De Blasio Re-Election Bid Stresses Affordability, Not Inequality

  • NYC mayor’s rhetoric avoids making hard-to-keep promises
  • Pushing for a ‘mansion tax’ creates a risk of being divisive

Mayor Bill de Blasio is scaling back his economy-remaking ambitions merely to the size of New York.

In 2013, he captured City Hall vowing to reverse a decades-long national trend of increasing income inequality. For this year’s re-election bid, he’s chosen a locally focused version, which he calls the city’s affordability crisis. After being largely rebuffed on the national stage, he’s onto something more graspable, said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a group of corporate chief executives.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces a new initiative for public housing for homeless people on Nov. 18, 2015.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

“Income inequality was a global issue playing to widespread fears, and pretty much beyond a mayor’s power,” said Wylde. “He can use the city budget to increase affordable housing, build homeless shelters, increase Medicaid enrollments -- tangible programs as opposed to global economic forces.”

The soaring rhetoric of four years ago mirrored de Blasio’s ambition to lead a national movement to tax the rich, regulate financial institutions, limit corporate political influence and expand health insurance and other benefits to the poor and middle class. 

National Effort

De Blasio created a “Progressive Agenda Committee” that he promoted in Washington and throughout the Midwest to influence the 2016 campaign. His effort fell apart after U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders emerged as the standard-bearer for these issues, and de Blasio failed to attract any candidates to a presidential forum on income inequality that he had planned to host in Iowa last year.

Now a candidate for re-election, de Blasio has narrowed his focus to the problems of New York City. The different language doesn’t signal a less ambitious message, de Blasio says.

“Affordability is a direct extension,” he said during a March 29 news conference. “You have to update some elements of it when you’re in government.”

De Blasio says he’s on track to meet his goal of building or preserving 200,000 housing units for low and middle-income residents by 2024. Thousands of rent-stabilized tenants have had no increases for two straight years. The mayor also advocated a $15 minimum wage approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo, enactment of sick-pay benefits and city identification cards that offer free visits to museums and other cultural institutions. 

Four Years

Talking about affordability protects de Blasio from having to explain why he’s made few inroads in tackling income inequality, said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant.

“He’s had four years to fix the inequality problem, and he’s not been able to, so this way he can make President Donald Trump and Washington the enemy,” Sheinkopf said. “Fighting for affordability frames the argument in a way in which he’s not blaming the rich, but instead he’s enlisting their support. It sounds different from four years ago even though it’s a redefinition of the same argument.”

De Blasio, 55, set up his campaign-year theme during a Feb. 13 State of the City speech in which he recalled how he entered City Hall in 2014 “with a very clear understanding” of the need to “fight an inequality that had grown.” This year, he said, “people are so fundamentally challenged by the affordability crisis that this city simply must do more and must do it quickly.” He mentioned affordability 27 times and the word inequality once.

Pay Check

Average city rents increased 23 percent over the 10 years ending Dec. 31, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Over more than 25 years, real wages increased about 1 percent in New York and the rest of the U.S., de Blasio said during the speech.

“Housing costs kept rising and rising, but incomes didn’t,” he said. “We have to respond to that kind of profound crisis with even stronger solutions.”

To help pay for housing, De Blasio wants to insert a “mansion tax” into the state budget, a 2.5 percent levy on sales of city apartments above $2 million. The measure, which faces a March 31 deadline for lawmakers to approve in their spending plan, would raise $336 million to provide rental assistance to help 25,000 seniors, he says. Opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate makes its passage unlikely.

If he fails, it would echo de Blasio’s unsuccessful effort three years ago to pay for universal pre-kindergarten with a surcharge on incomes above $500,000. Cuomo found money in the budget to pay for it statewide without the tax increase.

“The idea was never, could we make the super-rich not super-rich; it was, can we make the super-rich pay their fair share of taxes?” de Blasio said at his news conference this week.


Win or lose, de Blasio may burnish his progressive image promoting such issues, said Robert Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University. 

“What’s important is, it shows he’s pushing in the opposite direction of what’s happening in Washington,” said Shapiro, referring to Trump’s proposed cuts to housing and social welfare programs. “Income inequality, there may have once been a big push on that issue, but with Trump’s election there’s literally no receptivity in Washington.”

Yet by advocating for the mansion tax, the mayor risks reopening divisions between himself and the business community that emerged in his first campaign. The Real Estate Board of New York, an association of landlords that has backed his affordable-housing policies, has rejected the levy, saying it would suppress sales and reduce city revenue.

Wylde, from the Partnership for New York City, said that while she supports making the city more affordable, the mansion tax could backfire.

“It makes me uncomfortable when the mayor attacks corporations and wealthy New Yorkers for not doing their fair share,” she said. “Corporate and personal income taxes are already higher in New York than almost anywhere in the world.”

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