Leonard Quart: The state of the city as 2015 ends

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NEW YORK >> Trying to sum up the state of New York in 2015 is not easy. I often run into people who without my asking offer a list of what's wrong with the city: It is getting more and more congested, bicycle lanes and pedestrian islands add to the gridlock, and mass transport, especially our bus service, is woefully inadequate. Buses either run in clusters, or make up time by passing stops, contemptuously informing us by a lit sign "Next Bus Please," or never bother to show up at all.

But the greatest antipathy is reserved for the enormously high, usually sterile towers that have gone up all over Manhattan, dwarfing all around them. They have replaced gas stations, garages, tenements, and empty lots.

In addition, the fact that familiar neighborhood shops with long histories of serving neighborhood people are being replaced by homogeneous impersonal chain stores and chic specialty shops that sell artisanal cheese, expensive chocolates, high fashion clothing, and upscale furniture means a piece of the city's past is rapidly disappearing and an environment shaped by big money is replacing it.

In short, while it's imperative for the city to deal with the severe urban problems that face every American city — failing education, homelessness, crime, and so on — it is confronted with an equally urgent new phenomenon, a city where well-paid middle-class people may have trouble finding an affordable place to live,

The people I speak to who are enraged about the city's gradually turning into a playground for the rich are far from impoverished. They are all economically comfortable and in no danger of being priced out of the city. Still they remain disgruntled, even vaguely talking of leaving for other cities or second homes.

Many of their complaints are justified. The average monthly rent in Manhattan is slightly above $4,000, a 2.6 percent increase from the same time last year. And the average sale price of a Manhattan co-op is now $1.87 million, 11.4 percent higher than a year ago. This includes new apartments, but also the resale of older co-ops as well.

Inventory is tightening, prices are rising and apartments are selling faster. There are also frequent bidding wars, since the city's vacancy rate is just 3.45 percent. It's quite common for any open house to have lines of tense, hopeful tenants, carrying their checkbooks to seal the deal right away.

It's not only Manhattan that is expensive. Rents in Brooklyn and Queens are also going up, and Brooklyn's median sales price, given that it has turned into an iconic, destination borough, now rests at close to $700,000. That price is now 25 percent above its pre-recession high in 2007, and Dumbo — the Brooklyn neighborhood of luxuriant industrial lofts and high tech companies, lying between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges — is the fourth most expensive neighborhood in the city.

The dearth of affordable housing not only makes it hard for younger middle class families to find an affordable place to live, it also impacts the city's homeless population. New York, with a population of over eight million, has about 14 percent of all homeless people in the United States. The lack of affordable housing is only one reason for homelessness, but it's part of the problem that Mayor De Blasio is trying to address.

De Blasio has unveiled a $2.6 billion, 15-year plan to create 15,000 units of housing that will include social services for veterans, mentally disabled people and others needing help. It's another element in De Blasio's signature commitment to affordable housing. The mayor's aim to reduce inequality is a worthy one, but achieving that is something else.

While he has been criticized for depending on developers for affordable housing, he has no other recourse. The reality of the market's dominance cannot be wished away. De Blasio has a plan to build 80,000 apartments that includes mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require 25 percent to 30 percent affordable housing for any new development and also another set of zoning rules that would allow taller buildings in some areas.

Developers have embraced the idea, but it has led to protests from residents and rejection by a number of community boards that view the new buildings' affordable apartments as too expensive, and the buildings themselves leading to gentrification. Other residents and boards have opposed the additional height and density that the proposed new zoning rules will allow, destroying the architectural fabric of the neighborhood. Many of the criticisms are valid, but De Blasio is trying to stem the tide, and any workable alternatives to his plan are welcome.

I don't want to see a homogeneous city where the culture of the wealthy is dominant. However, from a purely selfish perspective (I luckily live in a rent-controlled apartment), I find the gentrified city an easier place to live than the city of earlier decades. Less crime, a stunning Central Park, major expansions of museums and theaters, and some neighborhoods that gleam after years of seediness and squalor.

Still, one wants a city where working and middle class people, artists, and immigrants can live, and where the architectural past is preserved: a magical balance between gentrification and preservation.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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