It was 108 years ago in 1890 when journalist Jacob A. Riis published How the Other Half Lives, undoubtedly the most influential book about New York City ever written. Coming as it did after a half-century of tremendous population growth and immigration that established New York as a multicultural metropolis, Riis’ hard hitting, picturesque description of tenement life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then home to the densest urban population in the world, shook the city’s government and upper class to seriously confront the conditions on the Southern end of the island.
Giving a brief history of the transformation of the old Knickerbocker waterfront to an infamous slum, Riis, while certainly not above ethnic stereotyping, or even outright racism in the case of the burgeoning Chinese population, wasn’t content to let the slumlords’ position, that unregulated population growth and porous morality innate in poor people were the reasons for slum conditions, slide idly by. Rather he argued it was the exorbitant rents and negligent, greedy property holders. He wrote in the introduction:
We know now there is no way out; that the “system” that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization…The story is dark enough, drawn from the plain public records, to send a chill to any heart. If it shall appear that the sufferings and sins of the “other half”, and the evils they breed, are but a just punishment upon the community that gave it no other choice, it will be because that is the truth.
The results of How the Other Half Lives were far-reaching. New laws were passed to enforce stands of hygiene, a homeless shelter was built to replace dreadfully overcrowded police cellars, parks were built, play grounds added to schools, the settlement house movement took off, and eventually child labor laws were passed.
Today New York is a city of more than 8 million people under billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg. With a poverty rate about the double the national average, it wouldn’t take long for an astute observer to grasp that the city again has a housing crisis. As has often been the case historically, New York has been on the forefront of crises that engulf the rest of the country, if not the world. It was New York, on the heels of the financial crisis in the mid-1970s, which served as the incubator of neoliberalism. It also may prove to be New York where the subprime mortgage crisis, while affecting the city later than other places, may have some of its greatest impact.
“Abandonment of the 1970s, where entire blocks are stripped…is what this will look like”- Sarah Gerecke, CEO of the Neighborhood Housing Services (NY Daily News, February 17th, 2008)
The edge of eastern Queens has for at least a half century been a haven for black working and middle class homeownership. Over the past two years it has become ground zero for the mortgage crisis in New York. An investigation by the NY Daily News of a three-by-three block section of South Jamaica off Linden Blvd. (one of the area’s main thoroughfares), found 98 properties foreclosed from January-June 2008. A five block radius around nearby 118th Ave and 152nd St contains another 32 foreclosed properties.
The foreclosure epidemic spreads from Jamaica to the surrounding neighborhoods of Rochdale and South Ozone Park. Where not long ago streets were filled with working class families living in starter homes, vacant, garbage covered yards are becoming the norm. Squatters and drug deals, not to mention rodents, have seized the opportunity to move into the abandoned homes that have no “For Sale” sign attached anywhere. Residents report that some of the homes have been turned into crack houses (this at a time when New York’s crime figures are still paraded for show by law and order types, though some crime numbers are now inching up).
Predicatively, the mortgage crisis has hit New York’s minority neighborhoods the hardest. Besides eastern Queens, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Bushwick, and Hunts Point, all predominantly black neighborhoods, have experienced high foreclosure rates. Despite making up only a third of all New York homeowners, blacks and Hispanics obtained nearly 70 percent of all subprime refinance loans in 2006.
Since the beginning of 2008, more than 1200 homes in the city have been repossessed. New York State governor David Paterson recently signed legislation that added a 90 day grace period for homeowners to avoid foreclosure, while at the same time warning that major budget cuts are in the state’s near future.
“How in the world does the mayor justify what he’s trying to do? He’s nationalizing our property like we’re in Venezuela or Russia, then determining which of his friends will get it”—Willets Point business owner (quoted in NY Daily News, June 26th, 2008)
In 19th century New York, elites typically moved further north in a rapidly developing Manhattan in order to escape from the immigrant hordes and working class expanding from the south. During the Bloomburg administration, with less such available land, the focus has shifted to “rezoning”, i.e. declaring a neighborhood or district a “marginal commercial environment”, or blighted, and using such legalities to radically transform the landscape by handing it over to large-scale developers and Big Box stores.
Among the targeted areas has been Downtown Brooklyn, long a commercial center for small business (largely minority and immigrant), that despite drawing 100,000 daily shoppers and posting $100 million in total annual sales was rezoned under the Brooklyn Downtown Redevelopment Plan of 2004. According to a report by the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center (UJC), small businesses are suffering as a result: 57 percent of the businesses surveyed in the report have been displaced or forced out of business either due to rising rents or redevelopment as more properties can be tapped for office towers, hotels (including Brooklyn’s first Sheraton, scheduled to open next year), and high-rise condos.
Willets Point in Queens is another area now targeted under similar pretext. A rezoning plan there, opposed at the moment by a majority of the City Council, would force out 225 private, mostly industrial businesses and 1300 workers in order to transform 61 more acres into $3 billion worth of retail stores, “market place” housing, and movie theaters (Bloomberg also claims a public school).
In East Harlem, Columbia University is almost set for a $6.2 billion expansion into a neighborhood that has likewise been ruled by two studies to be full of old, obsolete buildings. A public hearing is scheduled for next month as some owners are vowing a fight against the forced sale of their property to the university. Columbia for its part has promised some token community investments in return.
Other neighborhoods hit by or targeted for rezoning include Riis’ Lower East Side (now considered one of the city’s hippest places) where a rezoning plan threatens to enclose remaining Hispanic enclaves between a wall of high rises, Williamsburg (right across the East River from the Lower East Side), another historically working class, immigrant neighborhood that has been massively gentrified over the past decade, and the Hudson Yards area in Brooklyn slated to be the site of a new basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets.
The common thread running through each rezoning plan, proposed or underway, is that of stable, historically working class neighborhoods turned upside down and gentrified by deliberate top down policy.
Back to the Future
It’s in the above contexts where it’s worth noting that the homeownership rate in New York is only 33 percent, about half the national average of 67 percent. While it is true that New York has always been a renters’ city full of new immigrants and young professionals living in multi-family dwellings (and Long Island, for all intents and purposes the suburbs of the city, has always served as the area’s home buying Mecca, not to mention the white flight refuge), New York also the lowest homeownership rate of any major American city.
Ethnicity plays a key role in New York’s home ownership. The Furman Center’s 2007 State of the City Report shows that only 28 percent of New York’s black population and 16 percent of Hispanics own their own home (compared to 44 percent of whites and 40 percent of Asians). The Hispanic homeownership rate in particular rates far behind other cities, for example in Chicago the Hispanic homeownership rate is 45 percent.
The Furman Center’s report also found that homeowners in New York are far more affluent than non-homeowners while also less likely to be middle income, and more likely to be in the upper income brackets, than homeowners in the rest of the country.
In the present day, most of the worst elements of the tenement slum have been somewhat, at least legally, eliminated: windowless apartments, double-decker tenements, cellar shelters. However some of the same conditions remain. Exorbitant rents forcing tenants to pay more than 30% of their income on rent are not only still common but increasing, leaving many poorer renters in crowded conditions, especially in the largely immigrant populated sections of the city such as the adjacent neighborhoods of Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Sunnyside. These were listed in the Furman Center report as having the highest numbers of severely crowded households- severely crowded being modestly defined as having more than 1.5 persons per room.
The best way forward to reform New York City’s housing problem harkens back to Riis’ efforts all those years ago. In the short-term, grass roots efforts already underway can do their best to beat back mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning efforts while at the same time ensuring that Bloomberg be denied any chance of a third term (the city now has a two term limit on mayors but there is talk of doing away with it, as there was at the end of Giuliani’s second term in the aftermath of 9/11. Giuliani’s effort was defeated).
The long term solution would be one that focuses on affordable housing, community orientated development, and government sponsored housing programs that can bring minority homeownership more in line with national numbers. It will be a difficult task that can expect to meet opposition every step of the way from the entrenched business elite that has called the shots for the past three decades. However, history has already proven that change is possible; and indeed inevitable when it comes to New York.
JOSEPH GROSSO is a writer and librarian in New York City.