Don’t Blame the Gentrifiers

They are often the victims, not the cause of New York City’s affordable housing crisis.

The New York skyline
The New York skyline is seen at sunset from a rooftop in Brooklyn on June 15, 2013.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The affordable housing crisis in New York City receives long and detailed treatment in the current issue of the New York Review of Books from writer Michael Greenberg, who calls the situation nothing less than “a humanitarian emergency.” Greenberg shows the impact of this crisis, from the struggling families who are priced out to the homeless population and the city’s insufficient network of shelters. I spoke with Greenberg, a frequent contributor to the NYRB, whose most recent book is Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, by phone recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why the war between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the situation worse, the real ways to ease the crisis, and why looking at the problem through the lens of “gentrification” just makes matters worse.

Isaac Chotiner: To what degree are the problems you are talking about specific to New York City, or worse in New York City, and to what degree are they prevalent all over the country?

Michael Greenberg: It’s different than a lot of places. It’s better in one way, because New York has progressive tenant protection laws that go back 100 years, and have been a part of New York City’s life, because it’s such a renter’s city. It’s a city with a history of some of the world’s densest slums, and there has been a history of tenant activism that has created a series of progressive tenant laws, so it’s better in that way. It’s worse because it’s a city with a tremendous amount of pressure on it economically. It has manic highs and lows of investment, and it’s very much a boom and bust city. It’s one of the world’s most coveted global supercities, so that puts a lot of pressure on it.

Is foreign money coming in and raising prices a huge part of the problem?

I don’t think it’s more than 20 percent of the problem, quite frankly. I don’t think it is really driving the crisis. It’s a part of it, because it creates an upper end that affects the levels below it, but no, I think the problem for New York is its success, in a way. Urban living has been re-embraced by America and by a lot of people who grew up well-off in the suburbs, and there’s been a return. This is the thing that New York was yearning for actually, in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. How do you get back the middle class and families? What has happened is that it’s a complex city, and it’s a real estate city. Real estate is more important to New York than almost any city in the world, other than maybe Hong Kong, so its economy is very tied to its real estate values.

Given that unique status, to what degree is the lack of affordable housing a problem of the specific policies of specific governments, and to what degree is it the result of that unique status?

There’s a tremendous amount of power that the city and the state have to shape the real estate market. They have more power than the private developers, because they have zoning power, they have tax break power. They can strengthen rent laws. They can weaken them. They can put lower-paying tenants in rent-stabilized and regulated apartments in jeopardy. They can make it easier for developers and speculators to push them out in a rising market.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration has good intentions, but it in some cases has worsened the crisis because it’s promoting private developers to build wholesale and as much as possible with very extensive tax breaks that the city is losing revenue on. They’re catering to this higher rental market, this higher condo market, and they’re bringing them into neighborhoods where they wouldn’t have been in order to create density and more housing.

They say volume matters. De Blasio himself says that housing volume matters. “I’m building 80,000 affordable homes over 10 years, and this is what matters. This is important.” Gentrification is going to happen anyway, officials have told me. We might as well get in on it. We might as well bring a benefit in some way for the less fortunate.

This is their rationale that they’re going to tell you. It keeps somewhat the character of New York. The city is growing. We have to build more housing, all of which is true, but the way they rezone, and the income levels that they’ve been calling affordable, have not been helpful to the most vulnerable.

Has Cuomo been as well-meaning?

I can’t figure out Cuomo, frankly.

Join the club.

Yeah. He seems to be in a political rivalry with de Blasio that is childish and absurd from both sides. His position is, he doesn’t want de Blasio to have affordable housing credit. He doesn’t want him to get the credit for building affordable housing. That’s his policy as far as I can tell. The state has not been helpful. Most of New York City’s housing laws are controlled by the state. They’re controlled by elected officials from upstate who have no constituency or financial interest in New York other than donors, and he hasn’t stepped up and attempted to mitigate housing, so I don’t hold much hope for Cuomo.

So what do you hope that the government at different levels could do?

They have to make serious, serious reforms. You have at least 70,000 homeless on any given day, between those on the street and those in shelters. It’s an emergency. The city has to decide what kind of urban center it wants to be and how it should treat its law-abiding, hardworking citizens who aren’t millionaires, and how important those people are to the city.

There are many things it could do. One thing I suggest is a sales tax that’s earmarked especially for housing. I think it’s a mistake to have your housing program based on the largesse and the cooperation of private, for-profit developers. I think a city should be building its own housing for exactly the citizens who need it, people making between $35,000 and $80,000 a year. We’ve learned a lot from the mistakes of affordable housing, from HUD and the segregation of housing projects. It can be done in a different way, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to do that. Whether the city and people in the city have the will to do that is another question.

Even people who don’t want affordable housing or people who don’t care about these issues, one of the things they don’t like is seeing homeless people. They think the city’s going to hell or whatever it is. Has there been a real effort on the part of the political leaders to trace the homeless issue to the affordable housing issue as a way of explaining to people that even if you claim not to care about affordable housing, that these things have an impact in ways that do affect them?

Yeah, that’s well put. They could do a little better at making people aware that these things are linked and the amount of working homeless there are. Reason and simple common sense shows that the homeless emergency is not George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. The male tramp is a vestigial figure. These are families. Twenty-five thousand to 30,000 of the homeless in New York are children. Seventy-five percent are members of families, and more than a third of adults in those families have jobs and they’re homeless.

New Yorkers don’t understand that when they’re moving around the city and passing a security guard, or a bank teller, or a maintenance worker, that these people might very well be living in shelters. Because of New York’s shelter laws, which are very good in that it’s the only city in the country that is required, that has taken on the obligation to give a bed to anyone who asks for one and doesn’t have anywhere else to sleep, because of that, you don’t have 100,000 people on the street day in and day out.

It’s really a question of how humane and how inclusive we want to be. I think the gentrification argument is a false argument that has made people not understand really the more profound aspects of the housing crisis.

How so?

Because when you talk about gentrification, what people mean is, “This guy’s moved in, or this woman, or this family has moved in, and they’re our enemy. They’re gentrifiers”” A lot of gentrifiers are just people looking for a foothold in New York who are moving out to more outlying neighborhoods because they can’t afford it [where they were], and they’re being attracted to those neighborhoods, and pulled, lured to those neighborhoods by realtors and things who repackage them as urban frontiers and whatnot. They’re not the enemy. They’re just people looking for apartments. I think it creates this ground-level scorn when actually a lot of the so-called gentrifiers are also being exploited by rent-gouging and overcrowding. I try to shift it to a question of economics, investment, history, government policy, and I think that’s a much better way to think about it, because then it promotes a different kind of awareness of the problem.