“Can’t Pay May”: Making Rent in New York City During the Pandemic - The New Yorker

“Can’t Pay May”: Making Rent in New York City During the Pandemic - The New Yorker

“Can’t Pay May”: Making Rent in New York City During the Pandemic - The New Yorker

Posted: 18 May 2020 08:41 AM PDT

In mid-March, many landlords began sending nervous reminders that rent was still due on April 1st, as if tenants might forget. Some landlords have expressed a sense of aggrieved betrayal at tenants who have not paid their rents; on Facebook groups such as "ACTION: New York City Rent Strike," which has more than four thousand members, tenants have posted screenshots of increasingly infuriated e-mails and text messages. One tenant posted about a landlord who threatened retaliation on the family car, another reported that a landlord claims the building is "not eligible" for the eviction freeze. Other landlords have encouraged tenants to sign rent-deferral agreements, in which the tenant agrees to add the unpaid rent onto future rent payments. Some landlords have reminded tenants of their own bills; they have suggested that tenants could get jobs at Amazon or at grocery stores. They have encouraged tenants to charge their rent to a credit card, or to set up automatic debits.

If some landlords seem to be in denial about the inevitable effects of mass unemployment, Eric Kober, who was the director of housing, economic, and infrastructure planning at the New York Department of City Planning from 1991 to 2017, suggests they look to the seventies, when population loss and lack of financing resulted in large swathes of dilapidated and abandoned housing stock. "Ultimately, the system is capitalized," Kober explained. "There needs to be cash flow in the system to keep it going." If renters cannot pay and landlords get into financial trouble, buildings end up deteriorating. If the landlords default, banks, which have historically been bad at property management, end up owning buildings, and housing conditions worsen further. Property-tax revenue falls. Kober described it as a "downward spiral" that, in the past, has only halted when the government has provided low-cost loans or appointed emergency managers. When the government itself experiences a financial shortfall, as New York will, such financing becomes difficult to come by.

After losing eight hundred thousand residents in the nineteen-seventies, the city's population grew in the nineties, swelling by approximately a million people, without an equivalent increase in housing construction. But Kober corrected the idea I had seen circulating that people leaving New York as a result of the pandemic might make the city more comfortable for the middle class. "The only way the population goes down is if the city ceases to be a beacon of opportunity, which would be a terrible loss for New York and for the entire country," he said. He recalled moving to the city in 1980, when it was "dirty, rundown, and just generally unappealing" because of poorly funded services and infrastructure. If the city faces a similar fiscal crisis, he said, "it will be cheaper for the middle class to find housing in the city, but they won't want to be here."

Durante (Danny) Galeotafiore is perhaps a typical example of a New York landlord who has enjoyed the city's several-decade run of prosperity. He moved to New York City from Naples, Italy, in 1976, opened Danny's Pizza, off the Montrose L stop, in 1983, and bought his first building in Williamsburg in 1992. After a few years of high crime rates, the neighborhood boomed. He now owns five buildings in Williamsburg and in Ridgewood, Queens, with fourteen residential and commercial units. His last rent-controlled tenant, an eighty-five-year-old woman, pays seven hundred and fifty dollars a month in a building where everyone else pays twenty-five hundred. Since the lockdown, most of his tenants have paid their rents as usual, but some—a hair stylist, a bartender—have come calling. He has given them discounts, but chastises them for not having savings.

The thought that the city might not continue its inexorable rise toward higher prices seemed unthinkable to him. "They're building left and right," he said to me. "Everywhere, there's no more parking spaces! Everywhere, nothing is for sale, everything is taken. " He envisions that the impact of the coronavirus will be more like that of 9/11, when the market took a brief dip and then bounced back, than the kind of exodus that New York City saw in the seventies. "Where are they going to go, back home?" he asked me of his tenants. "Nobody wants to go back home. Do you want to go back to Minneapolis?"

I didn't think so, but I first moved here in 2003—I only know the gentrified New York of low crime and delicious coffee. Until last month, the reasons I thought about leaving were all related to real estate: the instability of renting, the dream of buying an affordable house, "nature." Before the pandemic, I was contemplating giving up my rental apartment, on the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, to look for something cheaper in 2021. I love my apartment, a spacious fourth-floor walkup in a prewar building, and have no desire to move, but the rent keeps going up. In the seventies, the area had lost thirty per cent of its populations and, in fires after the 1977 blackout, dozens of buildings. All of that was hard to imagine now, as successive waves of gentrification, of people like me moving in, seemed only to accelerate. The dry cleaner shut, then the coffee shop—profitable businesses killed by landlords who thought that they could do better. Both storefronts are empty now. A Starbucks opened down the street. I watched as expensive restaurants and bars opened, and then failed. I lived in Miami during the real-estate bubble of the mid-two-thousands, and I saw some of the same signs in the hastily built condos that popped up like mushrooms, the profit motive evident in their low ceilings and cramped bedrooms, the reigning architectural theory seemingly that, if a window is big enough, you won't notice that you're living in a place inimical to the resident's well-being. The Google reviews of these new developments had tenants complaining about sound carrying through thin walls, weed smoke wafting through the entire building, the promised bike room that never materialized. The landlords seemed to imagine an apparently endless supply of rootless young professionals; you rarely saw ads targeted toward the families such buildings displaced.

The truth is, I do maintain a little Zillow file of houses in Minneapolis, where I grew up, where you can buy a cute two-bedroom house in a city with progressive politics for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a one-bedroom apartment in Bushwick. I have no plans to leave, and I don't need my own washing machine or my own lawn, but I like to fantasize about having a home with relatively fixed long-term costs that I could plan a life around. For decades, the reigning philosophy of New York politics has been that the state and city governments should encourage real-estate development but not rent regulation. Politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, were just starting to murmur about introducing some kind of universal rent control when the pandemic hit. After years in which small-business owners and the middle class accepted insecurity as the price of living in the paradise of New York City, are landlords about to get a reckoning?

It's too early to tell the long-term effect of the pandemic on the rental market. Rents in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn were at record highs as March began, according to StreetEasy, but the number of new listings dropped by fifty-two per cent in the second half of March. The exception was short-term rentals, listings for which rose by seventy per cent compared to the same time last year, as uncertain renters showed a preference for more flexibility. Since the pandemic began, my social-media feeds have been full of the politics of staying or leaving. The well-to-do have retreated to their hill stations, and recriminations about public health from those without the means to leave themselves come with a side of envy. I lurk on a Facebook sublet group primarily used by people who identify as "digital nomads," who, now "stuck" in Tulum, Hawaii, or Bali, are trying to off-load their New York apartments with an urgency that recalls the evacuation of the Pieds-Noirs on the verge of Algerian independence—seeking recommendations for movers who can pack up their places in absentia, looking for someone to take over their leases and buy all their Restoration Hardware furniture. It's unclear whether these people ever really lived in New York, or just sustained a circular Airbnb economy; it's equally unclear if what would be devastating for the fortunes of SoulCycle and Sweetgreen would be so bad for New York City. But, speaking purely anecdotally, a lot of people seem to be leaving town, especially young people who can ride out the quarantine with their parents, and the wealthy, who, according to news reports, are rushing to rent houses in the suburbs and upstate. The June crop of college grads will not arrive this year. Trump has halted immigration. If the city is going to lose people, it will need to help the ones who stay.


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