By Rand Richards Cooper ’80
On an island where apartments sell for $90 million, what’s the 99 percent to do? Alicia Glen ’88 is leading New York City’s ambitious plan to make housing more affordable.
To those Americans who live elsewhere, New York City real estate is surreal, its funhouse-mirror numbers difficult to comprehend. In Manhattan the average apartment sale price currently checks in at $1.8 million, and on the Upper East Side it’s $6.23 million; one penthouse in a new Midtown glass tower recently sold for $90 million. As for renters—and New York is a city of renters—a two-bedroom in Manhattan runs, on average, $5,900 per month, and in Brooklyn $3,345. The median annual family income of New Yorkers who rent, meanwhile, is $40,000. Such figures raise an obvious question: How can any normal person afford to live in New York?
Increasingly, they can’t. Stoked with mad money, the city’s housing market today is a machine that takes in the ultra-wealthy at one end and disgorges the modestly paid at the other. The New York Times regularly reports the poignant tales of working people who can no longer pay for a roof over their heads: The custodian living in an illegally subdivided basement. The warehouse worker who camps out in his van. The grandparents who move into their son’s garage. And on and on. Federal subsidies for public housing have shrunk, and citywide a quarter-million households sit on the waiting list. Residents lucky enough to be in rent-stabilized housing live beneath a sword of Damocles, as landlords pursue ways to yank rents up to market level. Currently 58,000 New Yorkers—almost half of them children—live in shelters.
“If you want to make change at scale, you’d better be where the action is,” says Glen, pictured in New York’s City Hall. The constant goal, she says, is making cities better and fairer places to live.
The 2013 election of Mayor Bill de Blasio promised change. Calling inequality “the issue of our time,” de Blasio vowed at his inauguration to end “economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.” Affordable housing topped his list of priorities.
When it came to appointing a deputy mayor to spearhead his housing campaign, de Blasio raised eyebrows among progressives by tapping Alicia Glen ’88, an executive at Goldman Sachs and head of the firm’s Urban Investment Group. Skeptics noted the irony in recruiting a tribune for social justice from Goldman—to many observers the avatar of Wall Street greed, “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” as journalist Matt Taibbi memorably wrote in a 2009 Rolling Stone article. But de Blasio was undeterred. “I don’t care about any stereotypes or assumptions,” he said at the press conference announcing Glen’s appointment. “I care about who shares my values and can get the job done.” Praising Glen for her “fresh ideas and bold outlook,” he called her “a strong and forceful champion for fighting inequality” who would give New Yorkers “a better shot at working their way into the middle class.”
When Glen took the microphone, she quickly displayed her liberal bona fides by defending the mayor’s proposed tax on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten, noting that such a tax would cost a typical colleague of hers at Goldman about $3.50 per day—“a latte,” she pointed out. Aligning herself with de Blasio’s progressive social vision, she urged New Yorkers to reject the inequality that has become routine over recent decades in the city.
“The tale of two cities,” she said, “is not OK.”
I WENT to Manhattan on a sunny day in November to meet Alicia Glen and learn about her life as deputy mayor, and in particular her work on affordable housing. City Hall is undergoing major renovation, and the building was scaffolded and draped with diaphanous canopies. Only the topmost section was complete, revealing the cupola and its statue of Lady Justice holding a balance with scales.
It was Veteran’s Day, but Glen was working and led me through empty, majestic halls. Her office is small and unostentatious, but comfortable—a good thing, since in the weeks following her appointment, she told me, she pretty much lived there. The mayor had promised a housing plan, after all, and Glen was its chief architect. “We got it done in a hundred days!” she enthused. “I didn’t leave this building! Slept here every night!”
Affordable housing is just one of the duties in Glen’s portfolio, but it’s the one that takes up most of her time. She laid out the elements of the city’s housing crisis. More than half of all New Yorkers are “rent-burdened,” she told me, spending more than half their income on housing. And 20 percent live at or below the federal poverty line. “That’s $22K a year, for a family of four. Can you imagine one out of every five families in the city living on that? We have over 50,000 people living in shelters! That’s totally unacceptable!”
And it isn’t just the poor who can’t afford New York. Glen cites the plight of young people—“come-to-New-York-and-build-your-dream creative types,” she calls them—who are being priced out. “We’re also really worried about essential workers: teachers, cops, people who keep the trains running on time.”
“OUR GOAL is to make sure we get the right amount of public benefit when the city is creating economic opportunities for developers. So if we’re giving you more air rights, we want a piece of the action.”
One basic problem is a chronic lack of new housing overall. The average number of housing starts citywide in the past decade has been 20,000 per year, the great majority of them priced well above the affordable level. Boosting housing production is one foundation of the plan Glen designed for de Blasio. It calls for spending $8.2 billion in city money over 10 years, and leveraging that with state, federal and private funding for a grand total of $40 billion. The goal, which The New York Times deemed “lofty,” is to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.
De Blasio announced the plan in May, at the construction site of a Brooklyn building where half of the residences will be affordable. (Affordable housing in New York is pegged to the median household income for a given area; families with up to 165 percent of that figure are eligible, and their rent will be limited to 30 percent or less of their income.) The Brooklyn site was chosen to highlight a linchpin of Glen’s strategy—namely, using zoning laws to require developers to include affordable units within new market-rate projects.
This so-called inclusionary zoning, voluntary in the past, will be mandatory from now on, a step that makes some developers nervous. Writing in Real Estate Weekly, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, Steven Spinola, worried that the mandatory policy could stifle development, warning that “it is unreasonable to assume builders will continue to build regardless of growing costs and difficulties.”
Glen nodded when I raised Spinola’s concerns. “Look, I know that people don’t have to build buildings. They can buy widgets; they can trade hedge funds. So we have to be sure, when we’re negotiating with the private sector, that we don’t go too far. We don’t want to stop the market dead in its tracks.” The requirement for set-asides, she says, will be applied flexibly, with the percentage of mandated affordable units varying according to the nature of the building and its neighborhood. But she insists on the basic premise. “Our goal is to make sure we get the right amount of public benefit when the city is creating economic opportunity for developers. So if we’re giving you more air rights, and you can build more, we want a piece of the action; if we’re giving you huge tax incentives, we want more.”
To illustrate the de Blasio plan in action, she singled out a project called Astoria Cove, on the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, whose developer bought a manufacturing site and wanted to rezone it for residential. “This was really our first large-scale opportunity to say, ‘You know what? If we do that for you, you need to give us a significant amount of affordable housing.’” The project will include more than 1,700 units, with 27 percent of them priced as affordable. “And we’re letting them know we want those units to remain affordable in perpetuity—because, by the way, the stuff you’re building, you’re getting in perpetuity.” Glen calls the project “a huge victory for our agenda.”
Housing supply is just one aspect of the affordable-housing crisis. As Rosanne Haggerty ’82, president of Community Solutions, a New York-based organization working to end homelessness, had explained to me, city housing policies can distort costs and create perverse incentives. For example, the city spends what Haggerty calls “a fortune” paying for court-mandated emergency housing for homeless families: “That prompts exploitative landlords to hold affordable housing off the market and rent it to the city for temporary use by homeless families, at a multiple of the typical rent—which skews rents further, and pushes more families toward homelessness.”
In the city’s many gentrifying neighborhoods, meanwhile, pressure to bring stabilized rents up to market rates is intense. As a result of such realities, the pool of affordable housing has actually shrunk in recent years, with units being lost faster than they’re being created.
It’s crucial to stanch this bleeding, Glen told me, on two counts: “It’s a lot cheaper to maintain units than to build them. And there are human beings here, right? Letting these units go is bad economic policy and terrible social policy.” And so the second key prop of the Glen/de Blasio plan is to ensure that affordable units stay affordable. Glen has publicly vowed to work aggressively with landlords, using both carrots and sticks. The carrots are mostly tax incentives.
And the sticks? I asked. Glen laughed. The city has ways to gain leverage over bad landlords, she said—watching for code violations, instituting tax liens. “The stick is: We’re gonna come and get you if you treat your tenants like crap!”
THIS KIND of blunt honesty, graced with a smile, is Glen’s default mode. When I asked her what it was like to be at Goldman after the Wall Street disaster, she didn’t hesitate: “It sucked,” she said. “It was terrible. The public couldn’t see the difference between the bad actors in finance and the vast majority who are honest and hardworking.” Smart and confident, she balances no-nonsense assertiveness with a sense of humor readily turned to self-deprecation. Confessing that the actor Mark Ruffalo had called to lobby her on a film tax-credit issue (she is also deputy mayor for media and entertainment), she affected a mock swoon. “I almost had a heart attack! He is every middle-aged woman’s dream—he is so hot!” She loves joking about being the mayor’s liaison to the fashion industry, a duty that occasionally puts her in the company of models. “I’m, like, three of them mushed together.”
When it comes to the tougher parts of her job, Glen exudes a distinct esprit de combat. It traces to lessons learned at Amherst, where she majored in political science. “Alicia enlivened the classroom,” remembers her thesis adviser, Austin Sarat. “She was quite fearless, always willing to probe and push and question. And she brought a terrific sense of humor to many conversations.” For her part, Glen recalls the classes she took with the noted conservative Hadley Arkes. “Even though I fundamentally disagreed with Arkes’ politics, taking his classes taught me things I still think of today. Like: Don’t be scared of your enemy; just get in there with them.” In a similar vein, she recalls how vigorously Sarat challenged her to do better. “He pushed me so hard, I was like, I hate you. But it’s good for you, being pushed. It makes you better, if you want to be an advocate or be in the mix.”
Being in the mix is an apt way to describe what Glen has done with her career since Amherst. Both law and public service run in her bloodstream. Her mother, Kristin Booth Glen, is a former New York State Supreme Court judge, and her father, Jeffrey Glen ’62, has spent most of his career doing public law. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Alicia Glen worked for Brooklyn Legal Services, providing free legal counsel to low-income New Yorkers. She joined the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development during the Giuliani administration. From there it was on to Goldman to run the Urban Investment Group, where her efforts eventually caught de Blasio’s attention.
The Urban Investment Group harnesses private capital to solve public problems, financing projects most investors are reluctant to risk. Under Glen’s direction, the group helped start the Citi Bike program and financed one of the city’s first “50/30/20” residential buildings—50 percent market-rate rentals, 30 percent middle-income, 20 percent low-income. It funded the $43 million redevelopment of a historic movie palace in Brooklyn into a charter school and retail complex. Glen experimented with novel mechanisms, pioneering so-called “social-impact bonds,” whose returns are tied to policy outcomes. One such project was a $9.6 million loan for a program to decrease recidivism among inmates released from Rikers Island; Goldman’s returns were pegged to benchmarked reductions in recidivism. A similar scheme generated $4.6 million in “early-education social-impact bonds” to help fund preschool. All in all, in her dozen years running the group, Glen oversaw public-private partnerships that invested more than $5 billion.
WHEN I asked her to name the worst thing that’s been said about her publicly, she ran through a list of crude sexist slanders, only to single out the sting of being called “amateurish” in New York Magazine.
Some on the left view her—and her corporate background—with mistrust. Max Rivlin-Nadler, a blogger for the website Gothamist, complained about her appointment as deputy mayor, asking rhetorically, “[D]id people voting for de Blasio back in November really think this is what they were going to get?” Writing in The Nation, Jarrett Murphy commented, “The question that even some de Blasio fans raise is, at what point do you surround yourself with so many insiders that truly substantial change becomes impossible”?
Glen shrugs off these doubters. She believes deeply in using the power of markets to address social problems, and she’s unabashed about her insider status: “If you want to make change at scale, you’d better be where the action is.” The constant goal, she says, is making cities better and fairer places to live. “You can do that if you’re an advocate, or in government, or on Wall Street. You can do that from any number of seats at the table.”
She has held several of them. Glen says her work as a legal-aid lawyer shaped her understanding of New York. “I also think it gives me credibility now, with the advocates,” she told me. “I’m not just some evil Wall Street monster. I was an advocate.” Conversely, having Goldman on her résumé gives her credibility with developers and investors, especially as a woman. “Do you know what characteristic almost all developers share in common?” she asked me. “They’re all men! Ninety-five percent of them. Now, do you think a man sitting across the table from a woman who ran a business at Goldman Sachs has a little more respect than he might for a woman who worked her way up through government?” That respect, Glen says, helps level a playing field tilted against women. “It’s like, if I can be on the bank-management committee at Goldman, I can probably follow what you’re saying to me. So don’t patronize me!”
“You always know where you stand with Alicia,” says Haggerty, of Community Solutions, who has worked with Glen on several projects. “She is smart and clear and in a hurry to get things done. These are exactly the qualities needed to drive the city’s housing plan.”
In the $1.5 billion planned redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar plant, Glen got the developer to increase the number of affordable housing units and commit to keeping those units affordable in perpetuity. Rendering by Shop Architects.
She can also play hardball. Last March, the Times reported that the city had reached an agreement with the developer of a $1.5 billion redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar plant. When Glen insisted the number of proposed affordable set-asides—660 units out of 2,300—was too small, the developer threatened to drop the project. What followed was a high-stakes game of chicken in which Glen prevailed, succeeding in getting the developer to up the figure to 700, boost the proportion of larger units for families and commit to keeping the units affordable in perpetuity.
Her career has kept Glen up on a tightrope between the public and private sectors. “The biggest joke is that when I was at Goldman Sachs, the leadership there would always say, ‘OK, so what does the Communist Department think about this?’ And now at City Hall I come in every morning and it’s like, ‘What does the Capitalist Department think of this?’” Asked how developers and investors have responded to her, she reflected for a moment. “You know, generally developers don’t love being told they have to do things. I think they perceive me as someone who will push pretty hard. And I think most would say, ‘She’s pretty smart, and she understands what the issues are.’”
It is a revealing comment for Glen, an executive who values intelligence and competence very highly—so highly, in fact, that when I asked her to name the worst thing that’s been said about her publicly, she ran through a list of crude sexist slanders, only to single out the sting of having been called “amateurish” in a New York Magazine article. “These developers basically said I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was completely out of my league. It was a very, very big article.” She winced, recalling it. “Look, I’ve been called all sorts of things: I’m difficult, I’m a maverick, I look fat in a picture, I’m too pretty, I’m not pretty enough, I must have ‘known’ someone very well to get this job, if you know what I mean. ... But that article in New York Magazine really upset me.”
The comment startled me. Was she really saying that being called an amateur bothered her more than being accused of sleeping with someone to get her job?
“Yes!” she said. “Look, you can substantively disagree with what we’re doing, but don’t call us amateurs!” She shook her head, then returned, with a laugh, to the cruder accusation. “Somebody told me, You should be happy they even think that about you at your age! I mean, I’m 48.”
AS DEPUTY mayor, Glen has a jam-packed calendar. One night she’ll be offering somber remarks at the closing of the City Opera, another night hobnobbing with celebrities at the Made in New York Awards, a few days later discussing innovation at a Future of New York City conference. “I don’t sleep a lot,” she confessed. She recalled the previous winter, when she was being vetted for her job while tying things up at Goldman. “Meanwhile my daughter was applying to college, and I was cooking Christmas dinner for 20 people. I was running around like a lunatic.”
Glen lives on West End Avenue with her husband, attorney Daniel Rayner, and two daughters, one a ninth-grader, the other a college freshman. She describes her parenting philosophy as “less is more.” There’s way too much parental involvement in the culture these days, she insists. “My kids are pretty awesome, and they’re awesome because I didn’t spend that much time with them.”
Glen likes to cook and to eat out (her favorite big-night-out restaurant is The NoMad.) She’s an experienced hiker and an “obsessive” skier. Her bucket-list dream is to go helicopter skiing in the Canadian Bugaboos. “I’m a maniac about skiing. When I took this job I said to the mayor, ‘I know I’ll work harder than I ever have, so I’m gonna go skiing whenever I need to!’ He’s like, ‘You’re so bougie-bougie,’ and I said, ‘OK, so I’m bougie-bougie. But I’m going skiing!’”
A lifelong New Yorker, she lives just a few blocks from where she grew up, and she makes it clear that she’d never live in any other city. “If you’re interested in food, culture, big ideas—if you want to spend your day taking on social problems, then go to the coolest piece of performance art you ever saw in your life, and then take a walk along the river—where else are you going to live?” But she worries that if the city becomes inhospitable to all but the wealthy, it will lose the very diversity that made it what it is in the first place. “How can you be a great global city,” she asked me, “if one out of five residents is living in poverty?”
Glen’s chief of staff, James Patchett ’02, leaned in to tell us our time was up. As a final question, I asked Glen to envision herself in 20 years, retired, telling her grandchildren about the long-ago de Blasio administration. What would she want to be able to say about her role in it?
Glen squirmed, and I could tell that the prospect of being retired—being out of the mix—made her shudder inwardly. But she quickly put her thoughts together: “We’re at a game-changing moment right now. I think we’re going to lay the foundation for the balance of the 21st century by creating a whole new generation of housing, a whole new generation of kids who will be better educated, and a tech ecosystem that will help New York City continue to be the most competitive commercial center on the globe.”
She fell silent for a moment, as if gauging how to speak more personally. “I would like to say that we actually, in a measurable way, made a big difference in how this city functions.”
Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is a fiction writer and essayist.
Photograph of Glen by Joshua Paul.