Most NYC Real Estate Owners Appear to Back Biden in 2024
But some could be persuaded otherwise
One year before the presidential election, many of New York City’s commercial real estate owners are either sticking with the nation’s incumbent chief executive or keeping their options open. To ask them why is to discover a set of property magnates unnerved by an exceptionally difficult economic climate and a world beset by grave crises.
You might also find that they care a lot more about local and state politics than national.
In its annual survey of commercial real estate owners, Commercial Observer found that 11 out of 26 developers interviewed wanted Joe Biden to be re-elected to another term. None strongly preferred former President Donald Trump and only one supported Nikki Haley on the Republican ticket. Another eight were undecided or said they would prefer that both parties nominated different candidates altogether.
“I wish both sides would give us alternate choices,” Savanna’s Nicholas Bienstock responded.
One suggested Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor. Two favored Michelle Obama. A third floated the fictional Connor Roy from “Succession.” “Really undecided between RFK Jr., Cornel West and Donald Trump. Doing my own research on X,” Hudson Companies’ David Kramer (presumably) joked in the CO survey.
While owners remain divided about who they would ultimately support in 2024, most revealed that they were more fretful about the country’s future.
“I think they are unhappy with the state of politics in our country,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents leaders in the city’s business community. “There’s a lot of concern about the future of democracy and the future of capitalism given the excessive influence of political extremes on the right and left. Businesses like stability and bipartisanship, and they are very concerned about extremism.”
There are plenty of reasons for worry.
The country has been losing affordable housing units but developers are not building new stock because the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates 11 consecutive times (and counting) since last spring to curtail inflation. The moves have made borrowing more expensive, felled several regional banks, and could eventually cause a recession.
Inflation has stubbornly remained a part of post-pandemic life, and even crept upward over the summer. Gas prices have been rising, too. So have residential mortgage rates, which are approaching 8 percent, and car insurance rates, which are up 19 percent from a year ago.
The nation’s politics have become bitterly divided and the public’s confidence in the Supreme Court and Congress has dropped to near-record lows. (Note recent failures of the GOP majority in the House to choose and retain a speaker.)
Meanwhile, global affairs are at their most dangerous moment perhaps since the turn of the new century.
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Latin America and Africa have been pouring into New York for more than a year, straining city shelters and prompting the mayor to threaten a 15 percent budget cut and to plead with the Biden administration for federal aid.
But the White House has been more focused on managing two simultaneous conflicts in Ukraine and Israel. President Biden has sought to show support for Israel and to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza after the Israeli military invaded the territory in retaliation for Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack that left 1,400 dead in Israel, including Americans, and resulted in hundreds of hostages. All of that is to say that commercial owners have found it necessary to remain cautious as the world around them has grown more volatile.
“The current administration has done a really good job of stabilizing things both from an economic and political standpoint, domestically and internationally, and I am very afraid of setting us back once again if an isolationist or, even worse, an indicted candidate were to take office,” Sam Charney, founder and principal of Charney Companies, said in the CO survey.
Real estate owners may like the current president, but they aren’t dipping into their bank accounts for him.
Between July and September, Biden hauled in $71 million through his campaign committee, a little less than the $72 million his campaign raised during the second quarter of the year. He holds about $91 million across his accounts.
His top super PAC donors included titans in the tech industry, Hollywood and Wall Street such as Jeffrey Katzenberg, who dumped $889,600, as well as Netflix’s Reed Hastings and producer Seth MacFarlane (think “Family Guy”), who each contributed $100,000, and Open AI’s Sam Altman, who gave $200,000.
Little has come from real estate. Susan Levkoff, a real estate broker, doled out $6,600 to Biden’s campaign this year, the maximum amount for the election cycle. So did Warburg Realty Senior Vice President Bonnie Chajet, Blackstone Real Estate Group Senior Managing Director Wesley LePatner, and real estate developer Daniel Brodsky. These names comprised the industry’s top donors, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
But there will likely be more invitations to come. Biden began ramping up his fundraising efforts this summer. In late September, he packed a Broadway theater in an event hosted by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and actor Ben Platt during which Biden told supporters, “Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy.”
Jordan Barowitz, a consultant with Barowitz Advisory, believes real estate industry leaders will ultimately reward Biden as the election nears, but that’s because many of them are Democrats.
“The industry thinks strategically about state and local elections, but there’s no strategy for presidential races,” he said. “People do what they want to do. It’s the power of incumbency, and there’s no love lost between Trump and developers.”
But Trump has received few large contributions from real estate leaders other than those who have been loyal to him for years. Charles Kushner, his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s father whom Trump pardoned in December 2020, forked over $1 million. (Charles is also the father-in-law of Joseph Meyer, chairman of CO owner Observer Media.) Haim Chera, Vornado’s head of retail, chipped in $50,000.
Smaller Trump donors include Alan Jemal, a partner at Jem Realty Management who gave $1,147 to Trump campaign committees; Compass real estate broker Kelly Robinson, who chipped in $977; and Zamir Equities CEO Asher Roshanzamir, who poured in $597, according to Federal Election Commission fillings.
Trump hasn’t been able to count on Blackstone CEO and Republican donor Steve Schwartzman, who said a year ago he would not invest in Trump’s campaign in favor of a “new generation of leaders.”
That hesitancy among donors has opened the door for GOP challengers. Citadel CEO Ken Griffin switched his support from Trump to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, but recently said he would sit out the primary after questioning DeSantis’s campaign strategy. Related Companies CEO Stephen Ross, who received backlash for holding a fundraiser for Trump in 2019, instead gave $220,000 to a DeSantis PAC.
Several billionaires raised $4.4 million in 48 hours in October for Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to lure him into the primary. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who raised $11 million in the third quarter, has also held a fundraiser with Wall Street executives in February and held a sold-out event in Los Angeles in September.
Other Trump-friendly donors are holding onto their wallets for now.
“Trump seems very strong. Robert Kennedy Jr., is making a lot of friends. Joe Manchin offers a lot of common sense, and may mobilize a third party,” John Catsimatidis, Red Apple Group CEO and grocery magnate, responded. “It is still too early. Many events and issues can change.”
The issue that is mostly likely to move real estate donors off the shelf is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Much of New York’s real estate community backs Israel, and Biden’s steadfast support of the country could consolidate support behind him. Trump initially chided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah “very smart” before later posting “#IStandWithIsrael” on his social network.
“Donors are conscious of where politicians stand, and they’re very conscious about what the future holds,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “Biden understands the real ramifications that this isn’t just about Israel; this is about Iran and the unsettling potential of the world’s economic system.”
Owners are also watching how the Federal Reserve will approach interest rates in the coming months. Some Fed officials have said that rising Treasury yields and other economic reports are positive signs that could cause them to pause rate hikes in the near future. Inflation is at or above 3.5 percent, still higher than the Fed’s 2 percent goal.
Others are anxious about the migrant crisis, for which there are few easy solutions. Jeff Gural, GFP Real Estate chairman and a Biden supporter, called it the city’s most important issue and said the country must figure out how to match migrants with more job opportunities.
“If we continue to see 10,000-plus people sent to New York each month, the consequences will be disastrous,” Gural said in CO’s survey. “The result will be that the city will have to continue to cut services, which in turn hurts the commercial real estate industry and owners.”
Yet, despite the array of crises swirling around the region, Colleen Wenke, president of Taconic Partners, is still bullish about New York’s future.
“I’m a New Yorker,” she said. ”I’ll adapt to whoever wins.”