The first question at a community conversation with Mayor Eric Adams in Washington Heights on Wednesday night was about New York City’s housing crisis.
Not satisfied with his answer, a woman in the crowd stood up, accused the mayor of being controlled by the real estate industry and criticized two years of rent increases on rent-stabilized apartments. Mr. Adams was not pleased.
“First, if you’re going to ask a question, don’t point at me, and don’t be disrespectful to me,” he told her. “I’m the mayor of this city, and treat me with the respect that I deserve to be treated.”
Then he went a step further, comparing the woman, who is white, to a slave owner: “Don’t stand in front like you’re treating someone that’s on the plantation that you own.”
The woman, Jeanie Dubnau, an 84-year-old housing activist and molecular biologist, said in an interview afterward that her Jewish family had fled Europe during the Holocaust. She said that the rent increases were a “disaster” for seniors and she believes that the mayor attacked her because he did not have a strong defense for allowing them to happen.
“It was a complete deflection from what I was saying because he has no answer,” she said.
Mr. Adams, the city’s second Black mayor, has often raised concerns about racism when he has felt under attack. During the 2021 mayoral primary, he argued that his competitors, Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia, had joined forces to prevent “a person of color” — specifically a Black or Latino person — from becoming mayor. When he was blamed for Democrats losing the 2022 midterms in New York because he had raised fears over crime, Mr. Adams said his critics were insulting the Black and Latino communities who were most affected by gun violence.
More recently, he has twice compared himself to Kunta Kinte, a character from the 1977 television series “Roots” who was beaten for refusing to accept the slave name Toby.
“I know you think you can whip me and make me go from saying Kunta Kinte to Toby, but damn it, Kunta Kinte is all I know,” the mayor said at a Juneteenth celebration at Gracie Mansion after receiving criticism for the abrupt departure of his police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, who announced her resignation earlier this month.
Mr. Adams also claimed recently that there was a “coordinated” effort to prevent him from winning a second term. When asked who was coordinating that effort, the mayor again compared himself to Kunta Kinte and said, “There’s a body of people who were pleased with 30 years without having a mayor that looked like me.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement that “anyone who believes this mayor isn’t fighting for tenants hasn’t been paying attention.” He added that the Adams administration was “advancing comprehensive plans to build more homes, faster, and across the city, which is the only way to truly solve the affordability crisis.”
Ms. Dubnau, who lives in Washington Heights, said that she was not trying to be disrespectful toward the mayor and had simply wanted to make her voice heard at a tightly controlled event.
“I didn’t have a microphone,” she said. “I had to speak loudly so that everyone could hear what I was saying.”
The rent increases — including 3 percent hikes on one-year leases — will affect roughly two million people who live in rent-stabilized apartments. Housing advocates have said they were too high at a time when many New Yorkers were struggling, but Mr. Adams has defended them as necessary for small property owners who face rising costs.
Ms. Dubnau acknowledged that she did not like the mayor and had voted for his left-leaning opponent, Maya Wiley, in the primary. She volunteers with a community group called the Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, and this was not her first mayoral event. She assailed Mayor Bill de Blasio at a similar event in Washington Heights in 2015 over his affordable housing policies.
She said she was surprised that the video of her exchange with Mr. Adams went “absolutely viral,” adding that she hoped it made people realize “how he’s more pro-landlord than any other mayor we’ve had recently.”
The mayor prides himself on being a lifelong New Yorker; Ms. Dubnau said she has lived here since she was 8. Her parents were living in Germany when her mother was pregnant with her, she said, and fearing persecution, they fled to Belgium, where she was born in 1938, and then to France, before eventually moving to the United States.
The testy exchange occurred at a community conversation event called “Talk with Eric,” one in a series of appearances the mayor has held across the city. During the panels, the mayor invites top officials from his administration and fellow elected leaders to take questions from the public. Wednesday’s event included Representative Adriano Espaillat, a powerful leader in northern Manhattan and a political ally of the mayor.
The first question came from a local community board member who asked about housing insecurity. Mr. Adams responded that housing was one of the top three issues in New York City, along with public safety and the migrant crisis. He was criticizing state lawmakers in Albany for failing to address the housing crisis during their recent legislative session when Ms. Dubnau began to interrupt.
Before she began to confront him, Mr. Adams argued that he does not control the Rent Guidelines Board, which approved the rent increases and whose members he appoints.
“I make appointments — they make the decision,” the mayor said. “Everyone knows I don’t control the board.”
Emma G. Fitzsimmons is the City Hall bureau chief, covering politics in New York City. She previously covered the transit beat and breaking news. @emmagf