As Bloomberg’s New York Prospered, Inequality Flourished Too

Michael Bloomberg has a dramatic story to tell of New York City’s transformation should he decide to enter the presidential race. The city was in recession and reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when Mr. Bloomberg became mayor in 2002. By the time he left three terms later, vast stretches of New York had been redeveloped, with new parks, office towers, stadiums, employers and taxpaying residents where there were once blighted properties and industrial land.

That story of New York’s success under Mr. Bloomberg, however, is also for many critics a story about inequality. If the mayor wants to emphasize the first theme in a bid for president, the second one will invariably chase after him.

And in an election in which the candidates are already focused heavily on inequality — between prosperous coastal cities and Middle America, between billionaires and working-class residents, between luxury high-rises and the homeless — Mr. Bloomberg, himself a billionaire, appears headed for criticism on several fronts.

The city he turned over to Bill de Blasio in 2014 was increasingly caricatured as a playground for the rich. Slender new skyscrapers on Billionaire’s Row had begun to cast shadows on Central Park. Neighborhoods that had seen little investment in years were bracing for gentrification. Income inequality ranked among the widest of major cities in America, and by the 2013 election to replace Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign was squarely focused on it.

All of that was somewhat miraculous given the situation when Mr. Bloomberg took office.

“After the attack, people thought New York had no future,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at N.Y.U. “There was a genuine sense that, ‘Who would want to live in New York, who would want to work in New York, who would want to visit New York?’”

In the years that followed, Mr. Bloomberg introduced an ambitious plan to preserve or build 165,000 units of affordable housing, and he oversaw the most extensive rezoning in modern city history. His administration rezoned about 40 percent of the city, paving the way for increased density and development in old industrial waterfront neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

“There’s this sense that the Bloomberg administration was about mega projects,” said Rafael Cestero, who led the Department of Housing Preservation and Development during part of the Bloomberg years. Mr. Cestero countered that many of those units of affordable housing were less visible but formed a more fundamental legacy. “We talk in these vagueries of units and developments and dollars and money. And the reality is that 500,000 people in our city are living more affordably because of the work that Mayor Bloomberg did over 12 years.”

As those homes were built or saved, the cost of housing in the city kept climbing. Median rents rose in New York by 19 percent, in real dollars, between 2002 and 2011, as the real median income of renter households declined slightly, according to a report by the Furman Center at N.Y.U. The number of residents in homeless shelters grew to 50,000 a night from less than 30,000.

New York’s growth and prosperity — seen at Atlantic Yards-Barclays Center; in Greenpoint; in Long Island City — appeared inseparable from the rising affordability crisis.

“It also sparked waves of gentrification and waves of displacement and the remaking of many different neighborhoods,” said Emily Goldstein, director of organizing and advocacy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.

The era bred “a particular type of antagonism,” she said, between communities who felt ignored and a mayor they believed sided more often with developers.

Housing advocates also argued that while Mr. Bloomberg was attuned to the concerns of middle-class residents in an increasingly expensive city, he appeared less sympathetic to the homeless and the poor. In 2011, the City Council sued the administration over tighter requirements for who could qualify for city homeless shelters.

“In a time of prosperity, he took aggressive steps from a policy perspective to hurt the homeless,” said Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker at the time and now the president of Women in Need, the largest provider of shelter and homeless services for women and children in the city. “I never understood that.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s record administering New York’s dilapidated public housing system, the largest in the nation, got relatively little scrutiny as the city flourished. But living conditions for the system’s 400,000 low-income residents deteriorated under his watch, contributing to the need today for more than $32 billion to replace broken elevators, antiquated boilers and leaky roofs, following years of federal disinvestment.

Mr. Bloomberg dedicated barely any city funding to the public housing agency, compared with the current mayor, and the backlog of requests that tenants submitted for apartment repairs ballooned to record highs, as residents dealt with leaks and hazardous mold.

The city also stopped checking for lead paint in public housing apartments during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure, a decision that endangered the health of tens of thousands of young children. The inspection failures surfaced years later, once Mr. Bloomberg had left office, ultimately prompting a federal investigation that led to the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee the city’s housing authority in 2019. Mr. Bloomberg hasn’t been pressed on his role in the crisis, but a presidential campaign would probably change that.

In other arenas, the mayor’s supporters say he made changes to the city that improved the quality of life for everyone, including poorer residents: He made the streets safer, invested in parks, tried to improve the public schools and banned smoking in restaurants and bars.

“It’s a mixed picture,” said Nancy Rankin, the vice president for policy, research and advocacy with the Community Service Society, an anti-poverty organization. But she remembers in particular Mr. Bloomberg’s opposition to a paid sick leave law, which the New York City Council ultimately passed, overriding his veto, in 2013.

“That’s the kind of thing that shows concern for business over looking at the reality of what the day-to-day struggles of low-income New Yorkers are like,” she said.

Such decisions would get renewed scrutiny in a presidential campaign. The larger questions about inequality that Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure raises will be harder to arbitrate: Is it even possible to have urban prosperity without an affordability crisis, to have vast new development without displacement? How much can a mayor do to stand between the two, when many of the forces that shaped New York originated in Washington, or in the global economy?

Some of the criticism of New York’s inequality that Mr. Bloomberg may face will be unfair. Big cities like New York are inherently more unequal than many smaller towns or suburbs, because their expansive economies and more robust social services make them home to both rich executives and poor families (some of the most equal places in the country, on the other hand, are exclusionary suburbs where everyone is rich, or struggling towns where many are poor).

But it seems fair to ask whether that inequality is growing worse, as some measures in New York suggest it has, and whether that has to be the case.