Can Anyone Help the Vast Lower Middle of New York City?

The mayoral race needs to start talking about one of its largest constituencies

During the pandemic, like many people with time to spare and an internet connection, I took to browsing Zillow. Some of this had to do with the expiration of my current lease. Some of it had to do with the inevitable thought many city residents, propelled into their 30s, must eventually heed—can I really rent forever?

In America, a hyper-capitalistic society with occasional socialistic elements, there are very few ways for people who do not get very lucky in business to accumulate wealth over a long period of time. The most obvious way to do this, without hoarding a lot of Bitcoin back in 2013 or following Reddit threads on GameStop, is to buy property. In New York City, this has been especially true. Any Baby Boomer who managed to secure a mortgage on an apartment or house in the 1970s or 1980s, within the five boroughs, is either a millionaire on paper or somewhere close, basking in sweet equity as the retirement years arrive. If challenged by New York City’s allegedly high property taxes—actually, they are not very high at all, and should be raised on everyone—they can always sell, take the $300,000 or $900,000 or $1.5 million or more and buy a nice house or condo, all cash, somewhere else.

Currently, for the vast number of apartments in the outer boroughs, rents are indeed falling, if slightly. Deals can be had in the densest parts of Manhattan, though it’s all relative—making $50,000 a year and living comfortably in the Financial District, Midtown, or the Upper West Side is not going to happen in any market-rate unit. If savings are to be had from landlords that are, finally, on the defensive for the first time in at least 25 years, there is little hope for serious wealth accumulation. Buying an apartment, let alone a house, is out of reach for a large majority of New York City residents, as it is for the precariat in most major global cities.

The New York City median household income is about $64,000. To see how far that goes, play the Zillow game. Search a neighborhood you like by zip code, watch the little dots proliferate with sale prices, and remove the boundary. Then, like a zeppelin or a dazed deity, fly across the stretch of city and see what it really costs to live here.

I grew up in the unpretentious neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. They filmed Saturday Night Fever there. Two very fascinating 20th century novelists, Gilbert Sorrentino and Hubert Selby Jr., grew up there too, among the Irish and Italian immigrants, the rowdy saloons, and the fishermen casting off at the 69th Street Pier. There are a few gaudy houses. There are many more apartment blocks, attached houses, multifamily homes, and narrow walk-ups. It’s not a place, probably into the 1990s, you had to think hard about settling in. If you had real money, you went to Manhattan. If you got a civil service job or worked on the docks or maybe managed the local supermarket, you could sock cash away and hope to buy in a few years.

A one-bedroom apartment in Bay Ridge, during a pandemic, will probably cost you, with rare exceptions, at least $300,000. Are you thinking of starting a family? Two-bedrooms breeze past $400,000 or $500,000 unless there’s something seriously wrong with them. Do you want a real, live house, with a small backyard of cement and some stray grass? It’s $1 million or more, no debate to be had. The math gets particularly absurd for the median city household when down payments and mortgages are considered. Twenty percent of $300,000 is $60,000. A 30-year mortgage could run $1,500, a manageable sum, until you learn all apartments are co-ops, which come with a tidy maintenance fee that can add $700 or $800 (or more) to your monthly bill. The 30-year mortgage, of course, is the working class trap, since you can end up paying something close to double the value with interest, unless you hope interest rates remain close to zero until the middle of the 21st century.

Can a household making $64,000 a year save $60,000? Well, maybe. Give it a decade. Two decades. Don’t go out to eat much. Don’t go on vacation. Skip expensive trips to the ballpark and the theater. Hope there is no such thing as a medical emergency. Hope the children are born healthy, that they don’t have any challenges at all. Keep shopping at Dollar Tree.

It’s a life under the gun, and so many of us have been living that way, in a near-fugue, for inordinate stretches of time. In truth, it’s not really a way to live at all. Sometimes I think the candidates running for mayor of New York City forget all of the different incomes in the city. Many programs don’t do enough, and they can be hard to qualify for, especially if they are limited to pilots.

Struggle enough and you may be selected to qualify for reduced-priced MetroCards. Andrew Yang, one of the top candidates, wants to give individuals in extreme poverty $2,000 to $5,000 a year. In the city, if you survive waitlists stretching many years, you may be able to get an apartment in public housing, with rent actually tied to income. But this all comes with caveats. Much of the city’s public housing stock is in brutal disrepair. And qualifying for a Section 8 voucher doesn’t mean a landlord won’t illegally refuse it. Food stamps aren’t enough to keep from going hungry. Riding the subway at a reduced rate is nice, but what if you have no job to go to?

There is horrific struggle for those living in poverty. And there is trouble for all of those who earn just enough to miss all of these thresholds. A $40,000 a year job means no Medicaid, no discount MetroCard, and no place in any of the targeted anti-poverty programs proposed by many of the mayoral candidates. This describes New York’s vast middle—the lower middle class—too uncomfortable to be seriously regarded as middle class, that nauseating and meaningless American euphemism, in this behemoth city. Perhaps two $40,000 a year New Yorkers can fuse into an $80,000 household, barely beyond the median, and marginally increase their purchasing power. But what of the single people? Those who choose to live alone? There are rooms for less than $1,000 a month, but no studios, no dignified one-bedrooms. The math doesn’t work. And the question everyone running for mayor should be trying to answer is how do you make these numbers add up in a city like this? Do you try? Or just give up?

The richest in New York will have their monumental wealth. The poorest will have just scraps of the social safety net. And the rest will have no policy for them at all. Few of the proposals from the mayoral candidates, at least so far, have sought to address this challenge. Yang became famous because his freedom dividend would give $1,000 to every single American, once a month, forever. The universality of the proposal made it very appealing to enormous numbers of people. It was not means-tested. The last two rounds of federal stimulus were, but the thresholds were high enough to include many struggling Americans. Yang, as mayor, cannot realistically do the same for every city resident, but his plan, which only costs $1 billion, will impact just 500,000 out of more than eight million residents. His focus on a public bank for New York City is innovative and much-needed, but the New Yorkers making $40,000 or $50,000 a year are probably banking with Chase, TD, CitiBank, or another major institution. How will they benefit?

This is not to pick on Yang. The other candidates haven’t offered much to the gaping lower middle either. Dianne Morales, trying to enliven the young left, has proposed slashing $3 billion from the NYPD budget—essentially chopping it in half—and redirecting the funds to social services. Does a smaller NYPD suddenly become a better one? We can debate that another day. But what is less arguable is that $3 billion for social services, in New York City, does not go very far. The municipal budget hovers near $90 billion, much of it dedicated to fixed costs like pensions and debt. The largest agency expenditure, by far, is the $27 or so billion for the Department of Education. Would a $30 billion DOE be stronger? Probably. Shrinking the footprint of the NYPD, however, is not going to invent a new social safety net. It will decrease the terrible and racist interactions people have with police, which is a good thing. Without a seismic overhaul of policing here—think how they do it in Germany—we won’t see a dramatic difference, however, and advocates may find it will end up costing more to recruit the better-educated, better-trained, and wiser police who do remain on the force, those willing to partner with the social workers and forsake their weapons.

On housing construction and affordability, most of the candidates remain vague. Scott Stringer wants more affordable housing when land is rezoned, but won’t say if he’d really attempt to upzone leafy, suburban neighborhoods to get more apartment towers. No one has advocated for a fight, with the help of the state legislature, to reintroduce apartments into the rent-stabilization program. Other than Brad Lander, who is running for city comptroller, few are talking about reviving Mitchell-Lama or massive expansions of social housing. There is no talk of fighting for a repeal of the Urstadt Law, which bars localities from setting their own tenant laws.

Oddly, for all the talk about how this mayoral field has shifted to the left, few of the candidates have matched the ambitions of their predecessors who competed in 2013. The oft-maligned Bill de Blasio has still campaigned on and implemented a policy, in universal prekindergarten, that is more far-reaching than most proffered in the current race. Before he bumbled through two terms, de Blasio was a shrewd politician who understood that wide-reaching, unrestricted programs to benefit the enormous lower middle of New York were most transformational. Many of the poorest New Yorkers could send their kids to Head Start. For the very first time, everyone else got a similar opportunity.

Short of a socialist takeover of housing, making apartments affordable again for the working class and poor people might be an impossibility. Still, it is worth imagining what else is possible. In Berlin, rent was frozen for five years. What if the city, along with left-wing state legislators, tried to imagine a legal way to come as close to that goal as possible? What if vouchers were promised to every homeless person? What if the next mayor promised to partner with county executives elsewhere to develop a regional housing plan that would permit more housing construction along commuter rail hubs, both helping to solve the city’s affordable housing problem and lure young people back to the suburbs? Now is the time to dream because it feels like we are running out of time. There is the coronavirus and climate emergency, of course, but there is also the nature of age and evolution. Millennials want to have children, build savings, and have some sort of stake in the American wealth complex. New York City is a wonderful place. It is also, in the midst of a pandemic worsened by failed leadership from Andrew Cuomo on down, an exhausting and infuriating city, slowly shedding its charm. The city will reemerge—it always does. If it comes back as a fairer place, that’s the least we can hope for.