Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods, Politics

Councilwoman Arroyo’s Property Boom

by Donal Griffin

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Photo by: William Alatriste

The city councilwoman representing Hunts Point in the Bronx faced no challengers in the September Democratic primary election. Nor is she likely to greet much opposition in the city council election itself. But that has not stopped District 17’s incumbent Maria del Carmen Arroyo from raising an impressive $240,000 in campaign donations, much of which has come from property developers building in her area.

Collecting such a campaign war chest – in this case the second most bountiful in the Bronx – is not unprecedented in New York City politics. This year, campaign contribution records show that council candidates citywide raised more than $23 million total for primary races that drew tiny turnouts. Less than 8 percent of active Democrats voted in Arroyo’s neighboring District 16, for example.

But it is worth noting that much of Arroyo’s contributions comes from developers who happen to have benefited from her council votes.

In Arroyo’s case, three property companies contributed almost $40,000 to her campaign, which accounts for about one-fifth of the $200,000 that she has received altogether from private donors. Developers tend to be the “prime source” of finance for a local politician such as Arroyo, but “they’re not in the business of charity,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Almost $20,000 came in March 2008 from officials and employees linked to Jackson Development, a company based in Queens that claims to be involved with thousands of mid to low-income developments around the city. The company president, Neil Weissman, contributed $2,750 to Arroyo, as did five other senior Jackson staffers.

Seventeen Jackson employees also donated a combined $3,400 to Arroyo’s campaign. “This is very unusual,” said Krumholz, whose agency tracks election donations. “The average American gives no money to politics. If we’re talking about people in non-executive positions, then that bears more scrutiny.” Repeated calls and emails to Neil Weissman went unreturned.

The Jackson Development donations were registered with the Campaign Finance Board in March 2008. In the same month, a company connected to Jackson Development submitted an application to change the zoning of a Mott Haven site from manufacturing to residential. The Council’s Land Use Committee – which included Arroyo – voted in favor of the rezoning and the site is now being built as St. Ann’s Terrace, a 600-unit development for low and mixed-income families.

Jackson Development, meanwhile, subcontracted some of the work with another company called Joy Development, which also donated $8,500 to Arroyo’s campaign last year.

Arroyo helped to launch the widely hailed construction of St. Ann’s Terrace in August. The project that helps fill a vital need in the South Bronx for decent, affordable housing will reserve three of its eight buildings for low and mixed-income families. She was not the only elected official in the South Bronx to back the development. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. also backed the project as did the local Community Board 1 and the Council’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

It will also be heavily financed by almost $80 million in loans from the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) under the Bloomberg administration’s New Housing Marketplace plan. This aims to encourage private developers to build affordable housing in New York by offering them cheap mortgages. This could become a huge growth area for developers during the current recession. Bloomberg’s office wishes to build or preserve 165,000 homes for “working-class New Yorkers” by 2014, according to the HDC.

These developments live or die according to their political support, however.

Arroyo also received a combined $8,500 last year from four individuals connected to Great American Construction, another developer in the affordable housing market. It is behind the proposed Longwood Gardens on East 161st near Hunts Point, a development which will be built on former city property which the council voted to sell in 2007. Arroyo voted in favor of the sale and also agreed to grant the property a tax exempt status under the Urban Development Action Area Plan, which specifically encourages the private development of old city-owned sites.

Big contributions don’t automatically translate into votes. “It doesn’t mean she’s serving the interests of the developers,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of Fordham University’s graduate program in elections and campaign management. “The academic research in the area suggests that the link between donations and votes is weak. There isn’t necessarily a quid pro quo going on. It is possible that they gave her money because she was going to support them in the first place.”

“If a member feels they can still be fair then they can justify it,” said Costas.

But donations to Arroyo are significant for another reason. Her previous campaign treasurer and nephew, Richard Arroyo, left his position earlier this year due to “time constraints,” according to Arroyo. The U.S. District Attorney’s office then charged him in July with fraud and embezzling over $200,000 in Federal funds. Richard Arroyo has pled not guilty, and a pre-trial hearing is scheduled in Manhattan Federal Court for Nov. 18.

Carmen Arroyo said she does not know who contributes to her campaign, in order to avoid a conflict of interest when a vote comes before the council. “It is something that I do deliberately,” she said, “and whether information comes to me or not does not influence my decision on any vote that may be before the Council. Anyone that contributes to my campaign with the expectation that that would happen is sadly mistaken.”

Photo by: William Alatriste

2 Responses to “Councilwoman Arroyo’s Property Boom”

  1. avatar Carmen W. says:

    This is very interesting, Donal.

  2. avatar Dubary B says:

    I am tired of Ms. Arroyo! I wish somebody knocks her out of office real bad, I am tired of her fishy business.


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