Saturday, October 23, 2010

Is the rent 2 damn high?

We all got a good laugh out of Jimmy McMillan, gubernatorial candidate for the Rent is 2 Damn High Party, at the debate last week. He was clearly a clownish figure, with his black gloves and his muttonchops. And he was outrageously nonsensical, one minute saying that all we had to do was execute the plans that Obama has put in motion, the next promising to "bulldoze some of those mountains in Upstate New York, to make New York State an independent state ... for the children!" and then again promising to "help all Americans." He showed that he knows almost nothing about most of the issues, claiming for instance that there is a hunger crisis "even here at this college," meaning Hofstra University. Even as a karate expert, he was clearly the least qualified person out of the seven to be governor.

McMillan got me thinking, though: is the rent 2 damn high? What does that even mean? There are definitely some high rents: today on Craigslist there's a three bedroom apartment going for $8600, a two bedroom for $4330, a one bedroom for $4195, and a studio for $2200. With what I'm making, I can't afford to live in either of the Manhattan neighborhoods where I grew up. And I'm sure that there are millions of New Yorkers who are struggling to pay their rents, whatever they are. So in some sense, yes, the rent is 2 damn high.

On the other hand, I live in a wonderful neighborhood in Queens, with lots of nice shops and restaurants. I can get to almost anywhere in Manhattan in less than an hour. The streets around me are quieter than Columbus Avenue or Second Avenue. And as a family, we can easily afford our mortgage and maintenance bill every month. As far as I know, most of my neighbors are in the same situation, whether they rent or own. So in that sense, no, the rent is not 2 damn high.

If you say that something is too high, you're inviting the question, "2 damn high 4 what?" Too high for someone to afford on a janitor's salary? That's probably true throughout Manhattan south of 96th Street, unless you want to live in an illegal boarding house in Chinatown. But there are places around the city where the rent is lower. In the Bronx there are studios under $800, and three bedrooms under $1500, close to the subway. True, those are in relatively high-crime neighborhoods, but then you're saying that the rent is 2 damn high for a janitor to live in a low-crime neighborhood.

Once you get into that, what seemed like a simple problem reveals itself to be much more complicated. What if we invested more in policing those areas? If they got safer, would the rents rise? What if we could make it so that the lowest paid workers still got enough to afford to live somewhere safe? What other expenses do they have? Can we cut medical expenses so that people have more money to pay for housing?

McMillan is wrong. It really doesn't all boil down to one issue. He deserved to be laughed off that stage not for his beard or his gloves, or even for his lack of knowledge about basic facts. He deserved ridicule for taking such a simplistic approach to a complex problem, and for attempting to mislead people into thinking that we deserved a Strong Leader because of it.

The problem is that this criticism applies to most of the other people on stage with McMillan last week. There were only three candidates who showed any grasp of complexity and nuance: Kristen Davis, Charles Barron and Howie Hawkins. Warren Redlich might as well be running for the "Government Salaries R 2 Damn High" party, and Carl Paladino on the "Business Taxes R 2 Damn High" party line.

Most disappointing of all, because he's expected to win the election with more than sixty percent of the vote, is Andrew Cuomo. Forget about his nominations by the Democratic, Independence and Working Families parties, he might as well be running for the "Taxes R 2 Damn High" party. While Davis, Barron and Hawkins each proposed measures that will stimulate the state's economy and thereby increase revenue, Cuomo expects us to believe that he'll reap huge savings by eliminating the same wastefraudandabuse that politicians have promised to eliminate election after election, back to his father and beyond. His insistence on a property tax cap and avoiding any tax increases has led him to promise spending cuts that will plunge this state into a deep depression.


Alon Levy said...

The rents in New York really are high by any non-New York standards. What my roommate and I pay for a two bedroom in Manhattan Valley is what my parents paid for a 250-m^2 penthouse in a walkable upper middle-class Tel Aviv neighborhood ten years ago. The neighborhood has gentrified since; the same penthouse probably rents for something like a three bedroom in Manhattan today.

W. K. Lis said...

Rent also consists of expenses passed on. "Rent 2 damn high" includes "Water 2 damn high", "Property taxes 2 damn high", "Fuel 2 damn high", "Electricity 2 damn high", "Income taxes 2 damn high", "Paint 2 damn high", "Cleaning 2 damn high", "Repairs 2 damn high", you can go on.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the rent is too damn high in Manhattan because there's too damn much employment relative to housing.


Urbanis said...

Kristin Davis showed complexity and nuance? From what I can see, her platform is ridiculously simplistic: legalize prostitution, same-sex marriage, marijuana, and gambling. Now I agree with at least 75% of her platform (some discomfort with the gambling part), and I love the idea of a former(?) sex worker heading the state BUT, for example, none of these issues even begin to address Albany dysfunction, the highly vexed relationship between the city and state, the transit crisis, sustainable development, poverty, etc.

Cap'n Transit said...

Oh yes, I agree, Urbanis. I disliked almost everything she said. But she did have a plan that involved stimulus, and not empty promises to "eliminate wastefraudandabuse" or genuine promises to cut needed spending.

Urbanis said...

Of course, I don't mean to imply that the issues she advocates *aren't* important as well. For example, marriage equality is a cause near and dear to my heart. And I'll certainly take her over Palladino in the proverbial New York minute.

Urbanis said...

So many things to comment about in this post!

I think the big challenge in New York City is how to afford to live within 5 miles of one's job in a decent neighborhood (low crime, transit-rich, parks, quality retail and dining, etc.) and in decent housing. Whereas in almost any other part of the country, I could easily live on the salary I'm making live right downtown in a well-maintained apartment building or historic rowhouse without having to take on roommates. So, yes, from that point of view, the rent is 2 damn high. I'd be delighted to live on the UWS or the Village or Gramercy or SoHo, but I simply can't compete with the unlimited resources of, say, Kate Winslett or the Wall Street tycoons who are also looking in the same neighborhoods.

I'm okay with living way uptown for now, but I do yearn for the ability to be home within 20-30 minutes by foot, bike, or train--and I say this as someone who enjoys reading on the train and biking to work. Also, I feel my neighborhood lacks so many of the amenities of others farther south. Occasionally, I think of taking a leaf for the Cap'n's log and moving to Queens in hopes of a better balance of neighborhood/housing/commute time.

Anyway, let's just say that living in New York (and on a salary that would be considered affluent almost anywhere else) makes one *very* aware of the compromises and trade-offs one makes in trying to forge a decent quality of life for one's self. For now, it's worth it for the access to world-class institutions, vibrant cultural and social opportunities, and car-free living.