What Would President Trump Mean For Cities?

Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0

Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0

A friend texted me last week and asked me what I thought a President Trump would mean for cities. I’m not sure he intended to suggest that as a post topic, but I’ll tackle it anyway.

The right answer is of course that we don’t know. At this point I’m not sure it even makes much sense to analyze his positions in detail as his campaign is in a rhetorical mode.

But there are some ways to analyze this.  In particular, let’s ask two questions:

  1. Who is the most urban candidate running for President?
  2. Which candidate’s personal interests are most aligned with urban success?

The answer to both questions is clearly Donald Trump.

Donald Trump Is the Most Urban Candidate Running For President

It’s pretty clear that Trump is the most personally urban candidate. He was raised in Queens and lives in a Midtown high rise. It doesn’t get more urban than that. As far as I know, he’s lived in New York City his entire life.

Bernie Sanders was raised in Brooklyn, so has an urban heritage. Today he lives in Burlington, Vermont, which is a sort of small city urban environment in a small state.  So give him some urban props.

After famously being born in Canada, Ted Cruz appears to have been raised in Houston, where he still lives. So he’s also an urban guy even if not from what most people would think of as a traditional big city.

John Kasich frequently touts his coal country roots and today lives in suburban Columbus. His campaign style echoes these milieux. It’s worth noting that urban liberals in Ohio loathe Kasich with a passion. They especially hate that he rejiggered the state’s transportation plan to yank all the funding for urban rail projects. I once personally criticized his policy of investing massive money into boondoggle rural freeway projects.

Hillary Clinton was raised in suburban Chicago, lived in Little Rock, and now lives in suburban Chappaqua, New York. She clearly does not have an urban background or orientation.

In this collection of candidates, Trump is the most urban, with Sanders and Cruz having some urban claim to fame, but Kasich and Hillary are suburban in orientation.

Donald Trump’s Personal Wealth Is Deeply Tied to Urban Real Estate

One thing I’ve seldom heard talked about is the degree to which Donald Trump’s personal wealth is bound up in urban real estate, especially that of New York City. Ted Cruz’s wife works in investment banking (on leave from Goldman Sachs), so there’s something of an urban connection with him. As far as I know none of the other candidates have material business interests apart from their political careers and associated endeavors like the Clinton Foundation.

The Economist magazine reviewed Donald Trump’s business holdings.  According to their analysis:

  • 93% of Trump’s wealth is in the United States
  • 81% of his wealth comes from real estate
  • 66% of his wealth is in New York. (It’s not clear to me whether they really mean wealth or income here).
  • Half of his wealth is in the form of properties within a four-mile radius of Trump Tower

In short, Donald Trump’s personal fortune is deeply linked to the value of urban real estate, and particularly that of New York City.

It seems unlikely to me that Trump would do anything that would put the value of those holdings at risk. His entire personal incentive structure is intimately linked with the fortunes of New York City.

One my big theses in changes in urban leadership culture over the years is that civic leadership went into decline in the 90s as we went through a wave of industrial nationalizations, particularly bank and utility mergers, that severed the link between community success and personal success for the leadership class.

One thing that has long struck me about New York City is that it appears to be a rare place where a number of key players still have personal fortunes that are deeply tied to the value of Manhattan real estate. The civic elite of New York are much more strongly bonded to their city’s success than in other places.  I think that’s one factor in its unusual resilience as a city.

Just as one example, it was Broadway theater owners who spearheaded the cleanup of Times Square. What else were they going to do? They could not pack up their theaters and move them to the Sun Belt.  They had no choice but to make a go of it on Broadway.

Donald Trump is a person in this mold. He couldn’t easily unwind his NYC holdings even if he wanted to.

This would suggest that he’s unlikely to pursue policies that would undermine New York property values. Given the criticality of Wall Street to that, I would not expect him to aggressively take on the banks, for example. Nor, whatever his present rhetoric, to materially limit the flow of foreigners – and foreign real estate buyers like wealthy Arabs – into urban areas.

This doesn’t guarantee Trump would be good for cities for even for New York in particular, but he does have skin in the game.

This makes him unlike President Obama. One of the great under-reported stories about Obama is low little Chicago got from having a hometown president. Obama spent many years in Hyde Park, a South Side neighborhood, and was intimately involved in that city’s politics from the community organizing level to the US Senate.

But Chicago has suffered mightily while he has been in the White House, even while his former chief of staff has been mayor. He’s done shockingly little for the city, with published major media reports suggesting he does not intend to return to after leaving office.

Of course, the only real asset Obama has in Chicago is his house, which he can readily sell, or keep as he chooses. By contrast, Trump has serious cash tied up in major New York properties.

I would not suggest that anyone choose a candidate purely on urban real estate values.  This is an election for President of the United States – not mayor – after all. But looking specifically at the candidates with regards to cities, Trump is clearly the most urban of the bunch and the one with the most personal alignment of interests with urban cores and especially that of New York.


from Aaron M. Renn


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