NYC’s First-World Problems

by Kevin D. Williamson

Jim Epstein of Reason has some amusing observations about the phenomenon of “poor doors” in high-end Manhattan buildings — separate entrances that segregate tenants in so-called affordable-housing apartments from those paying the full price, which in Manhattan tops out at about $90,000 a month. High-end builders in Manhattan often take on some affordable-housing or rent-stabilization burdens in exchange for concessions from the city, generally in the form of tax breaks or in access to government-subsidized financing. If you’re surprised that those patriotically named Liberty Bonds are used to build pricey apartments in Manhattan or a new headquarters for Goldman Sachs, you don’t understand how American politics works.

The fundamental problem — which is not really a problem as normal English-speakers might understand that word — is that, just as the median California household is nowhere near being able to afford the median California house, the typical Manhattan household cannot come close to affording the typical Manhattan apartment. The local rule of thumb holds that you can afford a given apartment if your annual income is 40 times the monthly rent; if you make less than that, landlords will typically demand a guarantor to co-sign your lease, if they will rent to you at all. The difficulty involved is that the median rental in Manhattan is $3,200 a month (the mean is nearly $4,000), and 40 times $3,200 is $128,000, the annual income you’d need to afford the median Manhattan apartment. But the median household income in Manhattan — not in New York City, but in Manhattan — is only $66,739, or just a little more than half of what you’d need to afford the  median apartment. Put another way, well more than half the people who live in Manhattan cannot really afford to live there. Of course there are ambitious young people living eight to a hovel and middle-aged people living in roommate arrangements more suited to college students, but that is how it is.

I write that this is not really a problem because: There is no particular reason that most people living in Manhattan, much less those in households earning $66,739 or less, really need to live there. This is a wonderful example of how progressives invent social problems that have nothing to do with real privation or economic concerns and everything to do with the social ambitions of upper-middle-class, college-educated white people. There are much more affordable alternatives available within reasonable commuting distance from Manhattan; my own curriculum domuum includes Norwalk, Conn., about an hour away by train, and the South Bronx, about a 25-minute subway ride to National Review’s palatial headquarters at Buckley Towers. There are convenient and comfortable if unglamorous accommodations available in Queens, Yonkers, etc. Which is to say: An apartment in Manhattan is a luxury good — why should we organize any public policy around subsidizing the consumption of the residential equivalent of a Mercedes Benz?

As Mr. Epstein points out, the ridiculous upshot of this is housing subsidies for households earning nearly $200,000 a year. Can’t quite afford the lifestyle you’d prefer on $200,000 a year? That’s a pretty high-class problem. So why does it get top-tier billing?

The answer is that our managerial elites regard the satisfaction of their own tastes as public goods. Well-off New Yorkers are subsidized at every turn, from their homes to their transportation to their theater tickets. Helping relatively affluent people enjoy the things they value at a discount apparently is a municipal and national priority.

My own attitude about this is piratical: I am the happy occupier of a rent-stabilized apartment leased at what I take to be a substantial discount (though it doesn’t feel that way on the first day of the month!) as a result of precisely the sort of government financing subsidy I’d kill outright if I had the power to do so. (I’d get rid of Social Security, too, but in the unlikely event that the program and I both survive another 25 years, I will be happy to cash that check: I intend to claw back what I can from the politicians. If I thought I could get farm subsidies for whatever is growing in my refrigerator, I’d sign up in a second.)

My building doesn’t have a “poor door” per se; what we have is two separate banks of elevators: Turn left and the elevators will take you to the (relatively) reasonably priced apartments on the lower floors; turn right, and the elevators take you up to the shockingly expensive places up top. I like to test my socio-economic eye in the lobby and guess whether people are left-turners or right-turners, and I’m shooting about 80 percent, which makes me feel like a minor character in some modern version of an off-brand Henry James novel, a bush-league Morris Townsend.

But then, I’m a left-turner. 

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