This article is published in our Perspectives section. Pete Sikora is the Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director at New York Communities for Change.
Two years ago, New York City passed the world’s first comprehensive law to ratchet down climate-heating pollution from buildings and became the world leader in municipal-level climate action.
Energy use in buildings is the top source of climate pollution from cities—and worldwide, cities generate about 70% of climate-heating pollution. It’s no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on slashing building emissions. New York City’s Local Law 97 is the first law worldwide to set specific, enforceable pollution limits on large buildings, forcing their owners to upgrade to high energy efficiency and in the process creating tens of thousands of jobs. Whether it succeeds will be closely watched by cities around the world.
Talented, experienced administrators appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio are working hard to implement the law. But come January, enforcement and implementation will be handed off to his likely successor, Eric Adams, whose campaign is heavily funded by the city’s real estate industry, which has fought bitterly to kill Local Law 97.
The law’s first limits on pollution from buildings don’t take hold until 2024—potentially enough time for the real estate industry to pressure Mayor Adams into letting building owners off the hook.
Unlike many of his opponents, Adams did not pledge to enforce the new law during his campaign. Indeed, he’s mostly been silent on climate change as an issue facing the city.
If voters of color left out of the city’s growing wealth are the core of Adams’ voting constituency, the real estate industry and Wall Street are the core of his campaign’s financial constituency. The jobs and pollution reductions Local Law 97 generates would benefit Adams’ voters, while his big campaign donors would have to pick up the tab, required to pay for the energy efficiency upgrades to their buildings.
Writ large and with respect to Local Law 97, the question of Adams’ mayoralty will be: which constituency – his big donors or his voters – will he favor when their interests clash?
Adams Voters vs. Adams Donors
Years of diligent attendance to developers and corporate interests helped Adams raise and spend $9.4 million in his campaign, far more than either Kathryn Garcia or Maya Wiley. Super PACs devoted to his candidacy also far outspent those of any other candidate.
The New York Times reported that more than a third of the money he raised from private sources came from individuals associated with the real estate industry. Key high-level Adams staffers and supporters, such as Brooklyn Democratic machine lawyer Frank Carrone, are closely connected to the landlord lobby. And even before his mayoral campaign, Adams received hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate lobbyists and developers actively seeking his support for their projects, THE CITY reported.
There are already worrying signs that Adams will prioritize these benefactors over the interests of the Black and Latino voters at the core of his electoral coalition. His campaign platform includes a section on environmental responsibility, but entirely ignores pollution from buildings, which generates 70% of the city’s climate pollution. In contrast, his opponents’ platforms made clear that they would both enforce Local Law 97 and allocate funding to supportive programs.
It’s unlikely that the platform’s omission of this entire issue area is a coincidence. Unlike other candidates, Adams also refused to sign a “Green New Deal” pledge for climate action that pointedly included implementing Local Law 97.
And Adams has championed key real estate industry priorities, including opposing de Blasio’s rent freezes. (He raised many eyebrows by citing Black landlords as a justification for raising rents, discounting the reality that virtually all owners of rent-regulated buildings are rich and white, while regulated renters are predominantly people of color.)
All this is cause not for despair but for action. Grassroots advocates have a record of winning against real estate on Local Law 97. Now, it’ll take further strong mobilization and political work to ensure the city continues to properly implement and enforce it.
A Record of Success
In 2009 and 2010, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and its allies stopped then-Mayor Bloomberg from passing a similar law.
A decade later, the real estate industry faced more than just a mayor; a movement was pressing hard for action. Allied with Councilmember Costa Constantinides, Council Speaker Johnson, and ultimately Mayor de Blasio, a fierce grassroots campaign secured the law’s enactment.
Sometimes laws pass but then are not implemented by the executive, becoming merely formal requirements that are widely ignored in practice. Cynics predicted this fate for Local Law 97.
Indeed, as COVID hit, the industry’s lobbyists argued that the law should be delayed because of ventilation requirements to reduce infections. The de Blasio administration immediately rejected the argument.
Lobbyists tried again this past January, this time on the state level. At REBNY and big developers’ behest, Governor Andrew Cuomo included language in his proposed budget that would have overridden and gutted the law. Again, the de Blasio administration and grassroots activists held off the attack. Pushed by a strong advocacy campaign, the legislature refused to incorporate the proposal in the final budget.
Under Mayor de Blasio, the city is now implementing Local Law 97. His administration has created a new office led by competent administrators charged with implementing the law, and is launching a large educational program to help ensure building owners understand the law’s requirements.
The city’s administrators have made it clear to the real estate industry that they will assess the fines and penalties specified under the law on buildings that fail to limit their pollution, starting in 2024. As a result, Local Law 97 is now on track to create tens of thousands of jobs in design, renovation and construction while slashing the city’s top source of air pollution by over 40% by 2030 and over 80% by 2050.
It’s all made the real estate lobby very unhappy.
But there are three years before the law’s first requirements take hold—enough time for a new mayor to signal that he might look the other way. Adams could seek to amend the law through new Council legislation, or work with Cuomo and REBNY to override it at the state level, or fail to seriously enforce it. Wrist slaps instead of real financial penalties would make the law toothless.
Adams’ ties to real estate don’t make it a done deal that he’ll do their bidding on Local Law 97. Bill de Blasio, too, has close connections and financial ties to the industry—Frank Carrone, the super-connected Brooklyn Democratic machine lawyer who also works for developers, is a consigliere to him as well—and yet, for all the promises to progressives he broke, de Blasio shone on climate.
Our next mayor could and should continue that path. He could preserve the tens of thousands of jobs and world-leading emissions reductions that Local Law 97 will secure, and then go further by slashing the city’s carbon footprint in other sectors as well.
Eric Adams will make the choice. It’s up to us to create the political pressure to push him to make the right one.