Leading His Charge

Since 1986, Steven Spinola has served as president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful lobbying arm that he has captained through two recessions, property tax reductions and a series of battles against the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Commercial Observer spoke to Mr. Spinola, 63, about what he learned in 2011, new battles for the New Year, his weakness for skiing and whether he’d rather be drinking with Robert Moses or Jane Jacobs. Hint: His answer probably won’t surprise anybody.
steven spinola 3 Leading His Charge

The Commercial Observer: With 2011 officially closed, let’s review the biggest issue the Real Estate Board of New York, and the industry at-large, tackled in 2011.
Mr. Spinola: Well, clearly, the first issue would be that the state was in a major downfall with serious budget problems, and Albany pushed to raise taxes and to decrease spending by $10 billion to $13 billion. And so one of the first things that we got involved in was the question of obviously holding the line on spending in the State of New York .

How did REBNY react?
We got involved in lobbying and working with the Committee to Save New York to, I think, accomplish what was not thought to be accomplishable, which is to hold the line on that $10 billion shortfall without raising taxes. More importantly, the business community was able to articulate a common voice on important issues, which included, on a statewide basis, a cap on taxes. It doesn’t affect New York City , but the cap on real estate taxes, as well as holding the line on spending and not going crazy on raising taxes.

As you said yourself, that was one of those issues people thought couldn’t get done, and it got done, but I imagine it wasn’t without major lobbying and publicizing your stance.
Yeah. I think we not only made our points, but we also raised some serious money to be able to address those points and get them on TV. We demonstrated that we can work well with others and we were able to support what I thought was significant leadership on behalf of the governor, taking a lot of shots and yet demonstrating what can happen when the chief executive officer actually gets his hands dirty and gets involved in the discussions and the negotiations and advocates a position.

Generally speaking, Governor Cuomo has a reputation for being easy to work with. Is that how you view the governor and is that how the real estate industry sees him?
The answer is he’s easy to work with because he’s willing to work when you raise an issue with him, or when he cares about an issue. And there’s no holding back as to what his feeling is or his position is or what he thinks can be done. With some other people, who we won’t mention, they may not have wanted to stick their neck out. Well, nobody could accuse Andrew Cuomo of not sticking his neck out.

I assume that at the beginning of each year you gather all the committees together to lay out the important issues and decide which deserve to be addressed. In 2011, were any of those plans disrupted by unexpected events?
I mean, this past year, we had to get 421A extended. We did. But part of that issue was there was a push to require prevailing wages for anybody who got 421A. Well, that would have hurt, we believe, a lot of low-income housing that was going to be built, and it would have guaranteed that Course of Construction would have stayed at a much higher level, and we need to bring down Course. So without breaking our relationship with the construction trades, we fought that off. They’re going to continue to fight for it. It’s an issue that’s going to come up again, but we’re building that relationship. We continue to work on that relationship and articulate the reasons we can’t do it.

The other thing that came up was a serious push for sick-leave requirements in the City Council that put forward that sick leave be given for any employees who were in some way in a building that was getting some kind of a benefit. We fought that. The good news was that Speaker [Christine] Quinn came out and opposed it. And that was a battle that we joined in with the chambers of commerce in all five boroughs and the issue was basically laid aside. Right now, there’s a push, again, to require a living wage.