If the Democrats succeed in wresting control of the State Senate next week, their victory will be owed in no small part to the wealthy party loyalists who round out their major contributors. Near the very top of that donor list is onetime major George Pataki donor Peter Fine, chairman of Atlantic Development, a leading builder of mostly below-market-rate housing.
All told, Atlantic, through Mr. Fine, his business partner and the company, has given more than $180,000 to Senate Democrats this election cycle, an amount that puts the company among the largest, if not one of the top two, private donors to the party conference, according to campaign filings. Contributions to Governor Paterson’s campaign account from Atlantic subsidiaries and Mr. Fine total $100,000, which seems to put Atlantic as the governor’s largest donor on record, according to contribution records.
Taken with donations to other state Democratic campaign committees, Atlantic and Mr. Fine have contributed more than $430,000 to state Democrats since late 2006, making the developer, by the numbers, a force in New York politics.
“Right now, we’re in an economic time where you’re going to need leadership in Albany that thinks outside the existing box,” Mr. Fine said in an interview Sunday. “I just like the idea of getting fresh blood.”
Mr. Fine, a 47-year-old former social worker who grew up in public housing in Queens, has built Atlantic to become one of the top developers of below-market-rate housing in the city, dominating the field by building thousands of new units over the past decade. While the company is not a local powerhouse when compared with developers like Tishman Speyer or the Related Companies, it has grown its value in the affordable-housing arena as the housing market has boomed, and now is gradually moving more into market-rate residential development as its presence expands.
Taken with its long list of donations, Atlantic’s rise seems to serve as a reminder that, indeed, building affordable housing can be lucrative, and that the wide-scale development of such housing can benefit from a presence in the political world.
“I was brought up in a family that believed in being involved in politics,” Marc Altheim, Mr. Fine’s business partner, said of the large amount of donations. “I guess it’s part of doing business, in a way, because we want to be recognized for the stuff we do.”
MESSRS. FINE AND Altheim founded the company in 1995, focusing exclusively on subsidized housing. As residential development citywide exploded in the past 10 years, so, too, did opportunities to create and profit from housing for low- and moderate-income families.
The company benefited from economies of scale as it grew; and in recent years, Atlantic has honed the skill of working with public agencies on subsidized projects, people who have dealt with the company said.
“They’re seen as probably being the foremost experts,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which has partnered with Atlantic in the past. “Everybody talks to them, people buy the inclusionary benefits from them.”
With one program in particular—the 421-a certificate program, where affordable developments, many in the Bronx, spawned tax abatements for new market-rate units built in Manhattan—Atlantic dominated the industry. The company accounted for about 40 percent of all of the units citywide that qualified for the program, according to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Mr. Fine said the company built between 30 and 40 separate buildings through this program, which the State Legislature recently eliminated.
This program, like others utilized by Atlantic, was less risky and more cost-effective when done on a large scale by experienced affordable developers, as the builder wouldn’t get the market-rate subsidy until the affordable units were completed.
“We see a lot of opportunity where other people don’t,” Mr. Fine said. While Atlantic is expanding into luxury development now, he said the choice to start out in affordable housing was one rooted in personal beliefs. “I don’t think I’ve become wealthy. … If we would have used the same energy to focus on the luxury sector, I would have made a lot more money.”
The company seems to be highly skilled at accessing a wide array of government incentives for its buildings. In a set of planned low-income apartment buildings on the East Side in 2005, Atlantic sought to receive subsidies through tax-exempt bonds issued by the state, a city-administered program that rewarded low-income housing built in the same neighborhood as certain market-rate projects, and a set of other city exemptions. The request for the subsidies drew considerable attention from affordable-housing advocates and elected officials, who argued that the double-dipping in incentive programs was a highly inefficient use of affordable housing dollars, and that the same bonds could produce more than five times as many units elsewhere in the city.
Atlantic, which said it would not have been able to build those apartments without the subsidies, and that it stayed well within the law, was granted the bonds.
Since, Mr. Fine has generally steered clear of such public controversy with his projects, which right now include a large 689-unit mixed-income development at Boricua College in the Bronx and 259 units of mixed-income housing on vacant New York City Housing Authority land in Chelsea at the Harborview Terrace housing project. Overall, Atlantic says it has more than 1,200 units of housing in various stages of construction.
Harborview is an example, though, of where Atlantic’s political donations seem to at least raise eyebrows. The development must go through the city’s public approval process, needing an O.K. from the City Council and an often-influential recommendation from the borough president’s office.
In July, as Borough President Scott Stringer’s office was considering the project, Mr. Fine steered $9,850 to Mr. Stringer’s campaign fund, as he was listed in campaign finance records as the “intermediary” for four employees and family members. Such a practice will ultimately be banned under new rules adopted by the City Council in 2007, which set low limits on donations for people who have land-use matters before the city.
Mr. Fine strenuously denied that any of his donations or those from his company were related to doing business.
“I achieved what I achieved without access to power—that’s not why I give money to politicians,” he said. “I try to pick people who I don’t think are ideologues. I don’t want to have leadership, whether it’s at the city, or state, or federal level, that is going to have knee-jerk positions. … I’m trying to find people who I think are individuals that are going to be creative in responding to social and human needs.”
State Senator Jeffrey Klein, a chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, said Mr. Fine has not lobbied him on policy, and “is the type of guy who needs to believe in his candidates. He’s somebody,” Mr. Klein said, “who likes to get involved; he likes politics.”
And if the Democrats don’t win the State Senate? Mr. Fine’s tone on the Republicans, led by Senator Dean Skelos of Long Island, was not so caustic.
“I happen to think that the majority leader now, Skelos, is a very capable guy,” he said, “so either way I don’t think we’ll be in bad hands.”