A New Deputy in Town: The Sit-Down With Alicia K. Glen
Alicia K. Glen, the city’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development, insists that she’s not the kind of public servant who will ever run for office.
“Who would vote for me?” she asked. “Nobody would ever vote for me in their right mind.”
But when it comes to the work politicos actually do (developing and implementing policy, dealing with the byzantine city agencies, talking to the press), Ms. Glen has few equals in City Hall.
When Commercial Observer visited Ms. Glen at City Hall on Good Friday, the building was quiet—but she had plenty of energy.
“I’m 100 percent ready. I’m caffeinated,” she said. Ms. Glen has channeled this enthusiasm into her work on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda since leaving Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group to return to city government in January 2014 (she also worked under Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the assistant commissioner for housing finance and as a junior aide to then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins).
Ms. Glen’s road to City Hall has been anything but linear, and the experience accrued on her journey to the de Blasio administration has proven to be pivotal in working on some of the mayor’s most high-profile, and high-stakes, projects. These initiatives include the mayor’s most talked-about undertaking, building and securing 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade, and expanding the innovation and manufacturing economy that’s sprouted in the outer boroughs. She sat down with CO to discuss how the halls of Goldman differ from those of City Hall, the uncertain future of 421-a and the reading material in her office, including The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro—a provocative title for a city administrator.
Commercial Observer: In a past interview, you describe yourself as an “unusual” person. Why did you use this word?
Ms. Glen: I’m guessing that the context of the word “unusual” was when people think about my career and the different things I’ve done. It is unusual to be somebody who has been lucky enough and committed enough to have had a series of jobs in very different sectors, or what would be perceived to be on the spectrum of politics. But I have been able to constantly advance the things I really care about.
Probably what I think of as being somewhat unusual for a person in my role is having been able to make a transition from being an organizer, a legal services advocate to working in city government, to then working at Goldman Sachs, the most powerful financial institution in the world, and then coming back to a progressive mayoralty. That narrative is unusual, but it’s all connected through my work of trying to improve the city. Doing smart planning and economic development make cities the petri dish for innovation and economic growth.
How was working at Goldman different than working at City Hall?
One thing that has been consistent is wherever I go I’m probably a little bit different than the rest of the people in the place. At Goldman, obviously I came from a much more public policy and advocacy and frankly, lefty liberal background, than most people there. That’s not to say there aren’t some incredibly progressive, thoughtful, lefty Democrats at Goldman. There are, and they actually have a long history of that. But I think it was clear that I was very much a person there who was continuing to push the institution to do something which I thought was incredibly important and to use capital markets to really address social change, in the built environment, in providing access to capital for companies that don’t have it or women and minorities and to really think about why this is important. I was a little bit of a pusher and going a little bit against the traditional grain.
What did your colleagues at Goldman say when you decided to come to City Hall to work for a very progressive mayor?
I don’t think they were shocked [laughs]. I think they were sad to see me leave because the business I built there was incredibly important that I think changed the debate in the Wall Street world around the role of financial institutions and double-bottom line and mission-driven investing. [The Urban Investment Group at the bank specializes in “social impact investing” and provides capital to under-served neighborhoods.] I believe I had a real impact in the way that institution thought, and since Goldman is so much a thought-leader in that world, I think it has had some collateral impact.
Goldman also has an incredibly long tradition of people going into public service to take these skills [they’ve developed] and try to advance the public agenda.
Did you have a relationship with Mr. de Blasio prior to him tapping you for this position?
I didn’t really know him well. I had met him [twice] before I was contacted about this opportunity.
How did he ask you to serve?
One of his people called my assistant and asked if I would come in and meet with the mayor to talk about the transition. And we had a first meeting. It was supposed to be 45 minutes and it turned into two hours. We talked a lot about what his vision was and what my thoughts were. And then the process accelerated very quickly from there. It all happened in about three weeks.
Why do you think the Democratic National Convention bid didn’t come to fruition?
I don’t know. I’m not a Democratic Party insider. From the economic development perspective, I think that we did an amazing job making the case for why having a convention in Brooklyn [was a great idea] and that the city and Brooklyn are ready for it. My view is, if I were coming from Nebraska, I would rather hang out in a really interesting, cool neighborhood in Brooklyn and get a sense of that than be in the Philadelphia Convention Center. I wish they had gone the other way.
So you don’t think it’s a failure on City Hall’s part?
One hundred percent not. These decisions are made in a very political way is what I’m assuming.
421-a has been a very hot topic this year. Can you articulate the administration’s position on the tax abatement program?
I can’t give you a hard and fast answer because we are still finalizing the parameters of what reforms we would like to see in the law. We have been engaging with every possible stakeholder on the planet around these issues. I have spent years thinking about these issues. Fundamentally, everything we’re doing when we look at the housing plan and housing production is to think about how we can maximize the various tools we have to drive both affordable housing and market-rate housing. The framework with which we come to everything is: If the public sector is providing benefits to developers, whether they’re for-profit or nonprofit, what is the appropriate benefit that the public gets in return for that? And for 421-a, it’s a very deep tax benefit and we should take a hard look at what makes sense for the public to get in return.
So to be clear, there is no concrete plan at this point.
The strategy is in formulation. It really will reflect our values in terms of making sure the public gets the right share of the benefit to advance our housing agenda.
What would you say to critics of the mayor’s affordable housing plan [which calls for 200,000 units preserved and built in a decade]?
Who is critical of my plan? Where are those people? I would love to talk to them.
Some have raised concerns about the feasibility and logistics of the plan.
The number [of units] is absolutely attainable. If you look at the history of market-rate housing production and affordable housing production over the past 25 years, at the height, I think there was 17,000 or 18,000 units of affordable housing done [annually]. So for us to get to 20,000 a year is by definition not crazy. We’re not talking about a goal that’s 50 percent greater than the height, and there’s an unprecedented commitment of resources [now].
The other thing I really think is important for people to understand is that this plan is not reliant on a hot real estate market. There’s a huge amount of confusion out there that our whole plan is about, “as long as the market is hot, we’ll get our units through inclusionary.” That is a small, small percentage of the plan. We have doubled our capital budget. We have changed all of our housing financing programs. We are getting close to twice as many units in our housing production programs for the same dollars that the Bloomberg administration got. We are structuring these deals better. We are leveraging private-sector money better.
I want people to understand that even if the real estate market really declined rapidly—which, please God, it doesn’t happen—it’s not like the machine doesn’t keep cranking. The machine is unbelievably well-oiled and well-financed.
There have been reports of community members pushing back against rezoning [in Brooklyn].
Some are, but if you actually go and interview people who are standing on the corners of East New York, people first of all would be like “What rezoning?” That’s a 100 percent true story. You ask the person on the street coming back from the grocery store and they would be like, “What are you talking about? What’s a rezoning?” There are definitely advocates who are going to continue to push, and that’s their job. That’s fine. I was an advocate once. Nothing’s ever good enough for anybody.
But in a Brooklyn that’s rapidly gentrifying, what would you say to these concerned advocates who are worried about their neighborhoods changing?
We engage with [these advocates] all the time. We would say we understand people’s skepticism because the sad history of the past couple of decades has been communities being told that when development comes, they will get something from it. And the sad truth is, most of the time that hasn’t happened. This is what I would call the hangover of Williamsburg.
Because of the mandatory requirement [we have put forth], every single building that is built over 10 units or whatever the minimum number is, will have affordable housing. There is no voluntary nature. We are making a pact with the community and we are embedding it in law.
What can you be found doing when you’re not on the clock?
I feel like I’m always on the clock—in a good way. I am 100 percent devoted to New York City in all of its fabulousness. I live in the same zip code I was born in [10025 on the Upper West Side]. I walk the same blocks. I’ve seen neighborhood transformation. I’ve seen how that can be both positive and how it can also have some negative consequences. I also spend a huge amount of time just celebrating the incredible physical and literal and amazing diversity of New York City. It’s what I do. I will literally spend my weekend going to buy the best curry powder in Jackson Heights because I’m making dinner for people on Sunday night and that’s what so cool about living in New York. I’ve always thought that cities are the most exciting places on the planet and places where there’s real opportunity for experimentation and innovation and making mistakes.
We have so much opportunity here to make New York, to really make the city truly the coolest, most equitable, funky, diverse and profitable [place]. We’re so lucky here, given the extraordinary human capital and financial capital. I’m never off the clock, because the clock is what I do.
Does every journalist who comes into your office to interview you ask about your copy of The Power Broker?
There’s a running joke going on which is, “Is my goal to put an ‘a’ there on the end of Robert?” There is a little bit of that—a bit of a feminist approach to city building. But the reason why it’s there is that two months into my job, I was lucky enough to go to a gala. I go to a million galas, obviously, but I happened to sit next to Robert Caro. And at galas, everyone is swanning around, kissy-kissy, working the room, and I spent the entire night, like three hours, engaged in this incredible conversation with Mr. Caro. Then the next day, he sent [the book] to me with the nicest note:
For Alicia K. Glen,
The Power Broker: who has a rare opportunity to do something wonderful for New York—and who I think will do it.