Having a hard time finding a new apartment to fit your budget? Consider a move to the blocks around Ground Zero. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the body set up by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki to oversee the rebuilding of downtown post-September 11, will pay you up to $12,000 to relocate south of Chambers and west of Broadway for two years, or stay there should you live there already. I know–I couldn’t believe it either. This bounty to adventurous tenants is federal money and comes even as area rents are already down by as much as 30 percent since 9/11. Think of it as a mini-version of the millions ladled out to keep corporations from abandoning lower Manhattan for New Jersey. I figured out that I could sublet my apartment on the Upper West Side, move downtown and actually be able to live on my Nation salary (well, almost).
It’s true downtown is a mess right now–depending on whom you talk to, the air quality’s somewhere between itchy and lethal, a lot of little shops and restaurants have folded, and Ground Zero is not everyone’s idea of a view. Still, whatever happened to the survival of the fittest? To the market and its omnipotent invisible hand? Why shouldn’t downtown apartments fall to their “natural” price–the rent at which sufficient numbers of people will want to take out a lease despite the angst and aggravation? And if that figure turns out to be so low that the current landlords can’t make a go of it, isn’t it the capitalist theory that other, cleverer landlords will step into the breach, with the consumer the winner? Why should the federal government pay middle-class professionals to live in one neighborhood rather than another? The answer is, to keep downtown a great place for those same middle-class professionals to live and for real estate interests to invest in.
Public subsidy is certainly not the principle animating housing policy for low-income people and homeless families like the ones whose tribulations were superbly, unforgettably chronicled by Jennifer Egan in The New York Times Magazine (“The Hidden Lives of Homeless Children,” March 24). Five hundred dollars a month to brighten a scruffy and underpopulated district with their presence? The housing allowance for a family of three on welfare is $286. It’s one thing to herd women and kids into filthy motels at the city’s edge, miles from grocery stores and hours away from schools and jobs–at daily rates for which they could be happily ensconced in their own apartments. It would be quite another matter to treat low-income New Yorkers as members of society with contributions to make that are equal to (or greater than) those of bond traders or publicity agents, and to see their children as no less deserving of a safe and stable place to live than any other kids.
As Egan points out, homeless families–now 75 percent of the city’s shelter population, including 13,000 children this past winter–are caught between falling or stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs. The housing market is just too tight, no public housing is being built and the waiting list for section 8 vouchers, which poor families can use toward private-market rents, has more than 200,000 names. Homelessness is a civic emergency, an affront to human dignity and a threat to the city’s future, affecting everything from public health to public schools to public safety. But can you imagine Mayor Bloomberg, inspired by Egan’s crusading journalism, proposing that we move homeless families–virtuous, sober, quiet homeless families, to be sure–into those hard-to-rent vacancies downtown? Middle-class New Yorkers would lie down in traffic to prevent it.