Inez Dickens, Harlem Princess: The Rot Runs Deep

Councilmember Inez Dickens of CD 9 is the heir to a real estate and political realm that traces itself in one generational step to the roots of black Harlem.  Her father, real estate millionaire and 3-term assemblyman Lloyd E. Dickens, began buying and selling property in upper Manhattan, by some accounts as early as the 1920s, when blacks began moving in great numbers to the area.  Inez Dickens, born when her father was already a wealthy and well-established senior political figure, grew up steeped in slumlordism and a culture of political cronyism which, should she attain the Speakership, would likely mire the Council in a stew of corruption that would make the last 8 years seem tame.

Reports of CM Dickens’ own poor record as a landlord are old news, and appear to run in the family: in 1964 her father sued Charles Rangel (among others) for libel for calling him a “notorious slumlord.”  Currently, buildings owned by the councilmember and her sister have multiple open violations, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of outstanding fines and taxes levied against them.  And just a cursory review of CM Dickens’ political associations and campaign contributors should embarrass any members of the Council from considering seriously her candidacy for Speaker, not to mention the voters of the 9th CD from voting for her in the first place.  

For example, in the early 1990s, Lloyd Williams, a political and business associate of Inez Dickens and her father dating back at least to the 1970s, and head of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and its development arm the Greater Harlem Housing Development Corporation, presided over a disastrous sweetheart real-estate deal with the City that wound up costing the taxpayers almost $4 million.  Then, in 1998, Williams, head of the publicly-funded Harlem Interfaith Counseling Service, was shown by state auditors to be using government funds to rent space at twice the market rate from buildings that he himself had an ownership interest in.   

A decade later, Inez Dickens tied her approval of the massive rezoning of 125th Street to the city’s agreement to restructure longstanding debt held by the GHHDC into a $2.5 million “forgivable loan.”  Dickens also retained her own seat on the board of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce after her 2005 election to the Council, even though she had previously brokered real estate deals sponsored by the GHCC for her own profit.

Lloyd Williams has personally contributed $6,000 to Inez Dickens’ campaigns for office, and “bundled” an additional $1,500 for her.  An important advisor and fundraiser for Dickens, Lloyd Williams will be a baleful and malign influence on her Speakership, should she get it.

In addition to voting for the development-friendly river-to-river 125th Street rezoning, CM Dickens also supported Columbia University’s controversial Manhattanville expansion.  The 2007 vote, contingent upon a much-ballyhooed community benefits agreement, allowed Columbia to exercise eminent domain over a number of coveted properties that were in the way of its plans.  After making its way through the courts, the vote was ultimately upheld, and Columbia got its way.

So did Full Spectrum NY, a Harlem construction company awarded the contract in the first step of the Manhattanville expansion: the renovation of the Studebaker Building, which became administrative office space for Columbia.  Full Spectrum is run by Walter J. Edwards, who also serves as Chairman of the Harlem Business Alliance.  Walter Edwards funneled $1428.89 to CM Dickens’ 2013 campaign through the Success PAC, which is registered in his name, and which he alone appears to fund.

Mr. Edwards is not normally shy about making campaign contributions, having put close to $30,000 to work for favored candidates over the years, including Inez Dickens in 2005 and 2009.  But since the Harlem Business Alliance has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City Council in recent years, much of it steered by CM Dickens, who was even credited for helping to organize a $700,000 federal grant to the group, perhaps Walter J. Edwards sees reticence regarding his help for his favorite Councilwoman as the better part of valor.

There are more such stories, many more.  Executives of Petra Capital Management gave the Dickens campaign $6,000 this year.  Andy Stone, chairman of Petra, a “vulture investor” whom Crain’s calls “one of the godfathers of the commercial mortgage-backed securities market,” suffered massive failures in 2010 when his funds went bankrupt.  It isn’t clear what his firm is planning in Harlem, but based on his track record, it probably isn’t good.

Calvin Butts, minister of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church and potential challenger to Rep. Rangel, gave Inez Dickens $1000 this year.  The Rev. Butts faces serious scrutiny regarding the finances of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the church’s non-profit subsidiary organization.  Having received millions of dollars in grants and earmarks from government and private enterprise, the ADC appears to run large deficits, despite a track record of profitable real estate transactions. 

Finally, Ariane Dart of Sarasota gave Inez Dickens $2,500 this year.  Her husband, Robert Dart, probably would have made the contribution, but he and his brother renounced their US citizenship in 2001 in order to avoid taxes.  The Darts own Dart Container Corporation, which owns Solo Cups and is a major producer of insulated foam packaging, which the Council is considering banning.  Dart is in a tizzy over the possibility of losing the market, and has apparently been trying to buy votes.  Inez Dickens is listed as a co-sponsor on the bill, along with about 20 other council members.  The bill is still in committee.  Assuming CM Dickens does become Speaker, it will be most instructive to see if she kills the bill’s progress or allows it to come to a vote.