I am a city planner by training and experience. I have come across my share of developers over the past couple of decades as a staff planner and board member. Let me be the first to say that not all developers are scumbag developers. In fact, most developers are not. But there is a particular type of developer that anyone connected with planning or development would recognize as a scumbag developer. And they are of a type.
My purpose here is not to argue that Donald Trump has features that remind me of a scumbag developer and try to convince you that he is. It is an observation of established fact to say that Trump is a scumbag developer. The man hustles condo projects for a living, unethically. He uses other people’s money and credit on heavily leveraged projects while securing himself his payoff even if the project fails. It’s like saying Patrice Bergeron is a hockey player. My purpose instead is to describe what I have learned about scumbag developers, in the hope that someone might find some of my observations useful in understanding Trump’s behavior and thinking.
The scumbag developer is man, almost always with a father who was also a developer or landlord, who is driven by outsized appetites for money and for flattering attention from prominent people. He is a self-conscious striver for the position of community patriarch. Sometimes, this profile makes him manipulatable by people with actual class or power – the people he yearns so much to be accepted among. More often, it makes him creepy or worse with his female subordinates, which is one reason there are so few women in development.
What makes a developer a scumbag? Unfairness. In a regulated industry, the scumbag developer breaks rules not just to make a profit – they all do that when they can – but to get over on the other developers who cannot get away with as much. Getting 8 units on a lot that anyone else would only be allowed to build 5 on, or being able to offer a similar unit as your competitors’ for $8,000 less because some requirement was waived for you but nobody else; this is the heart of real estate scumbaggery. This is most commonly done through influencing regulators, money guys, property owners, or other stakeholders the developer needs, whether through intimidation, inducements or buddy-buddy relationships. Making someone in the political leadership an ally in order to bring pressure on people lower on the totem pole is common. Sometimes, among the smarter ones who work locally a lot, showy public displays of charity are used as investments to bank future support. This also ties in with the desire to be seen as a prominent and respectable member of the local elite.
What stops scumbag developers? Strong, independent institutions. Zoning laws that were written with the public interest genuinely in mind, implemented by regulators committed to good development practices, who are empowered by their political lords and masters to do their jobs professionally without undue interference.
Powerful, organized neighborhood opposition can stop even a well-connected scumbag developer. In those cases, it comes down to the relative power and influence of the neighbors vs. that of the developer. Media savvy and organizing are important for neighborhood groups, but realistically, the most important thing is connections, the same buddy-buddy stuff the developers draw on.
As alpha males of large appetites, scumbag developers often have some vice outside of their work, be it substance abuse, sex, religious zealotry, or some other field of addiction. Sometimes, this combines with the desire for elite acceptance to produce, for instance, giant art collections in the ownership of men who are complete cultural wastelands.
That’s about it for now. I’ll write more if anything else occurs to me.