New York City has long been a mecca for young, aspiring people with little money and big ideas. But is it still or is New York City Dead?
A friend was telling me about moving to NYC in 1996, freshly graduated from the University of Michigan. (Go Blue.) He found a studio on the Upper East Side for $808 a month. The apartment wasn’t a palace, no gym, no doorman, but it was newly renovated, safe and affordable, well within the rule of thumb of spending no more than 30% of your salary on housing.
Like most newcomers, he wasn’t making tons of money but was making enough to live on his own in a non-hovel apartment and still have some money to sample the city’s many offerings. We then started to lament that to do what he did just does not seem possible anymore.
That is, not possible for anyone without a trust fund or who wants a little better standard of living than being crammed four to a “junior one bedroom,” which is bottom-feeding real estate broker speak for a studio with some cheap partitions put up, located in the hinterlands, blocks and blocks from public transport.
And because NYC has become so unaffordable for so many, what has the city lost?
I could have called this section “cost of living” but I don’t think it is entirely appropriate. A lot of those things are not fixed. Groceries for example. Groceries are only super expensive in NYC if you don’t know where to shop or value convenience over price.
You can feed yourself only the finest organic, locally sourced, fair trade, pastured, grass-fed food harvested by monks in the light of a full moon, but it’s certainly possible to eat well for less if you know about ethnic grocers and produce carts.
Utilities are a harder workaround but you can do things like go without cable or use the internet in the library if you are bound and determined to live here. Having a car is expensive but completely unnecessary. It’s cheaper to take the train or bus and if even those are out of reach or not running (MUCH more on this later), walking is free.
But you have to have a place to live and none of your friends who have already moved here have a spare bedroom you can crash in until you get on your feet. And if they do, they are renting it out on AirBnB so they can afford to make rent.
So you have to rent an apartment. If you’re lucky your friend will let you crash for a little while to hunt for one. If they won’t and you are too far to commute in to search, you may end up paying a broker. You could rent a place site unseen via Craigslist and skip the broker but I don’t recommend it.
A broker provides a valuable service; they line up lots of places to look at and handle the paperwork between you and the landlord which, here, is probably a management company and not the owner.
How valuable is debatable. The average rent for a one bedroom is $2973 per month. A two bedroom is $3770. A broker fee will range between 10-15% of a year’s rent, so that’s $3500 at the low end to $6800 at the high end. Due up front before you’ve even moved in so much as your toothbrush. For which there will be little room.
But wait, there’s more! Landlords want you to make forty times the rent per year! So let’s say you get lucky, find a real steal. A studio for $2000. (If you don’t think that is an absolute deal, check out NYC Craigslist apartment listings.) That means the landlord wants you to make $80,000 a year. Not undoable if you are coming out of a top tier law school or get a job in finance, but pretty out of reach for the rest of us.
There is a way around this: a guarantor. Some landlords will require that your guarantor reside in the tri-state area so even if you have one, if they’re in the Midwest, where a lot of NYC transplants hail from, you’re out of luck. And the guarantor has an even more ridiculous threshold than the forty times the monthly rent rule. It’s 80-100 times the monthly rent.
Man, if you want to hear a real New York rant, bring up the MTA. When public transit in this city works, it works great. You can zip near and far for a few dollars and in a few minutes. But the times that it is working well are becoming less and less frequent. Train delays were up 45% in 2014. And the cost per trip is getting more and more expensive.
There have been four fare hikes since 2009, the last in January 2015 when the cost went up .25 to $2.75 per ride. On the heels of that, the MTA recently announced that unless the $15 billion budget gap is addressed, fares may rise another 15% to $3.17 per ride.
Part of the problem is that the MTA is overseen by the state and not the city. So Governor Andy Cuomo regularly raids the MTA coffers to close state budget gaps. He’s done it to the tune of $50 million between 2013 and 2014 and intends to continue the practice.
Cuomo also preemptively shut down the subway ahead of a blizzard that never happened in January, giving Mayor DeBlassio just thirty minutes notice. No discussion with the mayor of the affected city, just an edict handed down from on high.
Downstate, which includes NYC, pays about $65 billion in state taxes compared to upstate, which pays about $25 billion. So down here in the city, we would like a little more return for something that is not only vital to NYC but to the less salubrious parts of the state as well. If people can’t get to work they can’t keep subsidizing upstate.
Some nutters have proposed that upstate secede from the city, mostly because they want to frack, but maybe earthquakes and flammable drinking water would be a small price to pay for upstate to get their grubby, grasping hands out of our pockets.
Cuomo has gotten a little too complacent about the willingness of NYC to vote for a Democrat just because he is a Democrat. We pay some of the highest taxes in the country and would like a little something, a massive part of our city’s infrastructure for instance, in return.
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The Disney-fication of NYC
A lot of New Yorkers complain about this phenomenon. I don’t think anyone but the hookers and dealers would welcome a return to the bad old days when you were afraid to ride the subway or walk in the parks.
But so many small businesses, some that have been here for decades, are closing because they can’t afford the insane rent hikes greedy land lords are demanding. I have yet to see a shuttered restaurant or store or small appliance repair shop and thought to myself, “Good. I’m glad that’s finally gone. You know what this block could really use? A Citibank next to a Duane Reade (local drug store chain recently bought out by Walgreens) across from a Starbucks.”
Each neighborhood used to have its own flavor. Now, increasingly, it’s just more of the same. A fake Irish pub, a bank, a drugstore, a Starbucks. We have Red Lobsters, Olive Gardens, Kmarts, even 7-11’s. They don’t have bodega cats!
That is all the shit I left my crappy Midwestern hometown to get away from. Why would you pay a few thousand dollars a month in rent to eat and shop in the same places you did in your provincial hometown?
Broadway has literally been Disney-fied. For years there has been one Disney musical after another. You know what they say: anything too stupid to be spoken is sung. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are surely turning over in their graves.
What Is Lost?
So if the youngins wise up and stop coming, what will NYC look like?
Like it’s already starting to look, I’m afraid. Either a playground for foreign billionaires or tourists, neither of whom are invested in a way that gives anything back to the fabric of the city. It was always the young, the striving newcomers, who infused the city with the cliched energy everyone talks about when they talk about New York.
And eventually, not in the short term, that will make the city less attractive to those billionaires and tourists. NYC won’t look, feel, or be any different than whatever place they’re coming from.
Other cities, Portland, Detroit, New Orleans, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh will welcome them, their energy, their creativity.
So yes, I think New York City is dead. I believe that almost everyone at some point in their lives should live in a big city. No matter how country you are, city living is something that I think is valuable to experience, at least for a little while. And there was a time when I would have thought you should do that in NYC.
I hate writing this. I know moving to NYC is a dream for a lot of people the way it was for me when I was a kid growing up in an Ohio town that I hated. The day I did it was one of the best days of my life. But I could do it in, certainly not luxury, but in a way that still afforded me some quality of life. But you can’t. And NYC doesn’t deserve you.