Middle Class Earners Struggle To Pay Rent In New York City

Jul 6, 2016
Originally published on July 7, 2016 2:14 pm

In the U.S., affordable housing has always been a big concern for poor people.

Now in some of America's biggest cities, "middle class" families can't afford the rent. And that is making affordable housing a more important issue for the elected leaders who run these cities.

As part of the All Things Considered series "The New Middle," a look at what it means to be middle class in America today, NPR's Ari Shapiro went to the most expensive city in the country to see what happens when you earn a middle class salary in an upper class town.

Use the audio link above for the full story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here in the U.S., affordable housing has always been a big concern for poor people. Now in some of America's biggest cities, middle-class families can't afford the rent, and that is making affordable housing a more important issue for the elected leaders who run these cities. This is The New Middle, our look at what it means to be middle class in America today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think middle class is, you can pay your bills comfortably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mean, my sleeves only roll up so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There's got to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Being able to afford a place to live and enjoy life.

SHAPIRO: For the latest story in our series, I went to the most expensive city in the country to see what happens when you earn a middle-class salary in an upper-class town.

MATEO VEGA: Hi.

MELANIE VEGA: Oh, now you want to say good morning to me. Hi.

SHAPIRO: The Vega family is not what you would think of as gentrifiers.

VEGA: My name is Melanie Vega, and I'm the mom in the family (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Melanie grew up in one of New York's housing projects downtown. Her husband, Daniel Vega, was raised by a single mom in the Bronx.

DANIEL VEGA: You know, there were times when my mom worked three jobs to make sure that we had everything we needed.

SHAPIRO: And now we've pretty much made it - family of four, solid income above $100,000, and they live in Spanish Harlem in the northeast corner of Manhattan, a place that lots of other Puerto Rican families call home. Yet there's a weird disconnect.

VEGA: To me, this is just to higher-end project (laughter) when you think about the amount of money we pay every month.

SHAPIRO: Three thousand dollars a month for a three-bedroom apartment.

VEGA: You know, you walk in, and either it's weed smoke or pee that you smell. You don't want to come home to the place that's your sanctuary, and you have to write this fat check every month. And it's, like - this smells like a bathroom.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel middle-class?

VEGA: (Laughter) We were talking about this last night. So I don't think so.

SHAPIRO: Economists say the middle class tops off around $120,000 a year for a family of three. Since Melanie launched her own business recently, the family of four just started making more than that, so I thought maybe they're not middle class anymore. Then Melanie said this.

VEGA: I think when we think about what middle class would be like, we would think they would be a little more comfortable.

SHAPIRO: In many American cities and New York above all, a middle-class salary does not necessarily mean a middle-class lifestyle. I asked Daniel, the father, whether he'd be able to pay off a big unexpected bill like a medical emergency.

VEGA: Maybe once, and sometimes it depends on the month. It's always in the back of my mind once our savings account, like, is there, even any money in our savings account this month.

VEGA: Melanie only just rejoined the workforce after taking a few years off to raise the kids, so the family's financial picture is changing. They know that for their money they could live in a suburban McMansion (ph) somewhere, but this is where they grew up.

VEGA: Jacob, do you have everything?

SHAPIRO: Melanie and her oldest son, Jacob, head off to school. He's 11, but this neighborhood still isn't safe enough for his parents to feel like he can walk the four blocks alone.

VEGA: I see you. He's trying to get away from me because I always give him a hug and a kiss.

SHAPIRO: In New York, the median income for a family of four is $53,000 a year. That's actually a little below the national figure. Meanwhile the cost of living in Manhattan is well over twice the national average, and real estate in Greater New York City goes for almost double the national price. This problem is not only in New York. Edward Goetz is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota.

EDWARD GOETZ: I think that for many people, the housing crisis that middle-income New Yorkers are feeling right now has been a depressing and recurrent way of life for decades.

SHAPIRO: He says across the country, hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units have disappeared, either being torn down or converted to market-rate housing.

GOETZ: So to the extent that the problems of New York, the problems of other cities like San Francisco are shining a light on this issue I think is a good thing.

ALICIA GLEN: I'm Alicia Glen. I'm the deputy mayor in New York City in charge of Housing and Economic Development.

SHAPIRO: The deputy mayor suggested we meet in Lower Manhattan at a famous housing complex called Stuyvesant Town.

GLEN: It was built in the 1940s to house workers who were really facing incredible housing shortages after World War II.

SHAPIRO: So what you're saying is the problem that you're struggling with in 2016 is the same problem that Manhattan was struggling with 75 years ago (laughter) in 1940.

GLEN: It may be that there are no new problems - right? - in this world. More than half of New Yorkers now are paying more than a third of their income towards rent, and that's just not sustainable.

SHAPIRO: We run into retiree Patricia Redden who's lived in a rent-controlled apartment in this complex for almost 30 years. She says at today's rates, she would never be able to afford it.

PATRICIA REDDEN: I wouldn't be looked at, considered.

SHAPIRO: So if you were looking for new housing today, where do you think you would be able to find it?

REDDEN: (Laughter) Idaho.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: New York's population is larger than it has ever been - more than eight-and-a-half million people and still growing, so the city's coming up with a plan to build lots more housing. And in exchange for letting developers put up tall buildings, the city's going to require that many of the units be affordable, which brings us back to East Harlem, the neighborhood known as El Barrio.

This is one of the least-dense areas of the city. There are still lots of low buildings, and it's more affordable than the rest of New York, which means East Harlem has a lot of room for new development.

MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Melissa Mark-Viverito is the speaker of the New York City Council, and she represents this neighborhood. She takes us on a walking tour to meet some of the people who've been here a long time...

MARK-VIVERITO: (Speaking Spanish).

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: ...People like Vicente Barredo, who owns a Latin music shop.

VICENTE BARREDO: I've been in El Barrio for 50 years, and I love this part of it.

SHAPIRO: He believes it's too late. The fight is already lost.

BARREDO: The middle class is moving out. I don't know where, but it's not in this country. It's going down - yes.

SHAPIRO: Do you think of yourself as middle-class?

BARREDO: That's a good question. I think I used to be middle-class, but right now I don't know about that question (laughter).

SHAPIRO: On the street corner, speaker Mark-Viverito points out a new building that was approved before the current housing plan went into place. It's a sleek tower, all luxury units.

MARK-VIVERITO: So with a rezoning that we're going to do in this neighborhood, that kind of development would have to give back at minimum 25, 30 percent of the units to be affordable to the communities.

SHAPIRO: And affordable doesn't just mean for poor people. In this city, a family of four making $100,000 a year can qualify for affordable housing. That's how out of whack the real estate market here is.

MARK-VIVERITO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: As we walk down the street, constituents stop Melissa Mark-Viverito at least once a block. Finally we pass an intricate, colorful mosaic. It's a tribute to a local poet named Julia de Burgos. The street is named after her.

MARK-VIVERITO: She lived in El Barrio towards the end of her life, and she died literally on the street on Fifth Avenue and about 105th Street. So we named this for her, and this is a mural dedicated to her with some of her poetry.

SHAPIRO: Would the 2016 Julia de Burgos be able to afford to live in this neighborhood writing poems?

MARK-VIVERITO: No. She was a Bohemian. She was, you know, a working-class woman, and she was a poet. And I don't believe she would have been able to live here now.

SHAPIRO: That suggests that the man we talked to who owns the music store was right that it's over. The middle class is already gone.

MARK-VIVERITO: No, but we can create. Maybe at the moment, if it continues in the direction that it's going, that's going to be the reality. How are you - yes.

SHAPIRO: She says there's still time to change course as another constituent pulls her aside. Like every one of the people who has stopped her during this walk through East Harlem, he has a concern about his housing.

Tomorrow on The New Middle, what we can learn about America's middle class from the history of the lower class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The British basically imagined that the New World was a wasteland, and they were going to dump their expendable waste people into the New World. So that's where we get white trash - this idea of waste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.