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NOVEMBER 23, 2011 5:23AM

Update on affordable housing in Manhattan: there is none

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A few weeks ago I wrote about how my son and I didn’t get into the new mixed-income affordable housing building going up on 25th and 9th , after almost getting into it, after thinking we were as good as in it. If that’s a confusing sentence to read imagine how it is to live it. Well, they had an open house the other day because apparently they haven’t rented all their two bedrooms, which are going for $3,400 +. Affordable, you ask? They also had a few studios available for $2,200 +. Same question. 

The lord works in mysterious way, and so, I’m sure, does Bloomberg and the NYC Housing Authority. This new mixed-income building is a wacky postmodern hybrid of high and low, defined by Marxist overtones. Huh? Hold on. Each according to his need. You were to be given a lease according to your income bracket. Had I really gotten in, the way I thought I was going to, I would have paid $1,600 + for a studio or $1,800 for a one bedroom. There were only 20 available units for my income bracket and family size (my son and me). I fell under the middle-income category and there was a whole separate scale for the low-income category. You could have snagged a studio for about $400 if you made only $23,000 a year. I could have theoretically quit my job and become the grocery-store clerk that my heart often longs to be and been set for life. But I know that’s not the point.

So, in a sense, we’re defined by our housing in NYC, more than in any other city. I used to live on a dubious block filled with crackheads and prostitutes and now I have groups of tourists prancing down my street on their way to the High Line. My block hasn’t really changed. I mean, they paved the street and kicked out all the homeless alcoholics when the Republican Convention was in town, but everybody came back. The payphone on the corner still serves as a public toilet and all, but my rent has almost doubled since I moved in.

But back to affordable housing. My son and I decided to go to the open house and check out the apartments. We’re still plotting to get in there when the first person in our income bracket moves out. My father, god rest his soul, revealed in his later years that at work he was known as The Pusher. And no, it wasn’t about drugs, even if he was a chemist by profession. He got things done. This is no doubt where I get my propensity for finding the slightest crack and sticking the wedge in. I once asked my former assistant principal at my job if I pushed too much and he gamely replied “just enough”—the very definition of balance to me. So somewhere inside me I thought if we went to the open house we might just be that much closer to getting in.

It snowed that day, in October, a near-record for the city. My son and I had gone to the Bronx to be present at my school for an open house there … the season, I guess. We didn’t have much time left when we got back so we tore over to the building. The open house went till two. We found the front entrance around the corner from 9th on 25th Street and we opened the glass doors. It was still just all concrete and a security guard was there and a young woman. They had a table set up and you had to sign a waiver—even my son did—and wear a hardhat to walk around in the building. I started rambling to the woman about how I’d been chosen for the lottery but didn’t get an apartment. She frowned a little. “Did you get approved?” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, “and then they said they didn’t have an apartment for us.”

“That’s weird,” she said. Dah dun! The crack.

“Is it weird?” I said. They’d screwed up. They’d investigate. We’d get in after all.

Just then the guy who had interviewed me last spring—went over my paperwork and everything—stepped out from behind a door or something. “Oh, you’re that guy,” I said, sort of more shrilly and abruptly than I’d intended. My voice reverberated against the concrete walls. The young woman repeated to him what we’d talked about.

“No, you got chosen,” he said, kind of slowly, very clearly, annunciating. “But then when we cleared all the people in your income bracket your number was too high and we didn’t have an apartment left for you.” Yeah, well, I knew that.

“Well, we just thought we’d come look at the rooms because we really want to get in here,” I said. “And thanks for emailing me.” Was my voice really echoing around in the empty lobby or was I just having a panic attack by now? He’d answered my email query about the building going up on 26th and 8th that I thought was going to be another affordable housing building. It’s not.

“Sure,” the guy said. He looked tiredly patient and indulgent, a look you don’t really set out to elicit in people. My son was trying on different hardhats and exclaiming about the features of the concrete lobby. The snow had turned to rain. We were about to go into the elevator when another guy burst through the doors, tall, from Baltimore, he said. I imagined him as a real person with a real job, who had real money and was actually looking for a place to live. As opposed to me, who was absurdly trying to scheme on the chance that someone had made a mistake, or something.

We all went up together. Nice elevator. Beautiful halls. Tiny studio. Significantly smaller than ours. Holy crap, maybe it’s better we didn’t get it, my son and I signaled to each other with a look. The guy from Baltimore was taking pictures with his phone. We then moved on to the two bedroom. Now this we could live with. A lovely kitchen. Two small bedrooms. Three closets. A small front room off the kitchen, small, but if we each had a bedroom ….  

The guy from Baltimore was photographing away. He was asking reasonable questions, some about the neighborhood, which my son and I were answering. Animatedly. “Do you think someone might move out?” I said to the guy from the real estate office.

“I don’t know,” he said. Granted, if my son had asked the question it might have been more fitting. I started to get all-around paranoid.

The whole way to the grocery store to get lunch my son and I talked about moving into that two bedroom, walking quickly, hunched under our one broken Mets umbrella (don’t ask!). Too bad we can’t possibly afford it. But I can see it now—our little round table in the front room. Even the one bedroom at that building was only as big as our studio is now. Affordable housing? No.

Hey Manhattanites—or anybody else! Any ideas out there for a single-mother teacher and her 10 year-old son?


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MWG, best of luck to you on securing a new place! It's a constant problem in Manhattan to find affordable housing and it's been going on for many decades. Too much demand and not enough units available at a given moment all around the island of Manhattan. The outer boroughs continue to be the option for so many and also the nearby suburbs.

Just the other day The Times had this story, which you might have seen, about Westbeth which was established as low cost housing for artists around 40 years ago. There is very little turnover there and some residents have been residents there since the place was established because it's too good of a deal to let go of:
I wish I could convince you to move to Houston. Housing here is so inexpensive, it's decadent.
Hi Single and Son,
Keep on keeping on, looking for a family friendly apartment kind of reminds me of looking in Communist Germany and being Jewish. It's really hard, if you start to even talk budget it's like a taboo, they think your on crack and will eventually use your money to buy crack instead of pay the rent. Yes even rational people as witnessed by the many weird abstracts that you will read about amidst your morning walk for a cup of coffee. The street beat is that people are being laid off, people that make a lot of dough take off six months and wait for the next wave to pick them up, and then all the other folks in the middle singing a chorus that sounds something similiar to yours. No I am not taking a low rent apartment in a bad area filled with cockaroaches and music blasting till 2:00 a.m. The other single people that are making strides have no significant others, do not go out hoping and wishing, they got real along time ago. It's taking the careful time to talk to the correct people, supers who know other good supers in responsible run bldgs. Otherwise, steer clear of phony adds promising great apartments, if you listen on the news you will find out they only people more desperate than you who would not mind finding their fifteen minutes of fame on some court t.v. show. It's a mess out there, and looking for an apartment shouldn't have to be the drama that it is, but buyer beware. An apartment is a big investment of time and money good luck and get your wedge in where you think it's best suited for you and your son.
I live in Houston, I have struggled in my life...and I have celebrated wealth.
But never have I lived in such a warm community I am now. It is pristine clean, the apartments are wonderful, and spacious if you need. It has all the furnishing you should need. We have cable, wifi, all bills paid. Huge A/C.
We have a social worker who helps with any food, medical needs. A doctor and nurse came by TWICE to give us flu shots. We have free lawyer assistance. They visit every 3 months and anyone can talk to them.

A driver takes us to the grocery and a runner gets our medicine.
We have a huge, theatre size tv in a luxurious day room, with social area library and a community kitchen if you want to cook for a huge party.
We have a computer room, and classes.
We have airtight security and the communty is closed after 10. A person can get in by ringing the bell, but the front desk will decide if they can go into the community.
We have 2 huge laundry rooms.

Perhaps you can visit New Hope

oh...and it only cost $425 a month (even less if you need government assistance)
First an honest question. Why would you want to live there and like that? What are you putting out as a percentage of income for housing?

I live in NC. I rent 3 bedrooms, 2 baths on 5 acres of land. Everything except electricity costs me $475 a month. You can't make enough extra that after taxes and cost of living that you wouldn't be better off down here.
Actually, maybe you're better off staying where you are, imperfect as it is. Nobody owes you low-income housing in Manhattan. You live by the High Line, which is actually a lively, conveniently located neighborhood to live in. If you are a rent-stabilized tenant, there's a chance your landlord may try to buy you out of your lease and you could make a little money. Living in New York city means putting up with one sort of inconvenience or another and there's no guarantee that you and your son would be any happier in another apartment.
I'm totally sad that I didn't stay in my rent controlled east village apartment in the '80's. Talk about crazy! Now I'd be sitting pretty! OK, I have very little sympathy for your plight. Why do you want to stay in Manhattan? Because of your sons school? You don't mention that.
Sunnyside, Queens is affordable and more like the NYC you might crave. 20 minutes from Manhattan on the train at rush hour.
NOBODY can afford to live in Manhattan - unless you're willing to stalk and kill someone for a rent controlled apartment. Or petition Mia Farrow.
I understand your valid complaints about inequity for affordable housing - but rather than struggle, I hope you and your son find a sunny place, even maybe in the Bronx, where you teach, where you can both thrive.
(Upper Manhattan - by the Cloisters - is also very fabulous! And best of luck to you.)
I live in the Boston area so I can't invite you to come's hardly more affordable! It is an art to know when to "push just enough!" Keep pushing, and something, someone will give. My heart goes out to you in your search for a home for you and your son.