June 10, 2023

As he takes over as New York’s new mayor, Brooklyn Democrat Eric Adams faces both immediate and longer-term economic challenges.  How he copes with them will say a lot about the future of New York, and by extension America’s cities. 

Adams is only the second Black mayor in the city’s history. He ran as a working-class candidate and won with substantial labor union and Black community support. He’s the city’s first mayor to graduate from a New York public high school since Abe Beame took office in 1974. When running, Adams said “I am not the Ivy League guy in this race…I am CUNY (City University of New York)…my nails aren’t manicured, they are cracked.”  

We still don’t know how this perspective and background will inform Adams’ economic development policies. His campaign rhetoric attacked Bill de Blasio, his liberal predecessor, as being anti-business. In a speech last September, Adams said “New York will no longer be anti-business…this is going to be a place where we welcome business and not turn into the dysfunctional city we have been for so many years.” 

Adams didn’t offer many specific examples. But he may have been thinking of New York’s rejection of the Amazon headquarters—“HQ2”—that was going to be built in Queens.  Like many other elected officials (including Mayor de Blasio) Adams, when Brooklyn Borough President, signed a letter welcoming the project. In 2018 Amazon announced they would build both in Queens and in Arlington, VA. Amazon claimed it would provide up to 25,000 jobs along with the construction needed to build the complex and associated service jobs that would develop to serve Amazon’s workers.

But the project was attacked for overly generous tax subsidies, not caring about the neighborhood, and other issues.  In early 2019, progressive opposition—led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (who wasn’t in office when the deal was struck)—got the deal cancelled.  De Blasio and some others who had endorsed the deal reversed course, and Amazon pulled out.

In 2020, progressive critics again defeated a major project, the rezoning and development of Brooklyn’s thirty-five acre Industry City complex, a project claiming it would produce up to twenty thousand new jobs. De Blasio again absented himself from efforts to craft an acceptable deal, leaving the local City Council member to organize successful opposition to the project.

 Many labor unions split from progressives over Amazon and Industry City, but they weren’t able to save the projects.  Adams was attacked over supporting Industry City, including one public meeting that he shut down after repeated disruptions by progressive groups.  

Adams has the reputation of a deal-maker from his days in Brooklyn, with some critics suggesting his financial support from real estate and other business interests bias him against more progressive policy.  But Adams doesn’t count these critics among his supporters. And he would likely disagree (as would many of his union supporters) that progressive policy automatically means rejecting large development projects.

He has strong ties with Black communities, unionized public sector workers and other labor groups, and traditional political leaders in Brooklyn and the Bronx.  Ross Barkan, an astute observer of New York politics, said that Mayor Adams “would be strong enough” to tell progressive groups “that he does not need them to run the city.”

But Adams and New York face a major challenge if they want the economy to come back.  The city’s economy has developed what New York Times economist and columnist Paul Krugman calls a “monoculture” dependent on financial services, and those jobs haven’t reopened strongly in New York.

Although not that many people work in the sector per se, it is one of the city’s key competitive industries.  Its high paying positions support much of the city’s budget, along with a large number of lower-paid jobs in commercial and residential building services, janitorial work, security guards, restaurants, hotels, and other services.

But since the pandemic began, a lot of that high-paid office work has shifted to remote work.   Although many firms keep saying they want workers back in the office, there is no major shift in that direction, especially in New York.  The Omicron variant’s explosive rise destroyed any plans for an office return last fall, and we don’t know what the picture will be now that Omicron seems to be ebbing.

Offices in New York and elsewhere remain very underpopulated.  Kastle Systems tracks office occupancy using keycard data in their “Back to Work Barometer,” and their latest findings aren’t good news for New York or other cities.  

Kastle’s data for late January 2022 showed occupancy for ten large metropolitan areas averaging 31.2 percent, with the New York metro at 23.3 percent.  Compare that to 2020, just before the pandemic hit, when the Barometer showed New York and the nation both at an occupancy rate of over 95 percent.

New York’s economy can’t come close to rebounding with this current low office occupancy.  It means fewer high paying jobs and supporting service jobs, reduced ridership and fares on mass transit, and lower tax revenues.

It isn’t clear Adams can do much about getting people back into New York’s offices. But if they don’t come back, both his agenda and his progressive critics rejection of economic development deals will be deeply undercut.

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