Jimmy McMillan ... remember him? You know, the guy with the white wrap-around facial hair, gloves, and "The Rent is Too Damn High" message who made the 2010 New York State governor's campaign interesting, even funny. Who can forget that catchphrase, or those whiskers? Well, he’s back. He dropped a record late last month with an anthem themed around the same singular message of his earlier campaign. He's also contemplating a run for New York City mayor. McMillan was the brunt of plenty of jokes in 2010 and was a running gag on SNL. But he also raised a critical issue for most New Yorkers. Simply said, the rent was and is too damn high. As zany and unrealistic as his campaign is, the message is undeniably, brutally true.
According to The Elliman Report, which tracks real estate market trends in New York City, the average monthly rental price for a Manhattan apartment is now $3,930, up 3.7 percent from just 12 months ago. In Brooklyn, the average rent is now $2,971, up 11.5 percent over last year. And New York's vacancy rate is at an all-time low. Of the 165,000 "affordable" housing units built or preserved during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure, "only about 8 percent were intended for households making less than 40 percent of the metropolitan area’s median income," according to The New York Times, "though they make up nearly one-third of all New York City households." And it is very likely that New York City tenants lucky enough to have rent stabilized apartments will see their rents go up as much as 9.5 percent this year. These are apartments supposedly designed for low-income families. A recent New York Observer story put it this way: "Low-Wage Jobs Are On the Rise In New York, But Where Can the Poorly Paid Afford To Live?"
As rents increase with the forward march of gentrification, it puts pressure on many New Yorkers. Areas such as Red Hook in Brooklyn or Long Island City in Queens used to have rents that, while a stretch, allowed working-class New Yorkers a home. Historian Josh Freeman tells us of a city that was designed for working-class New Yorkers to thrive ... in the 1950s and '60s. The development of rent controls, planning for affordable housing, and the creation of targeted development meant that even blue collar families with modest incomes could find a home. While rents and the cost of living have increased, poverty has concentrated in public housing projects and the surrounding neighborhoods. Now over 20 percent of all New Yorkers live below the poverty line.
As Richard Florida has shown, New York City "ranks first among the 10 largest U.S. metros for its percentage of low-income households that are located in exclusively low-income census tracts (41 percent).” New York has become, even more than it already was, a class-divided city.
This is beyond sad. There was a time when New York was a model for other cities in terms of housing policy. Urban historian Nicholas Bloom reminds us how Gotham once made room for all of its citizens, or at least it struggled to do so.
Now, it appears that we are in free fall when it comes to rational housing policies. The result is a squeezing of our city.
Jimmy McMillan is unassailably right. While he will never be a serious candidate, others would be wise to adopt his issue and call. Without a legitimate policy debate, models, or plans that address or remedy this situation, New York might just rot from within.
Richard Greenwald, a professor of history and sociology, is dean of St. Joseph's College, N.Y. His most recent book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America. He is finishing a book on freelancers entitled The Death of 9-to-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works.