The Landlord’s Representative

The legislation on the docket of the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee reveals no hint that there’s an affordable-housing crisis in New York City. Most of the would-be laws look like fragments of an obscure plumbers’ manual or electrician’s esoterica. There are bills amending the plumbing code, requiring licensing for painting contractors, testing backflow prevention devices, installing garbage grinders.Few of these bills ever become law. Yet they reveal a great deal about the priorities of the Council’s housing committee and its chair, Archie Spigner, of Southeast Queens_home, it turns out, to several major homebuilders and construction unions. It is also a district of small homeowners_and relatively few tenants.”By and large, the Council’s involvement in housing issues is as diluted as ever,” says Vic Bach of the Community Service Society, an antipoverty research and advocacy organization. “But our housing problems have deepened. We need a very active Council to deal with distressed housing, and I have not seen that kind of energy taking shape.” As Bach and others point out, the vacancy rate for apartments renting for less than $500 a month is a slim one percent, and most New Yorkers are paying a steadily increasing percentage of their income on housing.

The energy that is generated on the committee these days comes from issues championed by the increasingly effective real-estate lobby. Until 1994, Spigner had always supported rent stabilization laws; he, like most New York politicians, recognized rent control as a third-rail issue_touch it and you die. Times changed, however, and so did his position. That year, with real-estate trade groups pressing hard for the repeal of rent regulations, Spigner proffered a bill that would have permitted landlords to raise rents on vacant apartments by as much as 25 percent. The bill caused a furor and was shot down by Council Speaker Peter Vallone. But a new, less drastic piece of legislation emerged, one that sought to end regulation for any apartment renting for $2,000 or more.

Spigner had used a time-honored strategy. By offering a bill perceived as too extreme, he paved the way for another that seemed to offer a compromise, effectively achieving his original goal of relaxing the regulations.His reverse underlines where legislative power lies these days in the City Council. On many issues close to the heart of the landlord lobby_whether it’s lead-paint removal, housing-code inspections or changes in Housing Court rules to demand pre-trial rent deposits by tenants_Spigner, a 22-year Council veteran, is a willing partner. To understand exactly how deeply rooted his positions are, and to make sense of the increasingly pro-landlord committee that he directs, it is essential to understand his power base.

“Archie Spigner follows Peter Vallone’s agenda, which is essentially the real-estate lobby’s agenda,” charges Michael McKee, director of development for the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition. “He was appointed [chair of the Housing Committee] precisely because he has very few rent-regulated tenants in his district and would therefore be seen by the leadership as not susceptible to pressure from organized tenants.”

The Queens Machine

For the most part, Spigner’s district, encompassing the mostly African-American neighborhoods of St. Albans, Cambria Heights, Rosedale, Jamaica and Hollis, is not saddled with the problems of poverty and crime that plague so many other communities of color in New York. These neighborhoods are mostly middle class, with among the highest median incomes in Queens. The large number of homeowners_the highest percentage of any Council district_helps explain Spigner’s orientation. “People in his district vote Democratic, but the truth is on city issues they have no reason to be pro-tenant,” says one Queens political insider. “If American society wasn’t racist, a lot of them would be Republicans.”Southeast Queens is also politically active. Voter turnout there is among the highest in the city, and Spigner is a major political force. He is a district leader and, significantly, co-chair of the Guy Brewer United Democratic Club. Every month, hundreds of area residents meet at the club’s St. Albans headquarters. The club has also served as the region’s campaign headquarters for Mario Cuomo and Bill Clinton.

In Queens, machine politics is still a powerful force. The county’s Democratic party has a reputation for efficiency and stability. Observers say that when it comes to mobilizing voters, the political clubs are less effective nowadays than in the past, but they are still

very good at challenging candidates’ petitions and keeping potential opponents off the ballot. “If you’re a newcomer,” says John Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the City University of New York, “you can just be locked out.”

“Archie has slowly, quietly accumulated a fair amount of power,” observes Jim Chapin, a longtime Queens reformer who is now Public Advocate Mark Green’s chief of staff. “Almost all of the elected officials [from Queens] now are people that he’s had some responsibility electing. They owe him something. When he speaks, people listen.”For many years, Spigner earned a reputation as an able if unremarkable legislator, bringing home the bacon but hardly shaking up the establishment. But in 1986, Spigner adroitly organized Queens’ black elected officials behind Congressman Tom Manton to be the borough’s Democratic Party leader. That same year, he also endorsed Vallone for City Council majority leader. It was, admittedly, an act of necessity rather than vision. The battle for the job involved an interborough squabble pitting Vallone against Canarsie’s Herbert Berman. Realistically, Spigner had little choice but to endorse his fellow Queens pol. Nevertheless, when Vallone won the position by one vote, Spigner’s support yielded some nice political dividends. Soon after the election, he was named majority whip. When charter reform gave the City Council broad new powers, he became deputy majority leader, the Council’s second highest ranking position.

Spigner, 67 years old, makes no bones about his loyalty to Peter Vallone. “I work with the Speaker in carrying out the goals of the leadership, which I do have some input in,” he says. “Being part of the leadership, there are burdens and there are benefits. If you’re not ready to [accept the burdens], then you can be a gadfly and stay out on the periphery.”

Mixed Record

In some ways, Spigner maintains a schizophrenic relationship with the housing movement. His record on homelessness is considerable. According to Steve Banks, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Family Rights Project, Spigner has enacted legislation that bans barracks-style shelters and places tougher standards on welfare hotels. Spigner, he says, has been “extraordinarily supportive of funding for legal services to prevent evictions and homelessness.”Spigner has also been effective in getting neighborhood projects funded_yet another reward for his proximity to Vallone. “When we ask for assistance, he’s given it to us,” says Dan Jennings, executive director of the Queens Overall Economic Development Corporation. Jennings’ organization has been refurbishing the area’s commercial strips, the Long Island Rail Road station, and other areas, thanks to Spigner’s access. Local housing groups aren’t complaining either. “He’s been good to us,” says Storm Russell, executive director of Jamaica Housing Improvement, a nonprofit that organizes tenants and provides financial assistance to homeowners.

But these same groups note Spigner’s acts of financial beneficence are overshadowed by his eagerness to please local real-estate interests. Case in point is his close relationship with Rita Stark.

In 1988, Stark inherited vast amounts of property in southeast Queens from her father, Fred Stark, a local real-estate magnate. To the dismay of housing activists and civic leaders, Stark has warehoused much of it, leaving many affordable, desperately needed apartments empty. For years, Stark’s properties have been a serious neighborhood blight, with problems ranging from drug dealers and squatters to vermin infestation. Her neighbors remain befuddled. “Why does she continue to maintain these vacancies? It can’t be profitable,” Russell says. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” she adds. “There’s no law against warehousing in New York City.”

Thanks, in part, to Archie Spigner, who played a major role in defeating anti-warehousing legislation during the late 1980s. In 1986, Manhattan Councilmember Stanley Michels introduced a bill that would have forced landlords to rent habitable apartments within 30 days after they became vacant. Over the next three years, Spigner, at Vallone’s request, refused to allow the bill to come to a vote, even though 24 of the Council’s 35 members had publicly supported it. The bill died in 1989.Rita Stark donated $2,000 to Spigner’s campaign coffers between 1993 and 1995. The Councilmember has backed her up by defeating an effort by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark one of her buildings, the 1898 Beaux Arts Jamaica Savings Bank. The Jamaica Arts Center, based next door, must contend with extensive water damage and rats because of the bank building’s decrepit condition. “It is in complete disrepair, the roof is almost completely gone,” says Veronique LeMelle, executive director of Jamaica Arts. “It’s an eyesore, it’s a health hazard. It’s terrible.”

The Strasburg-RSA Connection

The composition of the Council’s Housing Committee effectively ensures that legislation opposed by Vallone has little possibility of seeing daylight. There are nine members of the committee and only three_Michels, Guillermo Linares and Helen Marshall_regularly support pro-tenant legislation. The others mostly go along with Spigner, and Antonio Pagan of Manhattan and Thomas Ognibene, the Republican leader from Queens, are particularly aggressive in advancing the real-estate lobby’s agenda. But it is Spigner who ultimately does Vallone’s bidding on the committee.

Spigner has held the chairmanship since 1985. Observers maintain that his relationship with key players in the real-estate lobby has grown tight over the years. Today Spigner is close to Joe Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association who was formerly Vallone’s chief of staff. “Whatever Archie is, Joe made him,” says another former Vallone aide.

Spigner has also worked closely with John Doyle, a lobbyist for the Real Estate Board of New York and a consultant for the Queens Democratic party. In both 1991 and 1993, Doyle was an advisor in Spigner’s reelection campaigns. He was a financial supporter as well_Doyle donated $1,000 to Spigner’s 1993 Council run on top of another $1,000 contributed by the Real Estate Board. For his part, Doyle maintains that his relationship with Spigner’s campaigns has been incidental. “We talked about campaign literature a little bit, what kind of pieces he wanted to send out, that was the extent of it,” he says. The industry’s power and influence is evident, observers say, in a number of bills currently before the committee. In June 1994, Spigner and Michels introduced competing lead-paint removal bills; so far, neither one has moved out of the committee, but the Council is steadily moving away from the strict lead removal guidelines Michels has sought, says Chris Meyer of the New York Public Interest Research Group. Spigner’s bill includes no protections for schools, child-care centers and public-works facilities, and would change the legal definition of lead poisoning, lowering the standard considerably. It would also allow landlords to certify compliance with the law themselves.

A compromise is now in the works, but Meyer, who has lobbied for Michels’ bill, is not optimistic. “If they want to achieve a compromise that Archie Spigner can support, it will be a bill that the public-health community will have a hard time living with,” he says.Last summer, Spigner and Pagan introduced a resolution that would require tenants to provide mandatory pre-trial rent deposits in disputes before the Housing Court. Housing activists have blasted the proposal, charging that it would unduly burden low-income tenants, forcing them to pay rent up front that they may not owe, while weakening what limited leverage the city has to demand that landlords abide by the housing code.

Spigner is indignant at the criticisms of this bill. “You have to know that there are a group of people out there, some would call them advocates, who have a very narrow view of what reality is. If they were to look objectively at mandatory rent deposits, they would see that it’s a pro-tenant measure.” He argues that the plan gives tenants a mechanism to put their money aside in escrow, so if they do lose in a trial they will not end up homeless. “Some of the advocates look at landlords as a criminal class,” he says. “They may be against private ownership of property, I don’t know.”

“Only Game in Town”

While for the most part tenants have little say on important issues before the housing committee, activists insist there isn’t really any alternative to trying. “It’s the only game in town,” says Kolu Zigbi, program coordinator for the Association of Neighborhood Housing and Development. “It’s frustrating, but if you have a proposal for anything that requires funding, you have to go through the Council.” Zigbi also says that activists can at least stop some anti-tenant initiatives, like the mandatory-rent-deposit bill, which has been tabled thanks to well-organized tenant pressure.Housing advocates could also take a leaf from the landlords’ book and become more skillful organizers, says Anne Pasmanick, executive director of the Community Training and Resource Center.

Another housing activist agrees. “What’s really absent in the ‘progressive’ housing movement, is a movement,” she says. “There’s very little galvanizing of the people and the tenants, and until that happens, we won’t be effective.” The Council responds to pressure from organized constituents, she says. And these days, it’s the landlords who are pulling all the right levers.

Reprinted with permission from City Limits.