. If you have any questions regarding these resources or need help researching a particular property or policy, please contact us at: queensantigentrification@gmail.com


To begin, find the block and lot of the property you’re researching by entering the address in the first link below and clicking on the “location report” tab in the right-hand column.

GENERAL INFO AND DATASETS

DEEDS AND MORTGAGE INFORMATION

BUILDING INFORMATION

REZONING

SALES AND LAND VALUE

MISCELLANEOUS

MIH AND ZQA: DEBLASIO’S TROJAN HORSE

Very soon two new zoning laws are going to be voted on by the City Council – Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). These laws were ostensibly developed by the DeBlasio administration to increase the amount of affordable housing in NYC. The proposed laws, however, are, quite literally, a trojan horse for gentrification. If MIH and ZQA were to pass, and they are likely to do so, the potential land value across the city will increase immediately. The passage of these laws will prompt land developers to start buying up parcels of land that were previously deemed not profitable. In fact, in anticipation of MIH and ZQA, this process has already begun and, unfortunately, East New York is Ground Zero.

Developers have the primary goal of squeezing as much money out of their land as possible. Because of various regulations, the amount of money a developer can make off of a particular parcel of land is limited. Therefore, the developer is forced to mobilize political will in order to change the regulations and laws limiting their profits. There are a number of ways to do this – one of the main tactics is through rezoning. With rezoning, a developer gains the ability to build bigger and more upscale buildings on the parcels they own. In turn, this allows them to pack more people into a limited amount of space (e.g. by building taller) and charge higher rents (e.g. by creating luxury condos and selling them to rich people). The golden equation for developers is more people + higher rents = higher profits. As rezoning takes place, old buildings owned by individuals and occupied by working class folks are demolished and new buildings owned by developers are put in their place; in the rezoned neighborhoods, land values begin to increase, leading to gentrification and ultimately, displacement

More precisely: MIH and ZQA will allow for more rapid “up-zoning” (i.e. the ability to build larger and more profitable kinds of developments) across the entire city. As part of the deal, developers will be forced to make a certain portion of their developments “affordable” (which in reality aren’t actually affordable to most working class people). Politicians only like to talk about this “affordable” component, when in fact MIH and ZQA have very little to do with affordable housing and are really aimed at generating profits. To garner public support for this plan, the DeBlasio administration has devised a very savvy and insincere media campaign: he aims to create 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. What DeBlasio doesn’t tell us, however, is how many housing units will become unaffordable as a result of the gentrification brought on by MIH and ZQA. Undoubtedly, the gentrification caused by MIH and ZQA will lead to rapid rent increases in neighborhoods across the city – the 182,000 residents living in East New York, for example, are guaranteed to see their rent increase across the board if rezoning passes in their neighborhood.  For what?  A few hundred supposedly affordable units? Units which will likely be marketed to out of town folks, anyway?

In the end, the DeBlasio administration would like us to believe that trading our neighborhoods for a meager amount of affordable housing is worth it, but history has shown us that the words of politicians should not be trusted blindly. Every single politician in New York, from DeBlasio to Ruban Diaz, knows that MIH and ZQA are intended to increase land value and profits for developers and, in turn, produce higher tax revenues and capital investment for Borough Presidents. As an added bonus, DeBlasio gets to pretend that he’s the Mayor who saved affordable housing. It’s our contention that history will tell a different story, and we hope that this story is told sooner, rather than later.


A NOTE ON ZONING: The way city zoning law works is as follows: there is large zoning document, which has very detailed descriptions and regulations for what types of buildings can be built in various areas called “zones”. Each neighborhood in New York City is designated as a specific zone. For example, the R5 zone allows buildings that are 30 feet tall and the R6 zone allows for buildings that are up to 60 feet tall. If a developer wants to change the law, they can either change what is allowed in the R5 and R6 zones (higher allowed building heights), in general (zoning text amendment) or they can change what zone a neighborhood is designated as (map amendment). MIH and ZQA are zoning text amendments, whereas the rezoning in East New York is a map amendment (which will be one of the first zoning map amendments that will use regulations from the zoning text post-MIH and ZQA