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Four ways Vito Lopez reshaped New York

How the scandal-scarred Assembly member wielded his power as chair of the Housing Committee

State Assembly member Vito Lopez at the Kings County Democrats’ judicial convention in September 2011. Photo: Alice Brennan

Whether or not he stays in office, state Assemblymember Vito Lopez will forever be known as the legislator censured for sexual harassment, stripped of his seniority and committee chairmanship, and forbidden to employ anyone under the age of 21.

But his legacy runs much deeper. As chair of the Kings County Democrats, he can make or break the careers of aspiring elected officials in Brooklyn, and controls the process through which judges in the borough are nominated to state Supreme Court.

Then there’s the seat Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver pulled out from under Lopez last week, as Chair of the Assembly Housing Committee. It gave Lopez a subtle but significant impact on the shape of New York City, by steering the money and rules that run its number-one industry: real estate.

Here are four ways Vito Lopez has wielded that power.

 

1. Hello hipsters, bye-bye business

In 2010, Lopez sponsored a measure to assure residential tenants of lofts in Brooklyn and Queens – living in a zone that includes much of his district – that they could continue to live in former manufacturing spaces. It was the first expansion of the so-called Loft Law since the 1980s.

Although the law required landlords to upgrade their buildings, in many cases landlords could charge residential tenants considerably more for rent than those leasing the spaces to manufacturing or other businesses.

Lopez advanced the 2010 loft bill over objections from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups seeking to preserve manufacturing in New York City, who argued that encouraging conversion of industrial lofts for residential use would cause jobs to leave New York.

As of this April, three dozen Brooklyn and Queens industrial lofts had been converted to apartments under Lopez’ law, and Lopez has argued against rent increases In a recent meeting with loft tenants, Lopez indicated that he counts their numbers in his Assembly district — and their votes. “There are 1,500 loft tenants in my district, and only 114 of them voted in the last four years. But if you ever mobilize a bloc of 1,500 people, a lot will go your way.”

 

2. Costly tax breaks for real estate developers

In 2007, as the state legislature acted to renew a major tax break for New York City apartment-building developers, Lopez introduced a version of the bill that significantly expanded the zone in which developers have to build affordable housing in order to get the tax break, known as 421-a. Those included areas in North Brooklyn where a powerful organization founded by Lopez, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, constructs and manages such housing and was poised to benefit from new development opportunities.

What’s more, under Lopez’ bill the renewal of the tax abatement took effect one year after its passage. That gave developers time to begin construction and claim the tax credit without providing the affordable housing. Those tax abatements will cost the city $158.7 million over 15 years.

 

3. Grants for the grassroots

Lopez has repeatedly sought to restore funding to the Neighborhood Preservation Program, which gives state grants to dozens of non-profits to provide housing advice to tenants and homebuyers.

Many, including Lopez’s Bushwick Ridgewood Senior Citizens Council, are located in New York City. Most groups have received the funds for decades, and for some of the smaller organizations the dollars fiercely protected by Lopez represent a large share of their budgets.

In 2009, after the state budget slashed $2.1 million from the Neighborhood Preservation Program, Assemblyman Lopez personally steered member item funds to restore its budget. After Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first budget in 2011 sought to cut the Neighborhood Preservation Program in half. Lopez and Speaker Sheldon Silver negotiated a deal to restore $6 million.

This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to eliminate the Neighborhood Preservation Program entirely, generating $12 million in savings, and replace them with a state-run tenant protection unit. Lopez helped ensure the program survived — and with it a built-in network of political support for Lopez.

 

4. Big money for Brooklyn

The Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, the Brooklyn nonprofit founded by Lopez three decades ago, is a major recipient of public funds for housing development and services for the elderly. State legislative records show that a big chunk of the money comes from Lopez himself:  he earmarked more than $400,000 for the organization through member items between 2008 and 2010. More than a half million dollars in funds also came through the New York City Council.

The group has been the subject of a probe from the City’s Department of Investigation, which in 2010 found weak board oversight and purported “fraudulent activities” at Ridgewood Bushwick. But that hasn’t stopped city money from flowing: since the beginning of 2010 it has received $25 million in payments from the city for housing and other services.