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NYC mayor compared 84-year-old Holocaust survivor to a ‘plantation’-owner

The woman, a tenant activist, complained about rising rents. Critics say the mayor was wrong to accuse her of racism

A heated exchange between New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Jeanie Dubnau, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor and tenant activist, ended with the mayor accusing Dubnau of racism. 

Tenant activist and Holocaust survivor Jeanie Dubnau, standing on the left, points toward Mayor Eric Adams at a community forum. Photo by Screenshot

“Don’t stand in front like you treated someone that’s on the plantation that you own,” Adams told Dubnau Wednesday at a town hall meeting in Washington Heights

Some on Twitter accused Adams of playing the race card when Dubnau’s comments about rising rents had nothing to do with race. “She points her finger and he brought up slavery against her?” tweeted one critic

An article about the incident on the news website Hell Gate was headlined: “Eric Adams Compares New Yorker Mad About Rising Rents to a Plantation Owner.”

“Yes, that’s the mayor of New York City, comparing a rightfully cranky New Yorker who was asking a valid question about housing affordability, to a slaveowner,” Hell Gate said.

Others noted Dubnau’s long history fighting for tenants rights. “This woman is Jeanie Dubnau, the Co-Founder of the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association (RENA), a tenants & housing rights advocacy organization in Upper Manhattan,” tweeted Juan Rosa, national director of civic engagement at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. 

Rosa added that Dubnau “has +40 years advocating for low income NYers of all races. Jeanie is not a racist & this was wrong.”

In a phone interview, Dubnau, a microbiologist on the faculty of Rutgers University, said her mother was nine months pregnant when her parents fled Nazi Germany for Brussels, where she was born in 1938. “They thought the Germans were going to invade Belgium,” she said. “They were in hiding.” They fled again, to France, and eventually were “lucky enough to come here,” to the U.S., sponsored by her mother’s uncle.

Dubnau herself lives in a co-op apartment but is a longtime volunteer with Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association. 

Asked to comment on the mayor’s rhetoric toward her, she said, “I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about what the mayor has done as an enemy of the tenants. He was deflecting. He was trying to get away from that.”

The New York Post story on the incident was headlined: “Mayor Adams likens white woman to slave owner as he flips out over question on rising rent in NYC.”

But the mayor had his defenders. One tweeted:  “Do not justify her blatantly disrespectful behavior,”  and “This is not 1960 and you don’t talk to any Black person w/ such disrespect. Ask your question like an adult, not some entitled white 16yo girl.” 

Stu Loeser, a Democratic campaign consultant, also weighed in, tweeting: “I’m w/Hizzoner @ericadamsfornyc … If an advocate wants to bring twitter-like shouting to a town hall, @NYCMayor has every right to shout back as if it’s twitter.” Loeser, a member of the Forward Association — our governing board — emailed after the initial publication of this article to note that he himself is the grandson of Jews who fled Nazi Germany and that the mayor “didn’t know this activist was the child of Holocaust refugees.”

The exchange between the mayor and Dubnau began when she stood up at the meeting, pointed at Adams and asked, “Why in New York City, where the real estate is controlling you, Mr. Mayor, why are we having these horrible rent increases last year and this year?” She was referring to rent increases in rent-stabilized housing recently approved by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board. The board is appointed by the mayor. 

“OK, first, if you’re going to ask a question, don’t point at me and don’t be disrespectful to me. I’m the mayor of this city, and treat me with the respect that I deserve to be treated. I’m speaking to you as an adult,” Adams said, then added the “plantation” comment.

“Give me the respect I deserve, and engage in the conversation,” he added. “Up here in Washington Heights, treat me with the same level of respect I treat you. So don’t be pointing at me, don’t be disrespectful to me, speak with me as an adult, because I’m a grown man. I walked into this room as a grown man, and I’m gonna walk out of this room as a grown man. I answered your question.”

When others at the meeting raised issues related to the city’s housing crisis, the mayor repeatedly blamed legislators in Albany for failing to incentivize construction of affordable housing. 

Adams also described his own travails as the owner of a three-family home, saying he had not raised his tenants’ rent in 15 years even as rising costs are putting pressure and in some cases displacing owners of small properties.

Dubnau wasn’t impressed. “The fact of the matter is that he is a landlord himself,” she said. “He got millions from the real estate industry and he’s paying them back. He’s as corrupt as that.”

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