The Billionaire Mayor’s 1 Percent City

The economic policies of outgoing New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg are a study in how to create racial and economic inequity.

By Imara Jones Sep 09, 2013

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg–the nation’s seventh wealthiest man–waded dramatically into the race to succeed him over the weekend by charging a leading Democratic candidate with waging war on the rich and racial bigotry. Bloomberg’s comments, made just 72 hours before the city’s Tuesday primary, went off a like a bomb in a municipality that’s experiencing levels of income inequality akin to developing countries–amongst a glitz and gold renaissance–and where two out of three residents is non-white.

Exactly what sent the $30 billion mayor off the rhetorical rails?

The person Bloomberg attacked, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is leading the polls for the Democratic nomination. With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by more than six to one, the public advocate is likely to become mayor if he wins the primary.

De Blasio has broken away from his competitors by constantly highlighting his plans to deal with New York’s economic unfairness, using the theme "a tale of two cities" to make his point. During the race, he’s also campaigned extensively with his African American wife Chirlane McCray, alongside their biracial children. De blasio’s 15-year-old son, Dante, was featured in a campaign blitz against the illegal practice of stop-and-frisk, which the mayor has championed. For Bloomberg, all of this was a little too much to take.

In response to a question from New York Magazine about whether de Blasio’s campaign represents "class-warfare," Bloomberg piped in "class-warfare and racist." Pressed to explain himself, Bloomberg said that though de Blasio himself is not racist, his "appeal" is such. Going in on the point, the mayor said that the public advocate was "using his family to gain support" and concluded, "I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s doing."

To many New Yorkers, it seemed that de Blasio was doing what all political candidates do, and what Bloomberg himself did during three races for mayor: surround himself with loved ones at what is an inherently trying time. The current mayor campaigned extensively with his spry, elderly mother in 2001. His daughters have also been frequently by his side. As Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski noted, Bloomberg emphasized his Jewish heritage in order to appeal to that pivotal New York constituency. The mayor’s double standard on this matter is curious.

But what has truly set off the billionaire mayor is de Blasio’s emphasis on the city’s pervasive economic inequality, and that is where Bloomberg belabored his de Blasio comments to New York Magazine.

This "whole campaign that there are two different cities here … I’ve never liked that kind of division," the mayor complained.

Though Bloomberg may not like the idea of economic divisions, the fault lines that have developed under his leadership are real and among the worst on the planet. As The New York Times reported last fall, the top 20 percent of the city’s income earners now make up to 40 times what the bottom 20 percent garner. This is a dubious distinction, according to the Times, "surpassed by a few developing countries, including Namibia and Sierra Leone."

This almost unimaginable split between rich and poor in fact should not come as a surprise. It is the consequence of an economic policy in which the stated goal was to entice the world’s rich to live in New York by transforming the city into a luxury product. Bloomberg sums up his economic vision this way, "If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes in to take care of everybody else."

Bloomberg has achieved at least the first half of his goal. According to the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper, New York is now home to more billionaires than any other city in the world and ranks second only to Tokyo in its number of millionaire residents.

Indeed, rather than a by-product of dramatic economic growth, inequality during the Bloomberg years was the whole point. Bloomberg declared that the "number one way" to help those who are less fortunate is to "attract very fortunate people."

That’s why, under his leadership, 40 percent of the city’s landmass was rezoned and 40,000 new buildings were constructed. Yet all the while, New York faced a net loss of 400,000 rental units during the building boom. 

The president of a leading New York real estate agency told The New York Times that the city can’t keep up with the demand for $50 million apartments even as–for the first time ever this year–the number of people waiting for public housing units exceeds the total number of apartments in the system. A whopping 227,000 New Yorkers are on the waiting list for just 178,000 units of public housing. Not surprisingly homelessness is at historic heights as well. New York has reconstituted itself as a haven for the rich and pushed everyone else to the margins in the process.

As the city has become a place made by and for billionaires, poverty has risen to slightly above where it was when Bloomberg came into office. More than one out of five New Yorkers is poor. And shockingly for a town that has an economic output that exceeds several countries in Western Europe, close to half of New Yorkers are living either at poverty or near poverty–meaning that they work, but barely enough to live.

Given America’s history, economic facts alway have racial dimensions. The poverty rate for Latinos in New York is double that of whites, for blacks its close to 70 percent higher. More than eight out of 10 of those in public housing and on the waiting list for it are people of color.

Rents in Harlem, New York’s storied black neighborhood, are up by more than 50 percent over 10 years. Ft. Greene, once home to Spike Lee and Erykah Badu, has seen its black population fall by double digits, as has the neighboring Central Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill. The childhood apartment of Notorious B.I.G is on the market for $725,000.

The bottom line is that while Bloomberg has been trying "to get all the Russian billionaires to move here" the majority of New Yorkers have suffered. That’s why close to nine out of 10 New York residents told The New York Times in a poll recently that the city has become too expensive for "people like them."

The truth is that neither class-hatred nor racism explain the sour tastes in New Yorkers’ mouths on the eve of this mayoral election. Rather, it’s explained by their fact-based assessment of and real-life experiences with Bloomberg’s economic policies.* 

*Piece has been updated since publication.