Last week I spent some time visiting with a good friend; she’s 96 years strong, lives alone in her rent-stabilized apartment in Grammercy Park and loves having company. We got to talking about life in New York City; more specifically Manhattan. (When I was growing up in Brooklyn, Manhattan was The City.) Truth be told, I’m a young senior and also live in a rent-stabilized apartment; I live in the formerly bohemian enclave called Greenwich Village. I say “formerly” because, like everywhere else in the city, two penthouses on Leroy Street were listed and I presume sold for the asking price of $51 million and $31 million. Certainly not for the starving artist class!
As the afternoon wore on neighbors stopped by and we got around to talking about senior housing, and the topic turned to Haven Green, the proposed Elizabeth Street development for seniors in Little Italy/Lower East Side. The brouhaha over this development comes about because Habitat for Humanity, an otherwise well-regarded humanitarian organization, has taken upon itself a cause by which it will benefit from backing this affordable housing project. The cost to the community: it will lose its one-of-a-kind garden. The benefit to Habitat: it will get 11,000 square feet of office space at a below-market rate. (Why shouldn’t it benefit from the new development?)
In return the community will get roughly 123 miniscule apartments (375 square feet per unit). The apartments will be rent-regulated for a fixed number of years, and after that time will revert to market rates. There will be no kitchens and they will be rented to single seniors. (Sort of like the SROs built in the early part of last century. In fact, I live in a former SRO building that was rehabbed in the late 1970s under the J51 Program in which owners were granted generous tax breaks for new rent-regulated housing developed under that program.) If you want your daughter, grandchild or friend to sleep over, forget about it; there isn’t a square foot to spare for anything, never mind a bed. Because the market for these rare affordable apartments numbers in the thousands, residents of New York City have a chance to win one of them by entering a lottery. So should this plan go forward, eligible seniors can enter a lottery; and should they be picked, they can then decide whether or not they want to move into their new closets.
The lottery reminds me of a scene in On the Waterfront, a movie released in 1954 about corrupt unions. In the scene I’m thinking of there’s a shape-up for jobs on the New Jersey waterfront. The boss tosses out chits to an eagerly waiting crowd. The workers, all men, fight one another for a chance to work for one day’s wage. The shape-ups were offensive then, as these housing lotteries are today. The only difference between these two degrading practices is that today’s housing lotteries are held at some mysterious drawing in the ether where the groveling is done out of sight.
Then we got to talking about billionaire Ken Griffin’s new digs at 220 Central Park South, long known for its exclusivity and just two blocks north of Billionaire’s Row (West 57th Street for those not-in-the-know). The purchase of this behemoth set a jaw-dropping record even for hard-core billionaires: $238 million for 24,000 square feet, or roughly $10,000 per square foot. This castle in the sky is comprised of four stories with 16 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms and five balconies, but, sadly, only one of the terraces faces Central Park. My friend finds the transaction—the enormity of it, the fact that one person would deign to make such a purchase—vulgar.
What does a person who owns two other apartments that cost what some would consider Trump change—$58 million in Chicago and $60 million in Miami Beach—need with another mansion? I guess today’s billionaire’s mantra is you just can’t have too many million-dollar pied-à-terres. It’s a new twist on what my aunt used to say to me: “You can never be too thin or too rich.” I call it outrageous since we eventually all end up in the same place. As Rose Castorini tells her husband, Cosmo, in the 1988 romantic comedy Moonstruck, “I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you’re still gonna die, just like everybody else.” And guess what… in the end Mr. Griffin’s ashes will be stuck in an urn or he’ll be buried in less space than those seniors lucky enough to win one of those 375-square-foot shoeboxes will be living in. It just dawned on me: could it be that that’s why the Egyptian god-kings erected pyramids? Who knows, maybe Mr. Griffin and his ilk will revive an old architectural design, pyramids… American style! (After all, our fly-over space is vast and undeveloped.)
Anyway, as for me and my 96-year-old friend, we both agree that we would not be able to afford to live in the Big Apple were it not for our rent-regulated apartments. And believe me, we’re both happy with what we have! Without the rent regulations we would have to move (where, we have no idea)… priced out by millionaires or, now, billionaires impressing each other with their multimillion-dollar pads. But it truly is beyond my comprehension. What does one person do with 24,000 square feet of space? And, on the other hand, I’m miffed as to how someone lives in 375 square feet without losing his or her mind.