New York’s Stagnant Status Quo

Spend any time within the tedious realm of New York punditry and one is bound to come across the phrase ‘the bad old days’. Though endemic in discourse for two decades the phrase has been even more bandied about since the election of the ostensibly progressive mayor Bill de Blasio two years ago. Indeed the words have become so common it’s not always clear to what days the chorus is referring. Their usefulness depends on their fluidity.

One reference would be to the high crime years of the early 1990s crack epidemic. The reasons for New York’s wondrous reduction in crime are varied and debated- both the rise and fall in crime were basically mirrored nationally (and despite its sensationalized reputation New York was never the country’s most crime ridden city. In fact, in 1993 New York ranked 88th in crime out of 183 with municipalities with 100,000 or more people). Crime began its decline toward the end of David Dinkins term as mayor as more police were added to the streets and the crack epidemic burned out. In the book Freakonomics, Steve D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, brazenly cite the lesser number, brought about through abortions, of young men of peak crime committing ages. Of course the preferred chant of the chorus is the broken windows of policing put in place by Rudy Giuliani and police commissioner Bill Bratton in the mid-1990s culminating in the stop and frisk years of Bloomberg’s reign.

The other ‘bad old days’ reference usually takes us back to the mid-1970s and the financial crisis that had the city on the verge of bankruptcy. The chorus’ chant here is the failure of big spending liberalism with its inflated welfare state — a local welfare state that included free tuition at its own vast city universities, an incomparable system of public hospitals, and richly supplanted Medicaid and welfare benefits. It was an easy target for the city’s financial elites and it certainly helped that the usual scapegoats were present. When asked by Robert Fitch about the underlying reasons for New York’s fiscal problems, a public relations official from the Municipal Assistance Corporation, the state created corporation established to restore the city’s finances, responded (as told in Fitch’s book The Assassination of New York) ‘It’s the fucking blacks and Puerto Ricans. They use too many city services and they don’t pay any taxes. New York’s in trouble because it’s got too many fucking blacks and Puerto Ricans’.

This sentiment was the rough motivation to the usually unspoken ‘planned shrinkage’ policy of the time. In 1976 the city’s Housing and Development Administration chief Roger Starr was forced to resign after suggesting that the city walk away from troubled areas like Brownsville and the South Bronx letting them ‘lie fallow until a change in economic and demographic assumptions makes the land useful once again…Stop the Puerto Ricans and rural blacks from living in the city… it can no longer be the place of opportunity… Our urban system is based on the theory of taking the peasant and turning him into an industrial worker. Now there are no industrial jobs. Why not keep him a peasant?’

Starr’s rhetoric was extreme enough to for him to lose his office but there is little doubt in practice that what amounted to a shrinkage policy of a kind was put in place. City funding gave the Central Business District priority, downtown this resulted in the closing New York’s port, the thing that made New York the largest city in the U.S., and accelerated deindustrialization (through such useless projects as the World Trade Center and the South Street Seaport), while in the city’s poorest neighborhoods a ghastly combination of computer modeling (created by the RAND Corporation under city contract) and budget cuts resulted in the intentional withdrawal of fire service protection; the ensuing fire epidemic that swept through many neighborhoods, most infamously in the Bronx, killed scores, displaced hundreds of thousands and expanded poverty.

The specter of both these dark times has been in the air more since de Blasio’s election. This despite the fact that in his recent budget deBlasio declared the city shouldn’t invest its budget surplus, rather save it for a rainy day; the union contracts negotiated by deBlasio’s administration are copies of the ones Bloomberg negotiated back in his first term; deBlasio’s housing plan is basically a continuation of the beloved Bloomberg’s as well; broken windows has been consistently defended by the administration, police commissioner Bratton is once again in office and despite the local media’s rampant magnification of every instance of violence, overall crime fell last year.

What has the chorus up in arms is the repeal of Bloomberg’s reactionary stop and frisk policy. According to the NYPD’s own reports (available on the ACLU’s webpage) there were 22,939 such stops in 2015. Still perhaps too high a number, and a recent report by a federal monitor found many officers not following the new procedures (such as not documenting the suspicion that prompted the stop or giving people stopped but not arrested a required receipt), but one which pales in comparison to the sheer insanity of Bloomberg’s reign which saw 500,000 plus stops a year six times, topping out in 2011’s 685,724 stops. It would be quite disingenuous to argue that stop and frisk had put a serious dent in crime as the city’s murder rate made by far its biggest drop before Bloomberg was in office. The Giuliani years, for all their high profile incidents of police violence, didn’t feature high numbers of stop and frisk which went up more than 600 percent under Bloomberg. In 2002, Bloomberg’s first year as mayor, there were 1892 victims and shooting and 97,296 stops. In 2011, with its surreal number of stops, still saw 1821 shooting victims (Overall murders went down 19% from 2001-2011).

The endless referencing of bad old days logically infers that the days since have been something of a golden age. Listening to the boosters of the past two decades one would never guess that the poverty rate in the city is 50 percent above the national average. In 1960 the city’s poverty rate was two-thirds the national rate, even by the time of the financial crisis it was the rate was about equal. Increasing homelessness has been a fixture since the Koch years and though the issue has generated much local static in recent times, again all of it directed against deBlasio, very little of it evokes any sort of compassion for the homeless rather seeing it simply through the prism of danger. The overall housing crisis is such that 30 percent of the city’s renters are using half their income on rent. A New York Times survey from November of last year reported that half of New Yorkers are struggling to get by economically.

As for de Blasio’s housing plan, which has generated a great deal of local opposition, it’s a continuation of Bloomberg’s ‘inclusionary zoning’, although a more aggressive version: affordable units accounted for just 1.7 percent of housing growth under Bloomberg between 2005 and 2013. The initial part of the plan targets East New York, Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, and the area around Jerome Avenue in the Bronx for rezoning, to allow developers to build taller buildings and require them to rent 25-30% of the new apartments for below market rates.

The City Council would have three options for the neighborhoods: require 25% of the units to be affordable to people making 60% of the metropolitan area’s median income (AMI) – about $36, 300 for individuals and $51,780 for a family of four. Average rent for an apartment would be $1165 a month; 30% for people making 80% of AMI, an average rent of $1550, about $62,000 for a family of three; the third option would apply to “emerging markets”, gentrifying neighborhoods, and set aside 30% for households at 120% of AMI- about $2300 in rent.

One main problem, besides the effect on the community surrounding the new taller buildings- how gentrification would be limited with higher rents for 70-75% of the neighborhood’s new apartments, is the city’s median household income is less than $50,000, well below the metropolitan area’s. By that definition most of the affordable apartments will be slated for people in the upper half of the city’s median. East New York council member Inez Barron recently unveiled a pie chart showing that 53% of the neighborhood’s residents make less than $35,000 a year but would receive only 13% of the planned housing while more than half would go to the 14% of residents making $75,000. The administration counters this by claiming any developer receiving an additional HPD subsidy, in their view most of the developers in poor neighborhoods like East New York the first few years, will be held to even higher affordability standards. In East New York’s case the administration claims at least 40% of units would be set aside for renters earning between $23,350 and $38,850 a year.

As for a more obvious solution to the city’s housing crisis, expanded public housing, New York’s Housing Authority, the largest in the country housing more than 600,000 people, faces an annual operating deficits of tens of millions of dollars along with nearly $17 billion in unmet capital needs largely due to divestment by the federal government. Various proposals to raise funds include raising money from wealthy former residents (such as Jay-Z, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Howard Schultz) the way universities do, leasing the ground floors of buildings to businesses, raising parking fees, and most controversially the leasing of underused city owned property, adjacent to public housing, for private development, with the promise of more ‘affordable’ housing. However at this point without increased federal funding, a distant prospect, expanding public housing is all but impossible. Besides a one year rent freeze on rent stabilized apartments announced last June by the Rent Guidelines Board (the first such freeze in its 46 year history) there has been no move toward expanding rent control or closing its many loopholes. Meanwhile, due to arcane tax laws, the absurdly low property tax rate for the ultra-luxury apartments on Billionaire’s row (whose owners often spend enough time of the year outside the city to avoid paying income tax as well), shows no sign a of being reformed leaving apartment buildings in poorer neighborhoods with a higher tax burden that gets passed down to renters.

Unfortunately increased poverty rates and a housing crisis don’t put a dent in the boosterism from the chorus that harps endlessly on low crime along with the glorification of the city’s glamourous elite from the hedge fund owners on billionaire’s row to celebrity chefs- all now allegedly under siege by a deBlasio administration that is proving quite timid in confronting the city’s politics not to mention its own adversaries from Uber to Eva Moskowitz (CEO of the city’s largest network of charter schools) both from whom deBlasio backed off just when the heat turned up.

Halfway through the term he won on campaigning on a ‘tale of two cities’, the deBlasio administration, far from upending the status quo and bringing back any bad old days, is largely demonstrating that the status quo endures.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.