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There is an unspoken rule in any chats, discussions or exchanges between friends and neighbors that all live in the New York City area. People do not discuss the issues of their rent with each other. Why this is the case is as complicated as the rules for renting are, but suffice it to say that it avoids a lot of extra anger or angst, or jealousy or fear.

In the year 2000, before I had even heard of LiveJournal, well before MySpace and Friendster took over the internet and long before Facebook and Twitter were even a concept, I was on my third year of writing opinion columns, a kind of amusing commentary, and sent them out as emails to my pals and relatives on my mailing list. I gave this grouping of pieces an umbrella title: “Trendspotting.” The essays ran the gamut from science to sports, from food to foolishness, all with the bent that they were viewed through the prism, or prison, that was New York. I typically wrote one every other week that year, enough to be interesting without spamming all those excite dot com, AOL dot com or Compuserve users who agreed to receive them.

This was the era of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, or as I (and many others, eventually) billed him: “Ghouliani,” a man who as Attorney General of the city, sent a laser like focus on “ORDER” throughout his district. Elected to office after the first black mayor in the history of the metropolis, David Dinkins, was ousted in 1993, Giuliani resolved to eliminate crime, improve neighborhoods and support business, especially businesses that would help create that “family values” image he wished to establish.

On the surface, those all seem like appropriate and useful elements that any mayor of any town would and should embrace. But, whenever you do something in New York that affects how the city functions, someone wins and someone loses. By and large, the people who had to pay were the poorest residents of the city. One of the first notable elements was that homeless people, frequently found standing at high-volume traffic intersections with a squeegee and a bucket to wash your car windows or camped out at a subway station or aboard a train, panhandling, began to “disappear.”

What actually happened to those people is unclear, but they apparently weren’t a New York problem anymore. There were suggestions that some were given bus tickets to cities with warmer climates (which, if it were true, might help explain the incredible issue of homeless people in places like Orlando, Houston and New Orleans, among other such cities in the ensuing years).

Additionally, the smutty, grimy and undeniably pornographic area of town, “Hell’s Kitchen,” which incorporated the XXX movie theaters of Times Square, was also cleansed, turned into a showcase for such retailers as Disney, Virgin, M&Ms and eventually Toys “Я” Us.

As the city’s reputation for being safer grew, so did the desire for suburban residents to return here, ditching their long commutes from Long Island, Connecticut or New Jersey for the convenience of living close by and taking advantage of the benefits of living among some of the greatest cultural wonders of any single place on the planet: museums, parks and the cultural arts among the most notable elements.

Landlords in the city knew this could lead to bigger and better paydays. But New York has some very curious laws on the books when it comes to rent. The two that matter are “rent stabilization” and “rent control.”

Admittedly, NYC is not the only place that has such laws. But it’s really apparent here because of the lengthening gap between those that live with such laws and those that do not.

As demand for space in New York increased, Economics 101 reminds you that rents, likewise went up. But, thanks to “rent stabilization” the landlord cannot jack up the price more than a small amount if the apartment in question is under the rules of that law. Not every apartment must adhere to these laws, which is what makes this so arcane.

The other problem is that if you want find a “rent stabilized” apartment, you’ll have to wait for someone to move out of one. And that could be a very long wait. Many people die before moving out, and some even put the names of family members on the lease, basically “willing” the place to their relatives!

Back when I was noting all of the changes coming to New York at the turn of the century, I, mostly tongue-in-cheek, but not quite to the satire level of the, at that point, new humor publication/site “The Onion,” stated “New York, and most specifically Manhattan island, will become a gated community in the next twenty years.”

The projection was based on the way luxury condos and co-op buildings were starting to be constructed, in relation to almost no “affordable housing” for anyone not making seven figures a year. But so many were doing so well! Wall Street was booming. Silicon Alley, the Flatiron district’s minuscule answer to Silicon Valley, was up and running (and I was also working there, at one of the dot coms of the era). The club scene was still a trend, even as the Mayor was trying with all his might to squelch it. But most of all, there was a sense that the city was on the verge of something notable. Even the local baseball teams were sharing in the excitement as they both went on to face each other in that year’s World Series.

The question I asked at the time was the question that still must be answered, now. What will happen to the workers, the people that run the town? How are they supposed to live if they can’t afford to be here? And what will become of all the artists? A city thrives on the energy of those people who create. What do you do when they all get priced out of the market? But then...

September 11, 2001.

What nobody discussed in the wake of those events was that the rental marked bottomed out as people initially knee jerked when they considered that NYC was probably the biggest target for any terrorist that had issues with the west generally and the United States specifically. The UN is here, so an attack here sends a message everywhere.

But, on second thought, as a sense of pride, of caring, of feeling that we could and would make it through this, costs started to rise again, in some cases even higher than before the attacks. Suddenly corporations wanted to be here, and not just in the standard business district locations. It was boom time, again.

But maybe the most frightening element for anyone wanting to live in NYC were three entities serving as “Super Landlords” that have made the market what it is today.

The first two were the most noted seats of learning in the city: Columbia University to the North and New York University to the south. Both of these schools had sought more space, for classrooms, storage, research, but also for students, as dorm rooms were both difficult to come by, and extremely lucrative. With both schools buying up as much property as they could for their faculty, staff and students, it put a strain on anyone living in the areas of Morningside Heights or Greenwich Village who wanted to stay there.

But the biggest issue that still must be addressed somehow are The Banks.

J. P. Morgan Chase, Citi and Bank of America own a lot of properties around New York. Many of those properties are some of the best in town. The problem is that there is no wiggle room with a bank. Where a normal landlord may have to make a compromise and allow a tenant to rent space from them because that landlord has to pay expenses, these megabanks have no such issue. They can sit for an endless length of time, properties vacant, until they get the price they want from the tenant they like.

This is a major issue because it creates a rent shortage and a luxury gap. Because of how expensive the most expensive properties have become, businesses and tenants that might have located in those areas were forced to a more “affordable” space. As that happened, the people who might have been able to continue in that space got pushed out into a cheaper neighborhood. And with “gentrification,” (a misnomer for rooting out what were minority neighborhoods and converting them into “mainstream” places), a horrible game of Musical Chairs is in constant motion where the loser is out of luck and likely out of town.

Granted Mayor Bill de Blasio has created tax breaks for any luxury builder that provides space for “affordable housing” on their property. But even the term “affordable” is questionable, in a town where people are subletting closet space as a bedroom for over a thousand dollars a month (but hey! You have access to the living room and kitchen when nobody else is home)!

So, how does someone actually afford to live in New York City? If I told you, I’d have to kill you.


This thinkpost was written for LJ Idol, using the prompt "The Rent I Pay."


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 8th, 2017 03:44 am (UTC)
I've missed reading this style from you a bit. I mean the clever fiction pieces are good, but you've also always done thinkpieces well as much as I've read of you. I did not know that about the banks owning luxury properties in NYC. It does create the kind of lockout that I, liking big cities as much as I do, will have nothing to do with--prices are scary even if we don't talk about them.
May. 12th, 2017 12:29 am (UTC)
Thanks so much. I think the market is still very tricky, also because there are big money foreign entities who use the NYC real estate market as a big money laundering scheme, but talking about that takes an already convoluted topic and carries it in yet another direction!

There are ways of living that can be somewhat affordable but the bottom line is that unless you can buy your own places like your Taylor Swifts and Oprahs, it is a serious compromise.
May. 8th, 2017 04:30 am (UTC)
Don't get me started about housing costs! I'm lucky to have benefitted from the crazy housing market in the SF Bay Area, but housing is simply unaffordable for nearly everyone now. Then again, do you know about the mid-century bomb shelters where people live to avoid the (3rd highest in the world) rents in Beijing?
May. 12th, 2017 12:31 am (UTC)
Yes, the Bay Area in some ways is even worse, just because the spacing of everything means commuting from home to work can be a haul!

I didn't hear about those bomb shelter concepts, but I'm not surprised that they're getting used. If things go the way they might, those people might actually be the fortunate few!

Thanks for reading my rant!
May. 8th, 2017 01:30 pm (UTC)
Hey, a piece about New York that talks about the time I lived there! I actually lived in Jersey City, but I worked, played, and dated in Manhattan, and I took that long PATH ride every day because I couldn't afford the city proper. I really liked this breakdown of the situation, and I appreciate the fact that someone with the "Rent" prompt went there.
May. 12th, 2017 12:34 am (UTC)
I wonder if we ever would have crossed paths? Did you ever come to the Central Park Skate Circle - just northeast of the Sheep Meadow? If you did during that era, you might have seen me skating and blowing bubbles, either in or out of my clown costume.

And, for a year, I was living in Hoboken so I did the Jersey thing too!

Thanks for reflecting on a good/bad time for the city!
May. 8th, 2017 03:28 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this essay. It reminded me of an article (tv news?) I once read/saw about a luxury apartment with a few "affordable housing" spaces. The "affordable" tenants were required to us a separate entrance in an alley, so they wouldn't bring down the image of the building and the other tenants were shielded from encountering them. Supply and demand can be very cruel when applied to housing. You did an excellent job.
May. 12th, 2017 12:38 am (UTC)
Apparently, to permit the big money renters/owners of spaces in these glass tower condos/co-ops, one of the concessions is that the "affordable" folks have to enter through a side entrance, that's true! And there was a lot of discussion about it. But that's so crazy, I think normal people would both find it difficult to believe but also impossible to understand.

I don't know where the housing market is going, but I suspect that it isn't going to improve much for the next ten years.
May. 8th, 2017 04:15 pm (UTC)
You really know your way around a hard-hitting op-ed piece and this entry absolutely shines with your panache. Such an absolutely perfect response to the prompt. Urban rent is about as insane as my Obamacare premiums. It's inhumane. We used to let wayward street punks crash in our closet because it was huge and we outfitted it as a sleeping space and it was used A LOT!
May. 12th, 2017 12:43 am (UTC)
Thanks for some very kind words.

Basically everything is a compromise when it comes to living in New York. Either you have some space and you live in a neighborhood too far or too dangerous for your liking or you live in a great part of town and you are inside the equivalent of a steamer trunk. Or you are sharing with a bunch of people, none of whom you like or maybe even know.

Believe me, your closet bedroom would do very well here, expecially if it's near an express stop on the subway!
May. 9th, 2017 02:43 am (UTC)

After 9/11, a friend of mine who had previously only been able to afford a street-level studio next to a comedy club was able to get a really nice, centrally located place - for five years. Then, when her original lease was up early, and people were coming back to the city, he tripled her rent and she was forced to move out to Long Island.

I live in GA on nearly an acre of land with around 20 acres of woods around me. The cost of livingbout here is one of the lowest in the nation. I can hardly imagine what it would be like to live in a city like New York!

May. 12th, 2017 12:50 am (UTC)
That story about your friend sadly isn't unique. If a landlord is able to make "tenant improvements," over time, they can raise the rent on a lease to "market value," effectively taking that apartment unit out of "rent stabilization." Before, a lot of landlords couldn't afford to do that because that was big money. Now, some of them were able to rent space to some of the bigger retailers, like starbucks and whatnot, and so they started being able to improve their properties.

NYC is the ultimate game of Monopoly, and most people are just moving from place to place paying rent, not buying anything and earning. I think we know how the results of that will go!

American Pastoral. The country mouse and the city mouse! I'm not one of those city snobs. I could and might actually like to try your style of living.

Thanks for your thoughts and a little taste of the 20 Acre Wood!
May. 9th, 2017 10:21 pm (UTC)
Same gentrification is happening in Philly, and Delaware area also, and the chances of finding employment to afford housing are slim. I feel badly for the kids who, even with splitting rent and expenses are unable to afford an important step to be independent. Hugs and peace~~~
May. 12th, 2017 12:59 am (UTC)
My last stay in Philadelphia, I got to stay at an air bnb that was clearly someone's family home and these people were doing what they could to retain their property. I don't know how they're doing these days, but the circumstances were tough!

There are a lot of people who have not gotten to truly live "on their own," and the fact is, they actually may never because of how everything has been set up... unless we all start living in tiny houses!

Thanks for the reflections!
May. 9th, 2017 11:21 pm (UTC)
Wow, what a mess. I hadn't heard about the megabanks sitting on properties, which sure doesn't help.

You can understand why people will apartments to their children-- how else is there any hope for them?

I wish I had some answers here, but I hope you and yours are at least doing well...
May. 12th, 2017 01:07 am (UTC)
It's kind of a mess, and ultimately, I think this sort of situation is what helps to destroy cities generally, and cities that are related to the arts, especially.

Thanks for your wishes, and for reading along!
May. 10th, 2017 10:25 am (UTC)
Such a timely article! Here affordable housing is on the news almost daily. And yes, it is always the poor who pay.

Seriously good!
May. 12th, 2017 01:08 am (UTC)
Thanks very much for a wonderful comment. It's a tough situation and we're all working through it.
May. 11th, 2017 02:39 am (UTC)
Me and my friends break those rent rules all the damn time. Maybe because we want to protect each other. Maybe so we don't question how we afford things we shouldn't be able to afford.

I know the horror stories as well and I know deep dark the reality of NYC real estate more then someone not in real estate wants to. Working for NYCHA and experiencing my friends trying to actually spend hard earned money to make an area better for all and facing resistance cause DOB.

Anyways, great quality historical view of our crazy crazy city.
May. 12th, 2017 01:11 am (UTC)
I think if you have a "Dead Landlord's Society," you probably could work together to share info!

Renting is hating. It's just giving money for space and time, money that you never get back. Just more craziness.

Thanks for stopping by!
May. 11th, 2017 08:04 am (UTC)
This was a great insight and you did a great job of explaining the situation. The situation here in Mumbai is very similar and the word "affordable" just means you have to move to the outskirts of the city and travel two- three hours daily. A nice take!
May. 12th, 2017 01:13 am (UTC)
Thanks very much... I suspect that every city that people must negotiate for work or pleasure has some sort of weird renting/living circumstances.

Mumbai is like New York that way, only probably bigger! Thanks for a little hint about the view from where you are!
May. 11th, 2017 09:54 pm (UTC)
I just listened to part of a fascinating call in show about the history of affordable housing initiatives in America and this is such an interesting addition to that. The keys here in Florida face similar pressures to NYC in some ways, though on a smaller and even weirder scale. This was a fascinating read! I wonder if we'll ever admit that without some type of control, housing markets will always favor profits for the few over development that satisfies larger numbers of people and that comes with so many other benefits (for people other than big landowners).
May. 12th, 2017 01:17 am (UTC)
This really is another dividing line: people who own property and those who do not. If you own your own place, you always have a place to be. If you are renting, you can be booted out, you can lose the ability to pay, you can have a landlord who decided to knock down that building and build something new.

Thanks for sharing the issues about the Florida Keys. I'm not surprised, as that's a finite space where a lot of people would love to be... not unlike New York!
May. 12th, 2017 01:17 am (UTC)
I'm having a hard enough time finding a place for 3 people in Houston. I can't even imagine what NY would look like. :/
May. 13th, 2017 01:26 pm (UTC)
Houston is the place to be right now, from all indications. I have a couple of friends who have moved there in the last few years - one who is a reporter/weekend anchor for the local Fox affiliate down there (who took time off because she had her first baby).

But it's kind of a boom town! At least there's a sense that an artistic community is working (my other friend works for the Alley Theatre so she's also involved in that kind of stuff).

Aside from the Hurricane threats, it seems like a pretty great place to be!
May. 24th, 2017 03:49 am (UTC)
This was a good read. I agree with all the other comments and this is a good style for you - the think pieces.

The rent scene isn't as bad in Dallas/Ft. Worth as it is in New York, but it can still be ridiculous. One of my constant fears renting was that the landlord could increase my rent to whatever and price me out of my home. Constantly having to move every year to find cheaper rent? And then paying to move! Packing and unpacking? My nightmare.

My friend in Vancouver says that the province has a rule that rent can't be increased more than ~3% and then she's shocked that they raise it exactly what they're legally allowed to raise it. I was like, "I know your rent increased and it sucks and I don't mean to say to count your blessings, but my rent went up over 15% my last year. It could be worse." And it wasn't like I got a 15% raise! And even if I did, I don't want to spend it all on housing.

Nothing gives me more anxiety than the unknown - when that unknown will directly affect me in a decidedly negative way!

I'm so relieved I bought a house. Now my rent will never increase. (My property taxes, however...)
May. 24th, 2017 11:20 am (UTC)
In NYC, the sad fact is everything is a compromise and if you get a workable situation you should just stay with it as long as you can because changing frequently is a losing game.

At least if you own your property, it belongs to you (or you belong to it, more accurately). So, good luck with your good looking home!
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )

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