They’ve got cars big as bars, they’ve got rivers of gold; but the wind goes right through you it’s no place for the old

My wife put me onto this story:

ON July 12, someone slipped a letter under Ann Shannon’s front door and under the front door of every other apartment in Knickerbocker Plaza, a hulking government-subsidized complex on Second Avenue at East 91st Street.

The letter announced that the owner of the 578-apartment complex was withdrawing from the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, which subsidizes lower- and middle-income housing, and would be raising rents to market levels by next summer.

Transformation of housing for middle-income families into luxury apartments has become an ever more persistent refrain in the city, accompanied by ever more anger and unhappiness on the part of residents.

When Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village along the East River were sold in a record-setting deal late last year, howls of dismay were heard, not only from tenants but from champions of affordable housing. The intensity of their reaction was due in part to the immense complexes’ symbolic role as havens for generations of working- and middle-class New Yorkers.

Here’s where the New York Times cocks up their argument (I think). The bad side of this is that these areas ‘should’ exist to benefit New York City service people (police, firefighters, teachers, etc.). The New York Times’ welfarism, though, takes this bent:

The anxiety that filled the apartments and hallways of Knickerbocker Plaza after the letter arrived was especially noticeable at the complex’s senior center, a popular meeting place for the elderly men and women who make up about a third of the buildings’ 1,500 residents.

“Everyone is very stressed,” said Carol McCabe, a tenant of 32 years who helps run the center. “You’re afraid. You don’t know what’s going to happen to your life in a year.”

Residents are already eyeing the future uneasily.

“Where am I going to go?” asked Shirley Deonarine, a retired nurse who has also lived at Knickerbocker since it opened. “Everywhere you turn, it’s luxury rentals.”

Near Ms. Deonarine sat a retired Teamster who used to work for Pepsi-Cola, a former hospital administrator, a man who used to sell produce, two former employees of the city’s Parks Department and a retired teacher. The group was typical of the people the Mitchell-Lama program was designed to benefit.

Here’s where I’m a bastard. New York City has more housing problems than this (like its approach to affordability by way of rent control and rent stabilisation), but the main argument one must consider is the space Manhattan has, and the people working and living (or trying to live) in it. By listing a building full of retired people, all the Times probably does is remind us of the manufactured housing shortages that plague the rest of us trying to find an apartment here.

I’m not saying that luxury co-ops, etc. are good – it will not help matters, it will only let new-wealthy people spend more of their money. I doubt average rents will ease, or that the rental market here will get any slack. What I am saying is that no point of welfarism is going to be carried by pointing to retirees. Let them move to New Jersey; let them move to Florida.

It is the unkindness characteristic of a dismal scientist, but keeping a system in place, artificially, for the benefit of retirees whose preference is to live in a place that is only affordable if the rest of us suffer is extra-welfarist. Even in the social-welfarist countries of my background, that will not be popular. If you lost a high-paying job and had to take less money, you would not be able to insist the city keeps rent low so you can afford to stay where you are. If you retire and settle on a lower fixed income, the same principle should apply.

The moral implication is not good, I admit. It says we should have a city of few families and no elderly, except the very rich. Mate, if you thought Manhattan was anything besides heading that way already…

What did surprise me was that this was the Times’ take although, given the nature of New York City The Culture, perhaps it should no. No argument is made, though, that the people who keep us safe, clean and educate our children are owed affordable housing here while they do so. That welfarism I will support, because it makes perfect sense. This argument does not.


1 comment so far

  1. Bud Fox on

    Exactly right! By forcing out all these working class people who actually run the city (what you mean Wall Street doesn’t run NYC, buahhaahaa!), all you are doing is creating a negative chain effect that is going to draw away these people and force them into other cities to teach, police, and firefighters, etc. somewhere else. That will only degrade the standards of the city itself. New York is already a city sharply divided by Haves and Have-Nots, just like Los Angeles. In effect, this is exactly the problem we are having with the U.S. of A. overall and it’s partly why we are in the economic slump we’re in now.

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