Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: The city in 2018
Letter From New York
Incomes are rising fastest for low-paying jobs, such as food service. From 2013 to 2017, the average weekly wage for workers at limited-service restaurants in the five boroughs rose to $417 from $330. In addition, because tax revenues have risen so much in the last few years, spending on infrastructure will climb from $8 billion 2017 to $10 billion at the end of the decade. For some New Yorkers, the most significant positive statistic is that the city's overall crime rate continued to drop during the first six months of this year, but there was also a spike in the number of rapes and murders. I think most people feel safer walking NYC's streets, but crime never magically disappears in large cosmopolitan cities where growing economic inequality is the rule. And by the city's own measure, 1 in 5 residents lives in poverty, and more than 40 percent in near poverty, while the city houses the highest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world.
Yes, there is an egregious gap between the rich and poor in the city, but New York still looks after its poorest with a generosity, scale and effort I think unmatched anywhere in the country. It does this by knitting together a safety net of federal, state and city programs. It's clearly insufficient, but the safety net nevertheless exists.
One thing the city fails at is caring for its smaller parks (Central Park has its conservancy), which last saw a major renovation in 1997. Twenty percent of parks have not undergone a major infrastructure upgrade in 25 years. And though the subways have shown modest improvement — The Metropolitan Transit Authority says 70.3 percent of all weekday subway trains reached their destination on time, the system's best showing in more than three years — still, 56,000 trains were late, and our dysfunctional subways have a long way to go before they favorably compare with London's well-run underground.
The worst crisis the city faces is the lack of affordable housing. Over the last 20 years, wages have increased by less than 15 per cent, while rents have increased by almost 40 percent. In addition, according to Michael Greenberg in his fine essay in the New York Review of Books: rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at a disturbing rate as landlords harass rent regulated occupants with a variety of coercive techniques to get them to leave. Also, when Mayor De Blasio managed to squeeze 6,844 new affordable units out of developers in 2016, only 35 percent of those apartments were for households making less than $40,000. So most New Yorkers scramble for affordable apartments, while for the poorest there is only homelessness. There are at least 61,000 people whose shelter is provided, on any given day, by New York's Department of Homeless Services.
The issue of affordable apartments plays a role in the controversy over the city and state's deal for bringing the world's wealthiest company, Amazon, to New York. Amazon set off a courting process in 2017 as cities offered up substantial tax breaks with the hope of luring Amazon's second headquarters. Long Island City and Arlington, Va. won the competition with Amazon splitting 50,000 employees between both places.
The unanswered question is will New York gain anything, besides publicity, from bringing Amazon here? The company claims it will create as many as 40,000 new jobs over the next 15 years. But critics contend that the tax incentives ($4.6 billion) were excessive, there was little or no public consultation, nobody examined how it would affect the city's semi-broken transportation system, and gentrification in the Long Island City neighborhood where Amazon is located will force out low-income residents. In addition, Amazon is anti-union, its board is all white, and it has made few promises to hire locally.
Amazon has the fulsome support of both Gov. Cuomo and De Blasio, with Cuomo aggressively asserting: "This is a big money-maker for us — costs us nothing, nada, niente. We make money doing this." For Cuomo, the governing principle of economic development is that corporations must be bribed if they are to come to N.Y. State, But historically, the results of these incentives have been mixed.
At this point there is no way of stopping Amazon from establishing itself in Long Island City, and twice as many New Yorkers approve of the deal as reject it. But there is no avoiding the fact that it's a giant giveaway, and the city has to strike a harder deal so it gets something substantial back in return.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com
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