By Sabina Mollot
Waterside Plaza owner and developer Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor of New York and one-time chair of the MTA, recently penned a memoir on his life as a public servant and builder that is also a cautionary tale about fiscal management. Now 80, Ravitch was at the forefront of reviving New York’s financial heartbeat during the 1970s, and tried to do the same for the MTA, almost getting shot in the process. He stood up for the financial well-being of tenants living in the homes he built while facing the realities of what it costs to develop and maintain regulated housing. Ravitch also ran for mayor and has served in numerous government advisory roles.
In April, he released his biography, So Much to Do ($27, Public Affairs), which has already had a second printing in New York. Recently, after returning from a literary tour, Ravitch talked with Town & Village about his book and his experience dealing with the effects of government borrowing while also attempting to fund services vital to New Yorkers…
What made you write your book?
I was asked by the publisher to write a biography after I left Albany. I was encouraged by a number of friends not to write a personal history as much as to write about my feelings on public service. It’s amazing to me that more hasn’t been written about New York City in 1975, the near bankruptcy of the city. I’ve never done it before (written a book) and I’m not going to do it again.
Do you think that would happen now or is there too much partisanship to resolve a financial crisis in the city today?
Back in the 1970s, you would get the government to work across party lines much more than they do today. I think it is tougher (now) but a major, major crisis tends to produce better results than a non-serious crisis. Is that what it takes? People have been talking about Detroit for 60 years, but it was only when they were on the brink of bankruptcy, that rich people started writing checks and everyone agreed to take something less than what they were entitled to. That’s the problem. If we wait for a total crisis, it’s much harder. I think in government, there’s too much borrowed money that’s being used to balance the budget.
How would you compare the politics of today to the politics of the 70s?
I think the press was a lot more vigilant in those days, which is good for democracy. The collapse of the print media had a very negative impact on politics. (As a public figure) I got more press coverage (on Waterside when it left Mitchell-Lama in 2001) than I wished I had. (In June, Ravitch made a donation to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for the creation of a one-week fellowship program. The program trains reporters on fiscal issues so they can keep a more watchful and understanding eye on budgets and government spending.)
What got you into public service?
I always had an interest. I grew up in a family that loved Roosevelt and had an interest in public service. (I also knew) that I wanted to make some money and bring up a family. I loved (business) and being involved in building thousands of affordable apartments in New York and Puerto Rico. It satisfied my need to do totally useful things. I consider myself to be very lucky. I have 13 grandchildren and money to be comfortable and help them.
Do you prefer public service or business?
I prefer public service. I feel like being in business made public service easier. I could tell politicians where to go in public service. Even when I ran a lousy campaign for mayor in 1989, I never found it a (negative) experience.
Would you run for office or serve again if asked? I’m 80 years old. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be asked to (be in office) and I won’t volunteer. Any regrets from your time as lieutenant governor under David Paterson? None at all.
What is your opinion of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan?
I don’t know how he intends to execute it, where he’s going to get the resources. I hope he knows. It’s commendable. What would encourage more building of affordable housing as opposed to just glass luxury condos? Financial incentives. They exist, but they don’t exist as much as they used to. A lot of the (incentives) were limited in a 1986 tax reform bill in Washington. Only public subsidies can bring (new development) to affordable levels (with current mortgage costs.) Real estate tax exemptions or Section 8 vouchers or the equivalent. (Currently) they’re not enough. Subsidies limit the profit of real estate developer as they should, but the subsidies should go over and above the tax benefits and they’re in short supply right now.
And you don’t think that will change any time soon?
No I do not.
At Waterside, when the settling tenants (those living there before the Mitchell-Lama program expired) wanted to renegotiate their yearly rent increase, you negotiated. Do you think other owners err by not wanting to work with tenants and having matters end up in litigation?
(Tenants’ increases went down from 7.5 percent to 4.25 percent. The Waterside Tenants Association had retained counsel after management initially declined to budge on a recession-era rollback, but ended up negotiating with management out of court.)
You have to understand. Waterside is not just a business for me. It has been a part of my life for 50 years. I care a lot about the tenants. I didn’t think their request was totally unreasonable, when you consider the circumstances with so many elderly people on fixed incomes. In my case, compromise with the tenants, even though they had no legal right to challenge the percent they paid under the agreement we signed in 2001, was the right thing to do. You were there at the 40th anniversary. We had a happy group of tenants. So the answer is I can’t speak to what other landlords do. I can only speak for myself.
How much of a percentage of tenants are at Waterside are settling tenants?
Settling tenants make up 30 percent of the population.
Do you have an opinion on the ongoing discussions between the city and CWCapital to maintain some affordability at Stuyvesant Town?
I don’t know the details, so I shouldn’t comment.
Do you feel like you accomplished more when you worked behind the scenes as an advisor or when you held official titles?
I accomplished more when I ran the MTA and the UDC (New Your State Urban Development Corporation) than I did (behind the scenes), because I had a specific public responsibility. That was much more demanding of me and much more satisfying.
Is there anything else you want to say about your book or fiscal crises in general?
I think the main message in the book is the quote from Plato. “If you’re not prepared to engage in politics, be prepared to be governed by inferior people.” That’s the most important thing.