Stuck in Place in New York
New York City right now is a city where people are often stuck in place. Not because they lack ambition or a work ethic, but because the juggernaut of high real estate prices is making life difficult.
I work in an office where most of the people who work there that live within the five boroughs have a commute that is at least an hour on a good day. My commute to work is an hour and fifteen minutes under the best of circumstances and can be significantly longer when things are at their worst. We would all love to live closer to our office, which is in the Flatiron district, but none of us can afford to live nearby.
Even the New York Times, whose primary audience is the more affluent New Yorkers among us, ran a story about retirees who would like to return to the city but can’t because real estate prices are becoming so outrageous.
When I first moved back to New York and was looking for an apartment in early 1998 one of the places I looked for a studio was Wavecrest Gardens in Far Rockaway. They had beautiful studio apartments with ocean views for about $500 per month. There were some drawbacks that kept me away (it would have been a long commute to work and a coworker who moved there said he saw people smoking crack in the stairwells), but the apartments were beautiful and affordable. If prices had simply kept up with inflation, a $500 per month apartment in 1998 would cost roughly $740 today. A studio at Wavecrest Gardens now lists for roughly $1,000 per month today. So rents have moved up at more than double the rate of inflation over the past sixteen years. And for areas that are more fashionable, the increase has gotten even steeper. Parts of Astoria and Williamsburg list small studio for upwards of $2,800 per month, and probably more in some places.
I consider myself very fortunate. I have a steady job with a good salary and my family is healthy and does not want for food, clothing, or shelter. But if we were to try to move to a larger apartment to house our growing brood we would have to take on considerable debt to remain in the same neighborhood, and would not find a place much larger than what we have now for what we could afford.
I have many friends who are bright, hard-working people trying to raise families in safe neighborhoods with good schools. They are not looking for handouts or set-asides. They can’t afford to stay where they are and can’t afford anything else in the area. Some friends and family have fled to New Jersey, some are considering leaving the Northeast entirely, heading to wherever they can make a sound living and provide for their kids.
New York is a place famous for attracting creative people, but creative people need affordable places to live and New York is starting to lose is creative critical mass. Artists and writers don’t need to have the same geographic presence they once did. In the digital age it doesn’t matter if you’re creating your work in New York or Detroit or Tuscaloosa. Most of the Western world downloads its content from the Internet, and traveling to a geographic center to get your work recognized is not as necessary as it used to be.
New Yorkers don’t mind paying a premium to live in the center of Western civilization. And New York is not an anti-capitalist place. It’s the most capitalist place on Earth in many ways. New York is a very tough place to get ahead but at the same time is famous for providing more opportunities than anywhere else in whatever your field of choice. If we want to continue to be that way, then something’s got to be done about the cost of housing. You have to get people to live here and stay a while before they can accomplish things.
If it doesn’t make sense to stay in New York, the middle and working classes will be gone and what will be left wont’ be pleasant for anyone.