Michael Green­berg

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael Green­berg


New York City is in the throes of a hu­man­i­tar­ian emer­gency, a term de­fined by the Hu­man­i­tar­ian Coali­tion of large in­ter­na­tional aid or­ga­ni­za­tions as “an event or series of events that rep­re­sents a crit­i­cal threat to the health, safety, se­cu­rity or well­be­ing of a com­mu­nity or other large group of peo­ple.” New York’s is what aid groups would char­ac­ter­ize as a “com­plex emer­gency”: man-made and shaped by a com­bi­na­tion of forces that have led to a large-scale “dis­place­ment of pop­u­la­tions” from their homes. What makes the cri­sis es­pe­cially star­tling is that New York has the most pro­gres­sive hous­ing laws in the coun­try and a mayor who has made ten­ants’ rights and af­ford­able hous­ing a cen­tral fo­cus of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. The tide of home­less­ness is only the most vis­i­ble symp­tom. There are at least 61,000 peo­ple whose shel­ter is pro­vided, on any given day, by New York’s Depart­ment of Home­less Ser­vices. The 661 build­ings in the mu­nic­i­pal shel­ter sys­tem are filled to ca­pac­ity nightly, and Mayor Bill de Bla­sio recently an­nounced plans to open ninety new sites, many of which are al­ready be­ing fe­ro­ciously re­sisted by neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents.

A packed meet­ing in Crown

Heights, Brook­lyn, about a pro­posed shel­ter for 104 men over the age of fifty that I at­tended this winter quickly de­volved into a ca­coph­ony of ire. “You dump your garbage on us be­cause you think we’re garbage!” shouted a black woman to a city of­fi­cial. The of­fi­cial seemed stunned, and po­lice watched anx­iously as the meet­ing broke up.

The re­vul­sion against the home­less seemed linked to a deep sus­pi­cion of “the pow­ers that be, who­ever they may be,” as one at­tendee put it. There were al­ready sev­eral shel­ters in the area. The de Bla­sio ad­min­is­tra­tion’s argument that the home­less should be placed in the neigh­bor­hoods they come from so they can re­new con­nec­tions and have a better chance of get­ting back on their feet only com­pounded the in­sult. Were the lo­cal res­i­dents “connected” to the home­less—those on the low­est so­cial rung? When the city changed el­i­gi­bil­ity for the shel­ter to men sixty-two and older, res­i­dents op­pos­ing it were not as­suaged: a neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion filed a law­suit that blocked the shel­ter from open­ing for nearly two months, un­til it was dis­missed by a judge in late May. The case is in­dica­tive of what New York faces as it tries to cope with its hous­ing emer­gency. Last year more than 127,000 dif­fer­ent men, women, and chil­dren slept in the shel­ters. And in 2015, though the city man­aged to move 38,000 peo­ple from shel­ters to more per­ma­nent hous­ing, the num­ber of home­less in­creased. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most op­ti­mistic fore­cast sees no sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in home­less­ness over the next five years; the aim is merely to keep it from grow­ing.

New York is the only city in the United States to have taken on the le­gal obli­ga­tion of pro­vid­ing a bed for any­body who asks for one and has nowhere else to sleep. This came about af­ter ad­vo­cates for the home­less ar­gued, in a series of law­suits in the 1970s, that shel­ter was a fun­da­men­tal right, not just a so­cial ser­vice. To es­tab­lish this they pointed to an ar­ti­cle in the New York State Con­sti­tu­tion that im­plies pub­lic re­spon­si­bil­ity for “the aid, care and sup­port of the needy.” The le­gal bat­tle cul­mi­nated in an en­force­able con­sent de­cree to shel­ter the home­less—the Cal­la­han de­cree—that Mayor Ed Koch’s ad­min­is­tra­tion vol­un­tar­ily signed in 1981. Three years later Koch said of the sign­ing, “We made a mis­take, and I am the first one to say it.” No one at the time imag­ined the fu­ture ex­tent of home­less­ness and the enor­mous mu­nic­i­pal ef­fort that would be re­quired to deal with it.

The Cal­la­han de­cree is the rea­son that the vast ma­jor­ity of New York’s home­less are out of sight, more of a news story than a daily re­al­ity that might jolt us into a press­ing aware­ness of the hu­man suf­fer­ing the cri­sis en­tails. The num­ber of iden­ti­fi­ably home­less who live on the street—in train tun­nels, un­der ex­press­ways, in base­ments and crawl spa­ces, and on ten­e­ment roofs—is fairly sta­ble. No one claims to know how many of them there ac­tu­ally are, but for years a va­ri­ety of es­ti­mates have put the num­ber at about 3,000 to 4,400 in winter and 5,000 to 7,000 dur­ing the sum­mer. In fact, 75 per­cent of New York’s home­less are fam­i­lies with chil­dren, and at least a third of the adults in th­ese fam­i­lies have jobs. The bank teller, the main­te­nance worker, the de­liv­ery per­son, the nanny, the deli man, the se­cu­rity guard—any num­ber of peo­ple we cross paths with ev­ery day—may be liv­ing, un­be­knownst to us, in a shel­ter. A full-time postal worker I know lives with her two daugh­ters in a shel­ter be­cause, af­ter los­ing her apart­ment of four­teen years, she has been un­able to find hous­ing she can af­ford.

Ev­ery day city em­ploy­ees strug­gle to pro­vide emer­gency quar­ters for those they have no space for in shel­ters, cram­ming par­ents and their chil­dren into ho­tel rooms in ev­ery bor­ough. In Fe­bru­ary 2016, when the num­ber of home­less ho­tel dwellers reached 2,600—and a mother and two of her chil­dren were mur­dered in a Staten Is­land ho­tel where they had been placed by the city—Mayor de Bla­sio vowed to re­duce the prac­tice; de­spite his best ef­forts, by De­cem­ber the num­ber had swollen to 7,500. There have been pre­dictable “scan­dals” about the Depart­ment of Home­less Ser­vices scram­bling at the last minute to put up a few dozen fam­i­lies for the night in ex­pen­sive Manhattan hotels. But the vast ma­jor­ity are clus­tered in the outer reaches of the outer bor­oughs, where rundown cin­derblock motels along ex­press­ways and el­e­vated rail­road tracks sup­ple­ment city shel­ters. The ninety new shel­ters de Bla­sio plans to open are meant to ease the need for th­ese mea­sures, but there is no guar­an­tee they will. One might rea­son­ably imag­ine what New York would be like with­out the Cal­la­han de­cree, and nearly 70,000 men, women, and chil­dren wan­der­ing the streets with no place to stay.

And th­ese are only the of­fi­cially counted home­less. Many oth­ers don’t show up in the statis­tics: peo­ple liv­ing tem­po­rar­ily with rel­a­tives or friends or flee­ing the city al­to­gether, not be­cause they failed to pay rent or vi­o­lated the terms of their leases, but be­cause their land­lords found a way to wrest their apart­ments from the rules of “rent sta­bi­liza­tion” and take ad­van­tage of their soar­ing mar­ket value. The dou­bling and tripling up of evicted fam­i­lies has led in some neigh­bor­hoods to “se­vere over­crowd­ing,” de­fined as more than 1.5 oc­cu­pants per room. City­wide, the num­ber of se­verely over­crowded house­holds in­creased by 18 per­cent from 2014 to 2015. Of­ten the sit­u­a­tion be­comes un­ten­able af­ter a while and the “couch surfers” move to mu­nic­i­pal shel­ters.


The sys­tem of rent sta­bi­liza­tion is another de­vel­op­ment pe­cu­liar to New York, with its his­tory of over­pop­u­lated slums, ten­ant ac­tivism, and cru­saders for so­cial re­form. No other Amer­i­can city pro­vides le­gal pro­tec­tion to ten­ants at any­where near New York’s level. Hous­ing short­ages af­ter World Wars I and II, protests (and some­times ri­ots) against price goug­ing and sub­stan­dard con­di­tions, and a huge vot­ing bloc of renters with shared in­ter­ests have led, over the past hun­dred years, to an evolv­ing series of state-en­forced reg­u­la­tions. In 1969 rent sta­bi­liza­tion was es­tab­lished by the state leg­is­la­ture, cov­er­ing older build­ings, for the most part, with six or more units and a his­tory of ten­ant leases. Though leg­is­la­tors have tin­kered with the laws al­most an­nu­ally ever since—weak­en­ing pro­tec­tion dur­ing some pe­ri­ods, strength­en­ing them in oth­ers—the ba­sic sys­tem re­mains in­tact to­day: land­lords can in­crease rents for sta­bi­lized apart­ments only at or be­low a rate set by the city’s Rent Guide­lines Board, all of whose mem­bers are ap­pointed by the mayor. In re­cent years in­creases have ranged from 3.75 to 4.5 per­cent for one-year leases. In 2015 and 2016, the Rent Guide­lines Board froze rents to pro­vide re­lief for ten­ants. Ten­ants in th­ese apart­ments are also guar­an­teed the right to re­new their leases.

Cur­rently al­most half of the rental apart­ments in New York City are sta­bi­lized—about 990,000 units, with 2.6 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in them.1 Three quar­ters of th­ese units were

built be­fore 1947. They are found in late-nine­teenth- and early-twen­ti­eth­cen­tury ten­e­ments, pre-war tow­ers, and U-shaped apart­ment blocks, and they are among the city’s most pre­cious re­sources, as crit­i­cal to its well-be­ing, I would ar­gue, as its tran­sit sys­tem and pub­lic parks. In view of this ex­tra­or­di­nary level of reg­u­la­tion, it may seem sur­pris­ing that New York faces a cri­sis in af­ford­able hous­ing. But rentsta­bi­lized apart­ments are dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarm­ing rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apart­ments have been dereg­u­lated. To give an ex­am­ple of how quickly af­ford­able hous­ing can van­ish, be­tween 2007 and 2014, 25 per­cent of the rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments on the Up­per West Side of Manhattan were dereg­u­lated.

A ma­jor rea­son for this is that once the monthly rent of an apart­ment ex­ceeds $2,700, the owner may charge a new ten­ant what­ever the mar­ket will bear—which, be­cause of the ex­cep­tional pres­sures on New York real es­tate, may be thou­sands of dol­lars more. Not long ago a rent-sta­bi­lized build­ing would sell for ten or at most twelve times its rent roll—the amount of money, be­fore ex­penses, that it gen­er­ates in a year. To­day, it sells for per­haps thirty or forty times that amount, or ten times what the rent roll would be af­ter reg­u­lated ten­ants have been dis­lodged. The clear­ing out of rent-sta­bi­lized ten­ants has be­come such a com­mon real es­tate prac­tice that it is added to a build­ing’s value even be­fore the fact. Land­lords have found enough loop­holes in ten­ant pro­tec­tion laws to make wide­spread dis­place­ment a vi­able fi­nan­cial strat­egy. A build­ing in Crown Heights with one hun­dred sta­bi­lized units and a rent roll of $1.2 mil­lion might now fetch $40 mil­lion or more—and ev­ery ten­ant must be forced out for the in­vest­ment to be re­couped.

The buy­ers at th­ese prices are, more of­ten than not, pri­vate eq­uity funds that man­age pools of in­vestors’ money: a typ­i­cal par­tic­i­pant in the Cen­tral Brook­lyn mar­ket de­scribes it­self as an as­set in­vest­ment firm that spe­cial­izes in the “repo­si­tion­ing” of mul­ti­fam­ily build­ings. The ag­gres­sive en­try of hyper cap­i­tal­ized in­vestors into the work­ing- and lower-mid­dle-class real es­tate mar­ket has struck Cen­tral Brook­lyn—and the South Bronx, and East Har­lem, and Wash­ing­ton Heights, and prac­ti­cally ev­ery New York neigh­bor­hood with a con­cen­tra­tion of rent-sta­bi­lized build­ings—like a thun­der­clap in the span of just a few years. They are a new type of owner in the outer bor­oughs, ones who can af­ford pa­tient, re­lent­less evic­tion pro­ceed­ings and ten­ant buy­outs in a way that most pre­vi­ous own­ers, who were of­ten in­di­vid­ual slum­lords work­ing with a dif­fer­ent set of profit mar­gins, could not.

The sup­ply of higher-pay­ing renters driv­ing the new real es­tate mar­ket ap­pears to be strong, if not ex­actly in­ex­haustible. New York has be­come one of a hand­ful of big cities (Lon­don and Hong Kong are among the oth­ers) pre­ferred by a global fi­nan­cial elite—not just the su­per-rich buy­ers of $50 or $75 mil­lion con­do­mini­ums in the heart of Manhattan, but the “or­di­nary” rich as well, from places like China, Ger­many, Brazil, In­dia, Rus­sia, and the wealthy sub­urbs of the United States it­self. Rel­a­tively crime-free Brook­lyn has ac­quired the lus­ter of an in­ter­na­tional brand. The well-off don’t com­prise the en­tire new real es­tate mar­ket by any means, but there are enough of them to keep push­ing up prices and to put pres­sure on New York­ers of mod­er­ate means.

The ef­fect has been cat­a­strophic. A woman I know—call her S—who lived on Sch­enec­tady Av­enue in Crown Heights for twenty-three years and raised her eigh­teen-year-old daugh­ter there told me she was recently pre­sented with a new lease in which the rent went from $1,017 to $2,109 per month. The hike was per­fectly le­gal. Over the years, the land­lord had not passed on the an­nual in­creases granted by the Rent Guide­lines Board and was thus able to add all of them to the lease at once. Real­tors call this “gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in­sur­ance”; the Rent Guide­lines Board calls it “pref­er­en­tial rent.” Ten­ants in at least 250,000 rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments pay pref­er­en­tial rents, which gives an idea of how many New York­ers are in im­me­di­ate dan­ger of los­ing their homes as a re­sult of dras­tic in­creases when their leases come up for re­newal. When real es­tate com­pa­nies be­gan to mar­ket Crown Heights as a “newly dis­cov­ered,” de­sir­able ur­ban fron­tier, S’s land­lord levied the ac­cu­mu­lated in­crease with­out warn­ing. Shortly af­ter, he sold the build­ing.

S’s daugh­ter, who was study­ing to be­come a den­tal hy­gien­ist, took on ex­tra hours at a re­tail cloth­ing chain where she worked. But they still missed rent pay­ments, and late fees were pil­ing up, adding to the bur­den. S seemed locked in a night­mare when I saw her one morn­ing beg­ging for a fare at the Utica Av­enue sub­way sta­tion so she could get to her job as a home nurs­ing aide in Manhattan. She had be­come im­pov­er­ished overnight, pay­ing close to 70 per­cent of her in­come in rent, and saw no re­course other than to ac­cept her new land­lord’s of­fer of $45,000 to move out and sign away any lin­ger­ing le­gal claim she might have to re­new her lease at the sta­bi­lized rate.

“I put up with th­ese streets when you had to be half-crazy to go out to the bodega for a quart of milk af­ter dark,” said S. “I got rid of a rat infestation four years ago my­self.” She and other ten­ants once pooled money to in­stall a new hot water heater when the old one broke down. “We watched over this street, we cleaned it up. Why should we have to leave?” S and her daugh­ter were shut­tling be­tween var­i­ous rel­a­tives and friends—pay­ing for a couch here, a spare bed there—when I lost touch with them.

Forty-five thousand dol­lars seemed like a lot of money when it was of­fered, and it did al­le­vi­ate some of S’s im­me­di­ate fi­nan­cial wor­ries, but in New York’s hous­ing mar­ket it wasn’t nearly enough to re­place what she and her daugh­ter had lost. They were un­likely to find a com­pa­ra­ble home they could con­tinue to af­ford af­ter money from the buy­out ran out: most va­cant rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments be­come more ex­pen­sive as land­lords act to push them to­ward dereg­u­la­tion.

From the point of view of S’s land­lord, the buy­out was a sound in­vest­ment that would pay it­self back in in­creased rent in lit­tle more than a year, while adding sub­stan­tially to the value of the build­ing should the new own­ers de­cide to sell it. With the apart­ment empty, they were able to add a 20 per­cent va­cancy bonus to the next lease, bring­ing the rent to $2,528. Ac­cord­ing to S, who stayed in touch with her for­mer neigh­bors in the build­ing, a ren­o­va­tion that in­volved throw­ing up a sheetrock wall to cre­ate a sec­ond bed­room, re­plac­ing a few kitchen cabi­nets and ap­pli­ances, and in­stalling a wine re­fridger­a­tor and a stacked washer/dryer com­fort­ably pushed the rent over the dereg­u­la­tion limit of $2,700; the law per­mits land­lords to add to the rent 2.5 per­cent of the cost of “ma­jor cap­i­tal im­prove­ments.” There is no ef­fec­tive over­sight of the amount land­lords claim to have spent on im­prove­ments, while there is ev­ery in­cen­tive to in­flate the costs.

The con­ver­sion of a one-bed­room apart­ment to a cramped two-bed­room al­lowed the land­lord to lease to a group of three young room­mates who split the new monthly rent of $4,300. Th­ese new ten­ants are the sup­posed “gen­tri­fiers” of Brook­lyn: they may be Web de­sign­ers, fund-rais­ers, editorial as­sis­tants, fash­ion in­dus­try as­pi­rants, mu­si­cians with a cou­ple of float­ing bar­tender gigs, line chefs, el­e­men­tary school teach­ers, film or TV crew work­ers, or on­line jour­nal­ists—peo­ple with the kinds of jobs that New York abun­dantly gen­er­ates. Priced out of the bor­ough’s more ex­pen­sive neigh­bor­hoods—like Wil­liams­burg, DUMBO, Fort Greene, and Park Slope (not to men­tion Manhattan)—they are beck­oned by rental agen­cies that spe­cial­ize in introducing young, sin­gle renters to the deeper ter­ri­to­ries of Brook­lyn.

When a land­lord em­barks on a cam­paign to “un­lock value” in his build­ing, it be­comes a con­sum­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment for renters. “Land­lord ha­rass­ment is prac­ti­cally all any­one I know talks about,” a be­lea­guered ten­ant named Ne­fer­titi Ma­caulay told me. “When it comes, it’s like a bomb’s gone off in your liv­ing room.” Af­ter an eq­uity firm bought her build­ing and be­gan pres­sur­ing ten­ants to leave, Ne­fer­titi tried, with mixed re­sults, to or­ga­nize a rent strike. Ami­able and proper, with a tat­too on her shoul­der of the fa­mous bust of the Egyp­tian queen who bears her name, Ne­fer­titi has lived her en­tire life in Brook­lyn. Af­ter her ex­pe­ri­ence with her land­lord she be­came a hous­ing ad­vo­cate and cur­rently works as a com­mu­nity li­ai­son for Di­ana Richardson, who rep­re­sents Crown Heights in the New York State Assem­bly. She told me of a sev­enty-one-year-old man and his ninety-year-old mother who have lived in the same apart­ment in another build­ing for forty years. “The new owner wants to give them $60,000 to move, and they think they have to take it be­cause the land­lord says so. They’re more than likely to end up at the mercy of the [Depart­ment of Home­less Ser­vices], at an an­nual cost to the city of $43,000 per per­son. I see it hap­pen all the time.”

One of the tac­tics own­ers em­ploy is to hold rent checks with­out cash­ing them and then sue ten­ants for non­pay­ment. Delores, who has lived on East­ern Park­way for twenty-five years, found her­self em­broiled in this scheme. Be­tween 2013 and 2015 her build­ing was flipped twice. “We don’t even know who the own­ers are. When we call, no one an­swers. And when they do an­swer, they’re very dis­re­spect­ful. They tell us they’re go­ing to re­lo­cate us to East New York. Where in East New York? It’s like we’re bad in­ven­tory they want to off-load to some ware­house so we’re not in the way any­more.”

Some land­lords bring ten­ants to court for putting up book­shelves (which may vi­o­late the let­ter of a lease that pro­hibits renters from drilling into walls) or for hav­ing a room­mate or, in one case I know of, a pet ca­nary. “Most peo­ple here don’t be­lieve in the courts be­cause they’re used to it work­ing against them,” said Ne­fer­titi. “That’s what land­lords count on.” Many renters are un­aware of the laws pro­tect­ing them and have lit­tle knowl­edge of how New York’s in­tri­cate hous­ing bu­reau­cracy works, so they are eas­ily in­tim­i­dated by de­ter­mined own­ers. A court date is also a missed day at work. Land­lords don’t ex­pect to win all of th­ese skir­mishes, but the bar­rage of law­suits helps set the stage for a buy­out: fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally ground down, the ten­ant agrees to re­lin­quish his rights and de­part.

An artist I know in South Wil­liams­burg took flight af­ter her land­lord paid a home­less man to sleep out­side her door, defe­cate in the hall­way, in­vite friends in for drug-fu­eled par­ties, and taunt her as she en­tered and left the build­ing. In East New York a mother tells of a land­lord who, af­ter claim­ing to smell gas in the hall­way, gained en­try to her apart­ment and then locked her out. In Jan­uary, a cou­ple with a three-month-old baby in Bush­wick com­plained to the city be­cause they had no heat. In re­sponse, the land­lord threat­ened to alert the Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren’s Ser­vices that they were

liv­ing with a baby in an un­heated apart­ment. Fear­ful of los­ing their child, they left, leav­ing the owner with what he wanted: a va­cant unit.

What might be a wel­come de­vel­op­ment un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances— the sale of a ne­glected build­ing and its ren­o­va­tion un­der a new owner—to­day pro­vokes im­me­di­ate panic. Any ef­fort at “im­prove­ment,” many ten­ants sus­pect, is prob­a­bly the first salvo in what will be a pro­tracted as­sault on their homes. A group called the As­so­ci­a­tion for Neigh­bor­hood and Hous­ing De­vel­op­ment, with the help of the Ford Foun­da­tion and the Mertz Gil­more Foun­da­tion, has as­sem­bled a Dis­place­ment Alert Map that iden­ti­fies res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties where ten­ants are vul­ner­a­ble to ha­rass­ment and il­le­gal evic­tions. Us­ing pub­lic data, it as­signs risk scores to build­ings with rentsta­bi­lized units that have sold for more than the av­er­age price in the neigh­bor­hood and whose own­ers have ap­plied for work per­mits from the city’s Depart­ment of Build­ings. Of 96,400 prop­er­ties on the map, 24,766 had the high­est risk of dis­place­ment. The map gives ten­ants of th­ese build­ings, and their ad­vo­cates, a way to keep track of land­lords’ plans and to pre­pare, if nec­es­sary, an early de­fense against evic­tion.

Costa lives in Cen­tral Brook­lyn, in the type of pre-war build­ing you might find in any part of New York. His place con­sists of a small mis­shapen liv­ing room, clearly carved from a larger apart­ment, with a makeshift kitchen wedged against a wall. The bed­room is just big enough for a mat­tress. He has been liv­ing there since he was dis­charged from the Marines six­teen years ago.

In 2014, a man­age­ment com­pany pur­chased the build­ing and set out to get rid of as many rent-sta­bi­lized ten­ants as pos­si­ble. Over the course of a year, they were able to push out about a third. “They of­fered me $50,000,” said Costa, “a sum they could make up in rent in two years. I told them I needed half a mil­lion.”

The new own­ers be­gan ren­o­vat­ing the va­cant apart­ments. Ac­cord­ing to Costa, they didn’t ob­tain work per­mits but pho­to­copied old ones and taped them to the doors. “They worked at all hours, es­pe­cially at night, on week­ends, on hol­i­days, around the clock, dust ev­ery­where, a hell of rub­ble, you couldn’t sleep or hardly breathe. The work­ers cursed at us, as if they’d been in­structed to treat us like crap.”

Costa and other res­i­dents ob­tained an order to stop con­struc­tion. Af­ter a brief pause, how­ever, it started again. Apart­ments were flooded. A neigh­bor’s ceil­ing col­lapsed; another’s wall caved in. Costa recorded some of the il­le­gal work on his cell phone. A few days later, an em­ployee of the man­age­ment com­pany showed up with po­lice, who ar­rested Costa for threat­en­ing be­hav­ior: the crew fore­man claimed he had bran­dished the phone in anger. Costa was taken, in hand­cuffs, to Kings County Hospi­tal, where he was dressed in a gown and held “for psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tion.” He had never been ar­rested or treated for a psy­chi­atric con­di­tion and was re­leased af­ter twelve hours with a “de­ferred di­ag­no­sis.” In Fe­bru­ary 2016, less than two years af­ter they bought the build­ing, the own­ers sold it for al­most twice what they had paid. As as­ton­ish­ing as Costa’s ex­pe­ri­ence was, even more shat­ter­ing was that of the ten­ants of a build­ing on New York Av­enue, whose own­ers sent con­struc­tion crews into oc­cu­pied apart­ments, claim­ing they had come to fix struc­tural prob­lems. They ripped out walls, shut off water, and then abruptly ceased work, leav­ing oc­cu­pants with piles of dust and de­bris. One woman had to be freed by the Fire Depart­ment af­ter work­ers nailed her front door shut from the out­side with ply­wood.

Sto­ries like th­ese move through the city like an un­der­ground stream. I re­peat them not be­cause they are ex­tra­or­di­nary, but be­cause they are a fact of life for thou­sands of New York­ers. For the most part they go un­no­ticed. The dis­placed slink away, crouched into their pri­vate mis­for­tune, seek­ing what­ever so­lu­tion they can find. Many ex­pe­ri­ence dis­place­ment as a per­sonal fail­ure; they dis­solve to the fringes of the city, forced to travel two or three hours to earn a min­i­mum wage, or out of the city al­to­gether, to de­pressed regions of Long Is­land, New Jer­sey, or up­state New York. If they have roots in the Caribbean, as some res­i­dents of Cen­tral Brook­lyn do, they may try to start again there. Or they may join the grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple who are of­fi­cially home­less, de­pen­dent on the city for shel­ter.


Mayor de Bla­sio is keenly aware of the pres­sures bear­ing down on what, as a can­di­date in 2013, he called “the other New York”—that vast sec­tor of the city’s pop­u­la­tion that lost con­sid­er­able eco­nomic ground dur­ing the twelveyear may­oralty of his pre­de­ces­sor, Michael Bloomberg. De Bla­sio has tried to blunt the hard­ships, but he also con­cedes that the forces re­spon­si­ble for the city’s hous­ing emer­gency are be­yond his con­trol. At a town hall meet­ing I at­tended at a Bed­ford-Stuyvesant el­e­men­tary school on March 9, the mayor told his wor­ried au­di­ence not to “think the city is all-pow­er­ful. This is about some­thing called money.” He urged renters to think twice be­fore suc­cumb­ing to land­lords of­fer­ing to buy them out of their sta­bi­lized leases, while tac­itly ac­knowl­edg­ing that thirty or forty or even fifty thousand dol­lars for some­one ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing weekto-week may be dif­fi­cult to turn down. Peo­ple had to fig­ure out for them­selves whether their leases and the rights that went with them should be put up for sale. “Some­times, it’s a per­sonal choice,” he said, with res­ig­na­tion.

The core of de Bla­sio’s hous­ing plan, an­nounced in 2014, is to “build or pre­serve” 200,000 af­ford­able rental units through­out the five bor­oughs by 2024. The preser­va­tion part of the plan aims to keep 120,000 units that are al­ready af­ford­able from pass­ing into the un­reg­u­lated mar­ket. Of­ten the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts in­volve build­ings that land­lords al­lowed to fall into de­crepi­tude and then for­feited, on ac­count of unpaid taxes in the 1970s and 1980s. The city ar­ranged fi­nanc­ing for builders to ren­o­vate them and ei­ther keep ex­ist­ing ten­ants or, if the prop­er­ties had be­come un­in­hab­it­able, give af­ford­able leases to new ones. Th­ese ar­range­ments usu­ally last for twenty to thirty years—the time it takes the builders to re­pay their loans—at which point the af­ford­abil­ity re­quire­ment ex­pires, and they have the right to as­sume full con­trol over the prop­er­ties. The de Bla­sio ad­min­is­tra­tion has been step­ping in, ne­go­ti­at­ing an ex­ten­sion with th­ese own­ers to keep their build­ings af­ford­able.

A typ­i­cal ex­am­ple is the sixty-three “se­nior apart­ments” at Mon­signor Alex­ius Jarka Hall on Bed­ford Av­enue in Wil­liams­burg, Brook­lyn. The res­i­dence, owned by a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Peo­ple’s Fire­house, recently re­ceived $19 mil­lion from the city to fix the roof and re­main af­ford­able for another thirty-five years. The city has struck hun­dreds of such deals, and while they are of crit­i­cal im­por­tance, they do not add to the pool of af­ford­able hous­ing or pro­tect ten­ants in the vast num­ber of rent-sta­bi­lized build­ings for which the govern­ment has no ne­go­ti­at­ing lever­age to ease the threat of evic­tion.2


“build” part of de Bla­sio’s buil­dor-pre­serve hous­ing plan gives pri­vate de­vel­op­ers tax breaks to in­clude a total of 80,000 af­ford­able rental units in newly con­structed mar­ket-rate build­ings. The tax break, known by its leg­isla­tive code num­ber, 421-a, dates back to 1971, when the city’s econ­omy was col­laps­ing and its white work­ing- and mid­dle-class pop­u­la­tion was flee­ing to nearby sub­urbs or to the Sun­belt, af­ter ris­ing en­ergy costs en­cour­aged the mi­gra­tion of jobs from the North­east. At that time the chal­lenge was not to cre­ate af­ford­able hous­ing but to keep bankrupt land­lords from aban­don­ing prop­er­ties to scavengers and squat­ters. To­day, the tax break’s main pur­pose is to en­cour­age large de­vel­op­ers to build. Un­der 421-a, own­ers are ex­empt from pay­ing the in­crease in prop­erty taxes that would nor­mally re­sult from new con­struc­tion: if a build­ing worth $200 mil­lion is erected on a lot val­ued at $10 mil­lion, the owner will not be taxed for the $200 mil­lion en­hance­ment. In ex­change, de­vel­op­ers must set aside 20–30 per­cent of the units at be­low-mar­ket rates for ten­ants who are cho­sen by city of­fi­cials in an in­come­based lot­tery. The apart­ments re­main af­ford­able for the du­ra­tion of the tax ex­emp­tion pe­riod, which in April was ex­tended from twenty-five to thirty-five years.

De Bla­sio de­fends the pro­gram as the fastest and most prac­ti­cal way to pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of apart­ments for peo­ple in need. “My plan of­fers vol­ume,” he said at the town hall meet­ing in March. “And in hous­ing, vol­ume matters.” Eighty per­cent of the vol­ume, how­ever, con­sists of high-cost mar­ket-rate rentals, far more of them than would have been built with­out the en­tice­ment of 421-a. Mea­sured purely by vol­ume, there is no hous­ing short­age in New York—the up­per end of the mar­ket is glut­ted with apart­ments, partly be­cause tax ex­emp­tions and re­zon­ing laws have made con­struc­tion so at­trac­tive to de­vel­op­ers. In a ten-block area of Down­town Brook­lyn, nine­teen res­i­den­tial tow­ers with nearly seven thousand rental units are ei­ther un­der con­struc­tion or have recently been com­pleted. If we in­clude the area im­me­di­ately around Down­town Brook­lyn, a total of 15,200 apart­ments have been built or had their plans ap­proved since 2011, al­most all of them with 421-a ex­emp­tions.

As more and more apart­ments have come onto the mar­ket, land­lords have had to of­fer “sweet­en­ers” to at­tract ten­ants. Pos­ing as a prospec­tive renter, I recently toured one of th­ese build­ings and was of­fered two months’ free rent on a two-year lease for a $5,400-per­month apart­ment. The lease came with a com­pli­men­tary health club mem­ber­ship, concierge ser­vice, and com­mon ar­eas that in­cluded a sun deck and party rooms that ten­ants were “in­vited to share,” but the apart­ment it­self was a nar­row cookie-cut­ter two-bed­room. Turnover is high. “With so much to

choose from at $5,000 there’s re­ally no rea­son for ten­ants to stick around,” a bro­ker told me.

The 421-a ex­emp­tions cost New York $1.4 bil­lion in un­col­lected prop­erty tax in 2016, and de Bla­sio’s hous­ing plan is now ex­pected to cost at least $10 bil­lion in ex­emp­tions by 2024. The city ap­pears to be get­ting rel­a­tively lit­tle af­ford­able hous­ing for the money. In 2016 it man­aged to squeeze 6,844 new af­ford­able units out of de­vel­op­ers, as con­struc­tion projects that had bro­ken ground in 2014 were com­pleted—a nu­mer­i­cal vic­tory, but only 35 per­cent of those apart­ments were for house­holds mak­ing less than $40,000, the in­come level that is be­ing most re­lent­lessly pres­sured with evic­tion from older, “un­der­val­ued,” rent-sta­bi­lized build­ings. City­wide, de Bla­sio’s pro­gram pro­vides far more af­ford­able units for house­holds mak­ing $63,000 to $143,000. (The govern­ment deems hous­ing af­ford­able when a house­hold spends no more than 30 per­cent of its in­come on rent.)

Yet the pro­gram ap­pears to re­de­fine what low and mod­er­ate in­come means. At 382 Lef­ferts Av­enue in Brook­lyn, for ex­am­ple, new sub­si­dized one-bed­room apart­ments rented for $2,047 in May 2015, $400 more than the neigh­bor­hood av­er­age. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data, the me­dian an­nual house­hold in­come in Brook­lyn is $44,850; to be el­i­gi­ble for a one-bed­room at 382 Lef­ferts Av­enue a ten­ant would have to earn at least $82,000 a year.

At 7 Dekalb Av­enue, a gleam­ing zinc-skinned cen­ter­piece of the res­i­den­tial sky­scrapers that are rapidly ris­ing in Down­town Brook­lyn, three quar­ters of the sub­si­dized units are for in­di­vid­u­als earn­ing at least $57,000 (for stu­dio apart­ments) and fam­i­lies mak­ing up to $142,000 (for two-bed­room apart­ments). The poor aren’t for­got­ten, but the de Bla­sio plan ap­pears to con­vey the be­lief that in the grow­ing, pri­va­tized, global su­percity that New York has be­come, fam­i­lies of four with in­comes as high as $150,000 are in dan­ger of be­ing priced out with­out some form of as­sis­tance.

At the town hall meet­ing, the mayor, try­ing to ex­plain why he hasn’t set aside more units for those near the poverty line, said, “There are swamps of peo­ple who make less than $40,000 a year. Peo­ple who make $50,000 need help, too.” To a renter in the au­di­ence anx­ious about her fu­ture, he ad­mit­ted, with a touch of sad­ness, that his hous­ing pol­icy “may not help you per­son­ally. New York may not be ex­actly the same city you’ve known.” But he claimed that he was do­ing all that was re­al­is­ti­cally within his power “to pro­tect the char­ac­ter of New York.”

Much has been made of how dif­fi­cult it is to win the lot­tery for one of th­ese af­ford­able apart­ments: be­tween 2013 and 2015, 2.9 mil­lion ap­pli­cants en­tered the lot­tery for 4,174 units, a 700 to 1 ra­tio. The num­ber sug­gests a stam­pede for sub­si­dized hous­ing across the el­i­gi­ble in­come bands. But when the pool of ap­pli­cants is looked at more closely, a re­veal­ing dis­par­ity emerges. To give an ex­am­ple, at 535 Carl­ton Av­enue in the Prospect Heights sec­tion of Brook­lyn, a neigh­bor­hood that has ex­pe­ri­enced a dra­matic in­crease in prop­erty val­ues in re­cent years, 92,743 house­holds en­tered the lot­tery for 297 af­ford­able apart­ments. But only 2,203—less than 3 per­cent of the ap­pli­cants—ap­plied for the 148 units (al­most half the total) that had been set aside for house­holds earn­ing six fig­ures. (The monthly rent for th­ese units ranged from $2,680 to $3,716, de­pend­ing on their size.)

By con­trast, nearly 67,000 house­holds—more than 70 per­cent of the ap­pli­cants—vied for ninety units for ten­ants with in­comes of be­tween $21,566 and $38,100.3 So few ap­plied for the more ex­pen­sive apart­ments be­cause New York­ers at that in­come level have enough op­tions at sim­i­lar prices in the un­reg­u­lated rental mar­ket. What they lack are homes they can af­ford to buy, a very dif­fer­ent prob­lem. In a rush to rack up “af­ford­able” units and get to the 80,000 he promised, de Bla­sio ap­pears to have stocked the pro­gram with hous­ing for up­per-mid­dle-in­come ten­ants who don’t need it. It costs more to sub­si­dize the poor be­cause they can pay so lit­tle them­selves; the log­i­cal fis­cal al­ter­na­tive is to sub­si­dize those who can pay more.

In any event, de­vel­op­ers are likely to pre­fer—and in­sist upon—fill­ing their manda­tory af­ford­able units with ten­ants in the higher in­come bands. Ben­jamin Dulchin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Neigh­bor­hood and Hous­ing De­vel­op­ment, wor­ries that the city isn’t tough enough with de­vel­op­ers. “It’s all in the de­tails, how the city ap­plies its con­sid­er­able power to shape the mar­ket,” he told me. “If a de­vel­oper says, ‘I don’t like your af­ford­able al­lot­ment, I’m not go­ing to build right now,’ the city should tell him, ‘Fine, then wait two or three years,’ in­stead of cav­ing and giv­ing away too much of the pub­lic in­ter­est.”

De Bla­sio’s plan is pred­i­cated on the re­zon­ing of fif­teen neigh­bor­hoods to al­low for higher res­i­den­tial den­sity, as ur­ban­ists call it. This means the con­struc­tion of large apart­ment build­ings de­signed to at­tract much wealth­ier ten­ants than have pre­vi­ously lived in those neigh­bor­hoods. In April 2016, East New York in Cen­tral Brook­lyn, one of the poor­est dis­tricts in the city, be­came the first to be re­zoned un­der de Bla­sio’s plan. Two years ear­lier, in­vest­ment groups, hav­ing learned of the im­pend­ing change, be­gan buy­ing up older, rent-sta­bi­lized build­ings and en­gag­ing in the fa­mil­iar pat­tern of “un­lock­ing” value through ten­ant ha­rass­ment and evic­tion. Prices shot up. Short-term spec­u­la­tors flipped build­ings for an av­er­age re­turn of 125 per­cent, the high­est ap­pre­ci­a­tion in all of New York in 2016.

The city has promised to spend $257 mil­lion on schools, parks, street re­pair, high-speed In­ter­net ser­vice, and other im­prove­ments in a neigh­bor­hood whose res­i­dents have spent decades plead­ing for ba­sic ser­vices. Sub­way sta­tions will be ren­o­vated, buses will run more fre­quently, and po­lice on foot pa­trol will give the streets a pro­tected, re­as­sur­ing air. As has hap­pened dur­ing the early stages of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in other Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hoods, East New York will be more racially in­te­grated—for a time.

If all goes to plan, three thousand new af­ford­able apart­ments will be cre­ated in East New York by 2024. It is pos­si­ble, how­ever, that just as many older sta­bi­lized units will be lost to preda­tory in­vestors, putting the city in the im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion of pro­mot­ing af­ford­able hous­ing with one hand and work­ing against it with the other. Five Cen­tral Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hoods suf­fered a net loss of 5,496 rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments be­tween 2008 and 2015, even af­ter newly con­structed af­ford­able units were counted.4 When I posed this co­nun­drum to an of­fi­cial in the Depart­ment of Hous­ing Preser­va­tion and De­vel­op­ment, he said, “Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is go­ing to hap­pen any­way. At least this puts us in the game.” I won­dered if this were true for East New York: with­out the city’s in­vi­ta­tion to de­vel­op­ers and the in­flux of new res­i­dents that it will bring, the neigh­bor­hood’s manic trans­for­ma­tion—and the dis­place­ment that goes with it—seems un­likely to oc­cur any­time soon.

Fear of dis­place­ment has reached such a pitch in New York that for many the very idea of re­zon­ing has be­come syn­ony­mous with evic­tion. In June, when Com­mu­nity Board 11 in East Har­lem held a meet­ing to vote on the city’s pro­posed re­zon­ing of a nine­tysix-block swath be­tween 104th and 132nd Streets that would al­low for res­i­den­tial tow­ers as high as thirty-five sto­ries, more than one hun­dred pro­test­ers showed up, and a vi­o­lent shov­ing match erupted. One East Har­lem res­i­dent called the re­zon­ing plan “eth­nic cleans­ing.” Another com­pared it to “a Trojan horse” that would “come out at night to do us in.” Still another called it “a crim­i­nal act against our peo­ple.” Re­jected out­right by pro­test­ers was the pos­si­bil­ity that res­i­dents and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives could ne­go­ti­ate an agree­ment with the city that would pro­vide more af­ford­able units and stricter pro­tec­tion for rent-sta­bi­lized ten­ants. The level of distrust to­ward the city was re­mark­able, but not sur­pris­ing. The de Bla­sio ad­min­is­tra­tion would do well to ex­am­ine its dis­con­cert­ing de­ci­sion to re­zone mainly in poor neigh­bor­hoods where dis­place­ment is most acute.

The hard fact is that be­hind the wild­fire of new con­struc­tion, new restau­rants, re­tail out­lets, bars, mu­sic halls, cafés, tech and me­dia start-ups, and nearly full em­ploy­ment, real poverty in New York is on the rise. Wages have gone up, but hous­ing costs have made many peo­ple poorer. The me­dian rentto-in­come ra­tio shows that New York ten­ants (ex­clud­ing those liv­ing in pub­lic hous­ing projects and other fi­nan­cially as­sisted build­ings) spent 65.2 per­cent of their total in­come on rent in 2016, up al­most six points from the al­ready alarm­ingly high fig­ure of 59.7 per­cent in 2015. The me­dian can be a mis­lead­ing mea­sure­ment, but in this case it pro­vides a telling portrait of the city’s evolv­ing predica­ment. By com­par­i­son, na­tion­wide, in 2015, Amer­i­cans earn­ing the coun­try’s me­dian an­nual in­come of $55,589 could ex­pect to spend no more than 30 per­cent on rent.

The de Bla­sio ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cur­rent pol­icy seems to ac­knowl­edge, and to some ex­tent con­cede, that the econ­omy of New York leaves lit­tle room for the poor. The pub­lic hous­ing projects, built with fed­eral money be­tween the mid-1930s and late 1960s, are quickly be­com­ing the last rel­a­tively se­cure refuge for lower-in­come fam­i­lies in New York. They con­sist of 176,066 low­in­come apart­ments with 400,000 “au­tho­rized res­i­dents” (lease­hold­ers and mem­bers of their im­me­di­ate fam­ily), a mere 4.7 per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion. (When “off-lease” res­i­dents are counted, some es­ti­mates put the num­ber at 600,000.) The av­er­age fam­ily in­come in the projects is $24,366, and the av­er­age monthly rent is $509. There are cur­rently 255,143 fam­i­lies on the wait­ing list, and the va­cancy rate is close to zero per­cent. With the steady, seem­ingly in­ex­orable de­cline in the num­ber of older rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments, it is pos­si­ble to fore­see a fu­ture in which the pub­lic hous­ing projects and mu­nic­i­pal shel­ters are home to New York’s only re­main­ing poor.


Ob­vi­ously the sit­u­a­tion calls for re­form. Most cru­cial would be to elim­i­nate the point—cur­rently $2,700 per month—at which rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments re­vert to mar­ket rates. His­tory shows that as

long as land­lords have a path to the un­reg­u­lated mar­ket, they’ll find a way to reach it. A 3 per­cent in­crease, say, from the Rent Guide­lines Board would raise a rent of $2,700 per month to $2,781, still a man­age­able amount for a fam­ily of three with an in­come of $100,000, pre­cisely the group that many of de Bla­sio’s new af­ford­able units are aimed at. But most rent-sta­bi­lized ten­ants pay much less than that: of the 990,000 reg­u­lated apart­ments, 471,694 have rents of $1,000–$1,499; an ad­di­tional 120,076 rent for $800–$999. The vast ma­jor­ity of th­ese cheaper apart­ments are in New York’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods where in­comes are well be­low the city’s av­er­age. If rent-sta­bi­lized apart­ments were re­quired to stay in the sys­tem, no mat­ter their cost, the out­size fi­nan­cial re­ward that land­lords now reap for driv­ing poorer ten­ants out of their homes would dis­ap­pear.

But no such re­form will oc­cur as long as leg­is­la­tors in Albany con­trol the city’s hous­ing laws. From 2000 to 2016, New York City de­vel­op­ers contributed $83 mil­lion to state assem­bly and se­nate cam­paigns, more than any other eco­nomic group. Much of that money went to up­state and Long Is­land can­di­dates with no reg­u­lated hous­ing in their dis­tricts. In ex­change, th­ese leg­is­la­tors, risk­ing not a sin­gle vote among their own con­stituents, block pro­tenant bills from reach­ing the floor; on the rare oc­ca­sion that one does make it to the floor—such as a 2010 bill re­quir­ing land­lords to jus­tify rent in­creases for apart­ments that are about to be dereg­u­lated—they band to­gether to en­sure its de­feat.

The chair of the Se­nate Hous­ing Com­mit­tee, Catharine Young, is a Repub­li­can who rep­re­sents a dis­trict near Lake Erie that is closer to Cleve­land than to New York City. Young reg­u­larly spon­sors pro-land­lord bills, and in one case she in­tro­duced a bill in­volv­ing a sin­gle build­ing—In­de­pen­dence Plaza North in Manhattan—that would have va­cated a court de­ci­sion in fa­vor of 3,500 ten­ants.5 (Young’s bill passed the Se­nate but died in the Assem­bly.) Two thirds of New York­ers are renters. Ur­gently needed is some kind of ref­er­en­dum that would give the city con­trol over its hous­ing laws.

But New York’s cri­sis begs for a more de­fin­i­tive so­lu­tion. In Novem­ber, Los An­ge­les vot­ers passed a half-cent sales tax in­crease to fund the most am­bi­tious mass tran­sit ex­pan­sion in that city’s his­tory. In essence, An­ge­lenos col­lec­tively agreed to pay for a vast, decades-long project to solve their most in­tractable ur­ban is­sue: grid­lock traf­fic and the pol­lu­tion it causes. Shouldn’t New York­ers be given the chance to vote on a sim­i­lar mea­sure to fund af­ford­able hous­ing? What New York des­per­ately needs is newly con­structed build­ings en­tirely de­voted to house­holds with in­comes of $35,000 to $80,000, some­thing a half­cent sales tax would abun­dantly pro­vide. There’s no doubt that this pro­posal would en­counter a great deal of re­sis­tance. Some might ar­gue, for in­stance, that a spe­cial tran­sit tax to re­pair the sub­way sys­tem is more eq­ui­table be­cause it would di­rectly ben­e­fit ev­ery New Yorker, not just those in need of af­ford­able hous­ing. But the MTA has ac­cess to large amounts of cap­i­tal through fare hikes and the is­suance of mu­nic­i­pal bonds. In ad­di­tion, a com­muter sales tax of 0.375 per­cent that helps fund the sub­way al­ready ex­ists. A ma­jor­ity of New York­ers, I be­lieve, rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of the hous­ing emer­gency.

The city can ex­pect no help from the fed­eral govern­ment, which largely stopped build­ing af­ford­able pub­lic hous­ing dur­ing the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion more than forty years ago. Ben Carson, Pres­i­dent Trump’s sec­re­tary of hous­ing and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment, has ex­pressed strong op­po­si­tion to hous­ing as­sis­tance for the poor, and the mod­est amount of fed­eral money still di­rected to it will likely be cut even fur­ther when the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress re­sumes bud­get talks later this year. The New York City Hous­ing Author­ity, the govern­ment agency in charge of the city’s pub­lic hous­ing, has a $17 bil­lion deficit, the amount needed to re­pair and main­tain its 2,462 build­ings, some of which are more than sev­enty years old. In 2015, de Bla­sio im­ple­mented an ef­fec­tive pro­gram to ad­dress the deficit, but Trump’s pro­posed bud­get cuts, if ap­proved, would, in the words of a se­nior hous­ing pol­icy an­a­lyst, “set [it] back by fif­teen years.” Rarely has lo­cal fund­ing been more im­per­a­tive. Imag­i­na­tive low-cost hous­ing is one of the most ex­cit­ing branches of con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign. There is no rea­son why New York can­not par­tic­i­pate, and even be a leader, in this move­ment, in­stead of sur­ren­der­ing its sky­line to a monotony of tint­ed­glass-clad tow­ers with a hand­ful of lower-cost units thrown in as a nec­es­sary con­ces­sion to the city. One need look no fur­ther than at the ranks of lux­ury high-rises on the Wil­liams­burg wa­ter­front or in Down­town Brook­lyn, or at the self-repli­cat­ing piles clus­tered around the Queens­boro Bridge in Long Is­land City, to un­der­stand the new “blight of dull­ness,” to bor­row Jane Ja­cobs’s fa­mous phrase, that is over­tak­ing New York.

The city al­ready has a few ar­chi­tec­tural ex­am­ples of in­no­va­tive hous­ing to draw from, such as the fe­lic­i­tous gray, blue, yel­low, and red apart­ment build­ing on Bos­ton Road in the Bronx, with 154 units that the firm Break­ing Ground was able to con­struct for $47 mil­lion6 ; and the spec­tac­u­lar Via Verde, also in the Bronx, with its pleas­antly leaf-filled 6,000-square-foot court­yard, so­lar pan­els, and roofs planted with gar­den plots and fruit trees. Both are for low-in­come ten­ants and were built on city-owned land, which made their con­struc­tion less ex­pen­sive.

With a sales tax de­voted to hous­ing, af­ford­able build­ings needn’t be con­fined to land the city al­ready owns; enough money would be avail­able to pur­chase lots all over the five bor­oughs, not just in poorer dis­tricts. The build­ings could be wo­ven into the fab­ric of the city, rather than clumped to­gether in self-en­closed en­claves that pro­mote a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal as well as phys­i­cal seg­re­ga­tion. New af­ford­able hous­ing would no longer be con­tin­gent on giv­ing tax ex­emp­tions to the builders of pri­vate, mar­ket-rate projects: lux­ury de­vel­op­ers would be free to charge what­ever the mar­ket will bear for all of their units, not just 70 or 80 per­cent of them, and the city, in turn, could col­lect from th­ese de­vel­op­ers the bil­lions in prop­erty taxes that it now for­feits un­der 421-a. Hous­ing built with money from a spe­cial tax fund would be 100 per­cent af­ford­able. Over time home­less­ness would de­crease—es­pe­cially among low-wage work­ing fam­i­lies—as would the amount (cur­rently about $1.6 bil­lion per year) that the city spends on home­less ser­vices.

I have fo­cused mainly on Brook­lyn, partly be­cause its 306,374 rentsta­bi­lized apart­ments are the most in any bor­ough, but also be­cause Brook­lyn is em­blem­atic of New York’s hous­ing emer­gency, with the hy­per­in­vest­ment its real es­tate has been at­tract­ing since 2011, when the credit freeze brought on by the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis be­gan to thaw. Th­ese past six years have seen an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of dis­place­ment, and the ma­jor­ity of the dis­placed have been African-Amer­i­can. Seven of Cen­tral Brook­lyn’s most vul­ner­a­ble neigh­bor­hoods have a com­bined pop­u­la­tion of 940,000, 82 per­cent of which was black in 2010. It is the largest con­cen­tra­tion of African-Amer­i­cans (and Afro-Caribbeans) in the United States.7

In his rev­e­la­tory book The Color of Law: A For­got­ten His­tory of How Our Govern­ment Seg­re­gated Amer­ica (2017), Richard Roth­stein shows the ex­tent to which ex­plicit fed­eral pol­icy re­stricted blacks from buy­ing homes, ef­fec­tively bar­ring them from the surest path of en­ter­ing the mid­dle class, pay­ing for higher ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren, and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing wealth. The pol­icy lasted from 1934, when the Fed­eral Hous­ing Author­ity (FHA) was es­tab­lished, un­til Congress passed the Fair Hous­ing Act in 1968. By then, the dam­age had been done: work­ing-class whites in govern­ment-sub­si­dized suburban sub­di­vi­sions, with guar­an­teed mort­gages from the FHA, were ben­e­fit­ing from the in­creased value of their homes, while blacks were con­signed to live as renters in de­pop­u­lated cities, with­out eq­uity in homes and of­ten with­out jobs. Roth­stein doc­u­ments how mort­gage covenants and deeds im­posed by the not only pro­hib­ited de­vel­op­ers from sell­ing to blacks, but pro­hib­ited buy­ers from re­selling to them. “In­com­pat­i­ble groups,” the FHA man­ual said, could not be fi­nanced. The pol­icy struc­tured the economies of Amer­ica’s ma­jor mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in ways that are still felt to­day: now that New York (and a se­lect num­ber of other cities) has be­come de­sir­able to live in again, fam­i­lies that in the twentieth cen­tury had been kept poor in places like Brook­lyn and Har­lem are be­ing pushed out of their homes. We speak nowa­days with con­tri­tion of redlin­ing, the mid-twen­ti­eth­cen­tury prac­tice by banks of starv­ing black neigh­bor­hoods of mort­gages, home im­prove­ment loans, and in­vest­ment of al­most any sort. We may soon look with equal shame on what might come to be known as bluelin­ing: the trans­fig­u­ra­tion of those same neigh­bor­hoods with a del­uge of in­vest­ment aimed at a wealth­ier class.

Un­der de Bla­sio some pos­i­tive emer­gency mea­sures have been pro­posed. In Fe­bru­ary the mayor an­nounced that the city would guar­an­tee le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion for ten­ants who are fac­ing evic­tion and earn less that $50,000 per year, roughly 90 per­cent of whom ap­pear in hous­ing court with­out an at­tor­ney. Land­lords tend to drop spu­ri­ous cases when there’s coun­sel on the other side, and the num­ber of il­le­gal evic­tions has al­ready be­gun to fall.

This will give im­me­di­ate help to peo­ple in the direst cir­cum­stances. Still, nei­ther the city nor the state has yet to com­mit fully to the pro­tec­tion of New York’s renters where they need it most: in their ex­ist­ing af­ford­able apart­ments. Un­der de Bla­sio’s plan, well in­ten­tioned though it may be, the hous­ing cri­sis is al­most cer­tain to worsen. To what ex­tent should a renter who ful­fills the terms of his lease be shielded from the va­garies of real es­tate mar­kets with their spec­u­la­tive booms and busts? More broadly, what kind of city do New York­ers want to live in? What re­spon­si­bil­ity, if any, do we bear to make sure that our most be­sieged cit­i­zens are not pushed out by our cur­rent ur­ban pros­per­ity? Th­ese are crit­i­cal ques­tions that New York, and other cities prof­it­ing from a surge of pri­vate real es­tate cap­i­tal, must an­swer.

A view from 7 DeKalb Av­enue, an apart­ment tower in Down­town Brook­lyn. Eighty per­cent of its 250 apart­ments are sub­si­dized units, for which there were 87,754 ap­pli­ca­tions when it opened.

A block in Bed­ford-Stuyvesant, May 2011

Mayor Bill de Bla­sio and City Coun­cil­man Robert Corn­egy tak­ing ques­tions dur­ing a town hall meet­ing in Bed­ford-Stuyvesant, March 9, 2017. At the meet­ing, Michael Green­berg writes, ‘the mayor told his wor­ried au­di­ence not to “think the city is all-pow­er­ful.”’

East Har­lem res­i­dents protest­ing the city’s re­zon­ing plan for the neigh­bor­hood dur­ing a com­mu­nity fo­rum, Novem­ber 2016. When the plan came to a vote the fol­low­ing June, Michael Green­berg re­ports, a lo­cal protester called it ‘eth­nic cleans­ing.’

Bos­ton Road Sup­port­ive Hous­ing for low-in­come ten­ants in the Mor­risa­nia sec­tion of the South Bronx, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the ar­chi­tect Alexan­der Gor­lin and the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Break­ing Ground, which pro­vides hous­ing for the home­less FHA

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