Can de Blasio return it?
“Huge tax breaks up to half a billion dollars a year were being given to developers to build luxury buildings,” argues the authors of Vanishing City in a 55-minute documentary screened by Community Board 2. It was followed by a panel who supported the premise that the Bloomberg administration overly favored developers in the guise of having them build affordable apartments under the so-called 80/20 rule (80 percent market rate and 20 percent affordable). “Affordable to whom?” was the general audience rejoinder in the 3-hour session in an overly heated Judson Church conference room on Tuesday, February 18th.
The film assembles experts, politicians, and victims of the recent explosion of luxury apartment building for what appears to be inexorable growth in wealth of the one percent and their progeny. As the film came to an end, I kept thinking that de Blasio has repeatedly pledged to refurbish or build 200,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years and how did he plan to do it? Would he build public “public housing” – something like Stuyvesant town? Would he try “slum clearance” and via eminent domain claim depressed neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Would he take over buildings from slumlords and fix them up? Would he provide rent subsidies for those who can’t afford “luxury” apartments? Just how would he bridge the every widening gap between the super-rich and us Western Beef sale shoppers?
The film makers, Fiore De Rosa and Jen Senko, are both West Villagers and had the idea to make the film because they began to realize that the only people left in the West Village were those lucky enough to be in rent regulated apartments or who bought their apartment 20 years ago and new “creative” people like themselves, could not afford to move in.
The irony is that filmmaker Fiore excused his not returning my call because he was repairing leaks in buildings that he serviced and agreed we were losing rent regulated apartments as tenants moved or died and that slumlords would simply not making any repairs in the hope of forcing them out.
The film did not offer any solutions and I am going to see if I can get back to some of my de Blasio contacts to see if we can find the man or woman that de Blasio has designated to build the 200,000 units of affordable housing. However, this issue is going to press so I thought I would take you back in time – way back – to when New York had lots of affordable apartments.
Back, before the war, with the first warm days of spring, my German mother would say, “I think we should move,” and we would go for a walk on the Upper West Side. If she saw an apartment building just a little bit nicer than the one we were living, in she would look up to the sign “Apartments to Let” to see if they had any 2 or 3-bedroom ones and if the sign said yes, she would have me push the shining brass bell marked “Super” and from the basement he came with an enormous ring of keys. She would ask, “Do you have a 3-bedroom on the top floor?” (Top floor apartments were cheaper and sunnier.)
We would climb the four flights and the super would open the door to reveal a newly painted apartment with newly varnished floors and a paper runner down the long hall with bedroom after bedroom off it to the sunny dining room and parlor in the front.
“How much?” My mother would ask and if it were over $50 dollars, I knew we were in for some negotiations. “How many months concession?” was my mother’s next question. Now, I feel you young sixty-year-olds should know that “two months concession” meant how many months free of rent was the desperate landlord willing to give to get anybody – just anybody – to take the apartment.
So many men were out of work, so movers could recruit labor at fifty cents an hour, the minimum wage, so moving never cost more than $15 and workman would carry heavy barrels of china on their backs up four flights without a complaint.
My Greek father was a business broker who helped to buy and sell restaurants and bars owned by fellow Greeks. Indeed, he was the first such broker in New York and had his office in the Times building and he would drive me down to the office and park legally right in front of the door.
Very often, we ran out of money to pay the rent and the landlord would come to visit. In the last family apartment on Tieman Place, the landlord was a very nice, cultured German Jew with an academic Van Dyke beard who had fled Hitler with just enough money to buy an apartment building. My mother would sit talking German for a half hour and say later, “His German is so beautiful.”
When a year or two later the spring would come, my mother would say “I think we should move.”