The Race to Gracie Mansion: Interview with NYC Mayoral Candidate Barbara Kavovit
Out of all of the candidates running for New York mayor, construction executive Barbara Kavovit is the only one who entered the public eye via a reality TV show.
The Evergreen Construction CEO has starred in Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” for several seasons, including as a regular in the 11th season in 2019. Kavovit, 55, was born and raised in the Bronx by a history teacher (and, later, assistant principal) mother and mechanical engineer father.
After earning her bachelor’s in economics and finance at SUNY Oswego, she started taking construction courses and working alongside an experienced carpenter. Eventually, she founded her own general contracting firm, Evergreen Construction, which focuses on retail and office buildouts for clients like Bandier, Mastercard and Hyatt. Kavovit has also written three books (the most recent was a novel called “Heels of Steel: A Novel About the Queen of New York Construction”) and designed her own toolkit for women.
She announced her run for mayor in January. Here is Commercial Observer’s interview with her about her housing and land use platform, condensed and edited for clarity:
Commercial Observer: I’m just going to start with a general question. How does your housing platform differ from the past eight years of Mayor de Blasio’s housing strategy?
Barbara Kavovit: Well, the first thing I would tackle, if I were mayor, is focus on the homeless. I think that seems to be the predominant problem. And what I would like to do is focus on a comprehensive plan to help the homeless — the mentally disabled, chemically dependent, homeless people — and homeless families, and what I would like to do is create a campus on Rikers Island. And that would be the first thing I would tackle, because right now we’re spending billions of dollars and it can be better utilized if we had a plan.
We help the homeless not only with their family counseling, [but] with psychological testing and evaluation, and with an overall five-year plan for rehabilitation on Rikers Island, which is already constructed and it would have to be refurbished. And not only a five-year plan, but where jobs can be placed, where people can start to get back into society.
Are you proposing using the Rikers Island jail complex?
As some kind of rehabilitation center or some form of housing?
Well, everything. Housing and rehabilitation center.
OK. I think that maybe homeless advocates would say that it’s already a place that has a lot of stigma. And it’s difficult to reach by public transit, which makes it of questionable utility for that purpose.
Well, I’m saying that you build on Rikers Island, since they’re planning to close it. We create a campus for them, where we build a facility, a town within itself, to have jobs for them to start working and getting paid. So, it’s a five-year plan, where it could be a two- to five-year plan where they live there, and they thrive and they go through counseling, and then go into possibly [New York City Housing Authority] properties.
And how would you address the public transit issues that are attendant with Rikers?
Well, that’s one of the issues with Rikers, the transportation issue, but I think what we would do is, really, this would be a town within itself. And I would like to see it be created, so that somebody would enjoy living there. And I would create pods within this town, so each person, each family, would have their own area, their own apartments to live and to thrive, and to work as well, and get paid.
Haven’t heard that one before, huh?
No, that’s definitely a new one. And, if you are elected mayor, what neighborhoods would you rezone, if any?
I mean, a lot of people are just looking at [Manhattan] There’s other areas besides [Manhattan]. There’s Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, Brooklyn. I would like to see some of these other areas utilized as well. And, you know, when you start to rezone an area, you gotta think of other things besides just housing. You have to think about what’s in the vicinity. Are there affordable grocery stores? Are there places to shop for clothing? Are there parks? And I think all of those questions need to be answered. Are there places for people to get jobs?
You just can’t build on top of existing housing because you need more housing. You have to think of an overall plan that is going to make people’s lives better than what they had.
Sure. Do you have any other specific neighborhoods in the five boroughs that you could see as potential rezoning areas?
Yeah … I would definitely say the Bronx, Washington Heights, the Financial District.
OK. If elected, how would you change the mandatory inclusionary housing policy? Or would you not change it?
I would make sure that the private developers that are participating in this, that we did it in an area, first of all, where they could recoup their investment. And I would probably make it about 15 percent [of the units].
Would you push to reform the city’s property tax system, which has long been considered outdated by both owners and tenants?
Yeah, well, I think anything that we can do to help the working class, the middle class, is something that I would be a proponent of. I think that we need more opportunity and diversity, and better management. And anything that we can do to make the city go more into the future, I’m all for.
And you mentioned converting the jail on Rikers Island into sort of a homeless support center. How would you grapple with the current shortage of shelter beds, and many neighborhoods’ resistance to shelter construction and conversions?
So, I think the issue that we have right now is, for example, since COVID, we’ve had 63 hotels with 9,500 residents spending $300 million. I mean, the city acts like, ‘Oh, my God, my hair’s on fire.’ So, if they had a plan in place, we wouldn’t have had to put the homeless in 63 hotels, and in neighborhoods, where as much as I, I feel terrible for the homeless, and it breaks my heart to see anybody without food, without shelter, without family. I think we need areas, where it’s a place where they can rehabilitate, and sticking them in a hotel is not that place.
So, I think we’re not being fair to the homeless, and we’re not being fair to the people in our neighborhoods.
Do you have a position on the citywide hotel special permit, which many in the real estate industry believe will be a death knell for new hotel construction in New York City?
We should do everything humanly possible to promote tourism, to promote jobs. I think that’s one of the problems with New York City is that we need to streamline these things. We can’t get held up in bureaucratic nightmares that stifle progress. And that’s what this would do. We need people to want to come to New York City.
I’m a builder. I own a construction company in New York City. We’re stifled by the Department of Buildings, and they’re doing their job. But we need to streamline these things. We don’t need to be held up in any more bureaucratic red tape, and hotels create jobs.
I see. New York City has long struggled to create enough housing for low-income New Yorkers. How would your housing strategy address that problem?
I believe, today, we have probably about 1,000 vacant, city-owned properties. Why aren’t these properties being utilized? Where is the mayor’s office that oversees the construction and the rehabilitation of these properties? We need a plan.
I mean, NYCHA properties, there are thousands of units. You know, we privatize these units, a lot of them will be lost. We need a commitment that, even if the private sector gets involved in NYCHA, that these units are going to stay with the public sector and not be reconditioned to be used for private-sector profits, because NYCHA is a federal obligation. And, right now, nobody has met that commitment.
I mean, the government has failed us. We need to revitalize these neighborhoods. And if we don’t use the NYCHA property, there will be no housing left for poor people. NYCHA was not supposed to be permanent. It was supposed to be a way to enter the middle class. But now, it’s permanent, because we’re not creating enough affordable housing and housing for poor people.
Got it. And your claim to fame, as it were, is that you were on “The Real Housewives of New York City.” You were like a friend to the housewives? I don’t know how exactly it works.
Well, I was a housewife. And, at the end, I became a friend of, yes.
And my claim to fame? Oh, my God, I thought maybe building a multimillion-dollar construction company and writing three books could have been a better claim to fame. But, OK, beyond being on “Housewives.”
I mean, I think that’s how most people would know who you were. Did you learn anything from being on “Real Housewives” that you would use as a candidate and as mayor? How would that experience translate to city politics?
I think, definitely, I’ve learned how to be in the public eye. And, as mayor, that is something that, you know, you see the mayor on TV every day. So, that definitely prepares you for that. New Yorkers are basically kind people, although being on “Housewives,” I did meet some that were unkind. So, I guess it prepared me for that, in that way, that you are dealing with many different kinds of people, and you never know who you will encounter.
I think also that it made me realize that I can also care about many different people from all walks of life. So, I think being on “Housewives” has prepared me for just the unexpected, and to be able to speak to all different kinds of people. And there was a lot of chaos on “Housewives.” And, really, I feel like the city is in a lot of chaos. So, you know, it’s all about chaos. And, you know, when you’re dealing with the housewives, you know, you’re being overrun with people that want to be in the public eye, people that are narcissistic.
I’ll probably have to deal a lot with those types of people, too. And it’s, it’s, you know, it teaches you how to manage properly and build something based on, you know, excuses, which I think a lot of the government is built on right now.
Just one last question. Where was your first New York City apartment? I know you’re from the Bronx. But, you know, your first independent apartment away from your family. Where was your first New York City apartment and what was it like?
That’s a great question. My first New York City apartment was in a brownstone on West 69th Street. A five-story walk-up, and I was on the fifth floor. And it was a studio. And it was an amazing experience. And that I felt like, you know, I was working at the time, and I just started my business. And there was so much opportunity in New York City at the time. I mean, this was in the ‘90s, in the late ‘90s. And I felt independent, I felt self-sufficient, I felt confident.
And it was — even though it was small, and there were a lot of, like, bugs and stuff — I felt like it was a great stepping stone, because progress takes time. And here it was, that I made progress moving from my family’s house, to now this place, that I was responsible for. So, I had to go out and make money — I had to do it, or else, what’s your consequence? You have to get thrown out.
So, as mayor, that message is very important. I wasn’t given anything I didn’t have. My parents didn’t give me money and say, ‘Here you go, you know, here’s your rent for the next year.’ This was, to me, do or die. And this is really, you know, having those situations in my life and not only that time, you know, having my own apartment, but many times, like being in business and having to make payroll every week. And being a business owner and a business leader, which has, you know, progressed over the years.
It’s all about, I want opportunities for everyone the way I had them. You know, I want women to be able to move up the economic ladder. I want to be able to revitalize our neighborhoods. I want police to respond to the citizens. I know you’re a real estate publication, but, again, this all feeds into having that determination to fix the city. And also that determination to make people realize that, when you are in this apartment, when this is, like, your new home, this is a home that the city has given you. You need to take care of it. You need to work hard to pay the bills. You know, it has to progress. You can’t just give housing to people without people working hard for it.
And that’s a message I want to get across. I would be a very compassionate mayor. But I also want people to work hard. You’re not gonna get around that with me.