In the spring of 2013, the architect Rafael Viñoly shared an instructive insight into the state of New York real estate with a reporter for The New York Times. “There are only two markets,” he observed, “ultraluxury and subsidized housing.”
As the design force behind 432 Park Avenue, a waifish super-tower rising from New York’s “Billionaire’s Row,” Viñoly spoke from a position authority, at least about the “ultraluxury” side of the market. Stretching 96 stories, 432 Park is an obelisk of wealth—the tallest residential tower in New York City (in the whole Western Hemisphere, in fact) and also one of its most expensive. To its admirers, who include the Saudi retail baron who agreed to pay $95 million for its penthouse, it is a luxury investment with killer views. To its detractors, however, it is a soaring middle finger, raised in mockery at the millions of struggling New Yorkers for whom affordable rents remain as notional as, well, a crash pad in the sky.
New York has long been an expensive town, a place where complaining about the rent is as much a defining cultural trait as dropped Rs and jaywalking. But over the past decade and a half, New York’s housing costs have skyrocketed, giving rise to one of the most acute affordable housing crises in the country. Currently, roughly one out of three New York renters pays more than half of their income toward rent. And in 2014, Brooklyn, long famous as borough of working-class families and immigrants, was ranked the least affordable housing market in the country, with Manhattan trailing close behind. On any given night, nearly 60,000 homeless people, many of whom work low-wage jobs by day, sleep in municipal shelters.
Worsening income inequality is a primary culprit. But decades of cutbacks in federal housing programs also deserve blame, as do the weakening of rent regulation by the state government in Albany and a real estate industry that is the single biggest contributor to state and local politicians. The fact that, until 2014, the city had been governed for 20 years by mayors who cared more about cultivating the creative class than looking out for the city’s poorest residents also played a role.