by Devin Leonard and Greg Sargent
Brave New Rents Would Make Manhattan A Cold Place
NY Observer, May 5, 1997
Those Middle-Class Dreamers Paying About $1,000 a Month? If They Can't Make It Here, They'll Make It ... Elsewhere? WHY PACK THEM OFF TO JERSEY? Don Munson is an artist, and he has rendered a vision of Manhattan after the fall of rent regulations. It is a stark portrait -- a skyline without a soul, a bewitchingly decadent metropolis whose pleasures are available only to those with large sums of money. It is a place without passion, without music, without bright hues, a place where the only art that anyone cares about is the grubby business of deals. It is not the Manhattan of today, or of yesterday. It is unrecognizable, a texture-challenged creation of upstate philistines, of hay-galleries and on the covers of mystery novels. But you can say good-bye to Mr. Munson if State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno succeeds in gutting rent regulation, as he has promised. Mr. Munson, 51, is certain he will be driven out of the $1,150 a month, rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side where he and his family have lived for 26 years. "Oh, please?" he laughed bitterly, "Our landlord would love to get us out of this apartment even before the law is changed. What he wants is astronomical. What he wants is someone making a minimum six-figure salary." So do other landlords. The Daily News reported on April 29 that one overeager owner tried to hike a tenant's rent from $915.75 to $4,000 in anticipation of deregulation. For all his artistic success, Mr. Munson has never earned that kind of money. After years of struggling to pay the rent, he considers himself lucky to have landed a modest teaching job at Bronx Community College that finally affords him a steady paycheck and health benefits. (Even that job, however, is tenuous, with city and state cuts to City University of New York.) His landlord. however. doesn't seem especially interested in keeping an accomplished but little-known painter in Manhattan. On the contrary, according to Mr. Munson, he's drooling at the prospect of getting $3,000 for the painter's six-room apartment. So say farewell to Mr. Munson. He and his wife already are talking about moving in with her parents in Westbury, if Mr. Bruno delivers his lovingly wrapped Care package to the city's landlords. Say goodbye to thousands of striving, creative types deluded enough to imagine they could survive in Manhattan on anything less than Sherman McCoy's salary, those overeducated, underpaid toilers who barely make enough money to pay even their stabilized rents but who make up the heart of the city's intellectual and artistic class. For the most part, they are not well known, and they certainly are not rich. But together they enrich the city and make it something other than just another shrine of money- making. So say farewell to Phyllis Fay Farmer, a singer who has performed Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony in the chorus with the New York Philharmonic but who can only afford her $592-a-month rent-stabilized apartment in Fort Washington by working 20 hours a week as a word processor. Say goodbye to Jane Lippman, an Emmy-nominated documentary film producer in Chelsea who has been living from paycheck to paycheck. Still, she thought she had done rather well in life until she realized that she might lose her apartment. Say goodbye to Kaye Kingston, an actress who toured the country last year with Stacy Keach in An Inspector Calls, but who hasn't worked a day this year. ("I've managed to keep working [over the years], but it's not stardom, darling," Ms. Kingston said.) Say farewell to Andy Humm, editor of Social Policy magazine and unpaid host of Gay U S A., a gay cable network show. And say goodbye to Tamara Scott, an aspiring actress who played the Valium-addicted housewife in the production of Angels in America in Charlotte, N.C. She hopes to land such roles on Broadway. But for the time being, she is paying the bills by working as a hostess at Luma to pay for the $1,052-a-month rent- stabilized apartment in Gramercy Park that she shares with a roommate. "I'm not finished in Manhattan yet," Ms. Scott said. Sorry, Ms. Scott. Manhattan may be finished with you. There was a time when these people might have been forgiven for believing there was at least some paltry reward for sticking it out in Manhattan. Sure, they had to brave the cursing cabbies, the hostile bus drivers, the in-your-face panhandlers, the junkies shooting up in doorways, the muggings, the Third World infrastructure. But there are people so enthralled with Manhattan and all of its grit and glittery promise that they couldn't imagine living anywhere else, including the outer boroughs. This sounds a bit elitist," Mr. Humm said. "But in some ways, living in the boroughs doesn't fit with what attracted me to Manhattan in the first place. It's a very different life to me. It doesn't have the same edge. I don't want to be a spectator who visits. I want to be in it." So they hacked out an existence, rehabbed a tenement apartment in Chelsea, fought for a local park, did battle with the landlord and agitated for better schools for their children. To those hardy souls willing to go to such ends to live here, Manhattan offered something in return: shelter from the whims of its notoriously profit-hungry real-estate speculators. Now, it seems, the deal is off. "You used to able to come here and find, not a gorgeous apartment, but an apartment that went for $25 or $50 a month in what is now SoHo or the Upper East Side," Ms. Kingston said, talking about the 1950's. "You could come here and support yourself as an artist until you got better. Now if you come to this city, these kids are paying $1,500, and you've got four or five of them living in the same apartment with a bathtub in a kitchen." Meanwhile, people who have been here for ages are preparing to be turned out of their homes. Many, it must be said, aren't exactly struggling. But they share a link with the paycheck-to-paycheck dreamers and strivers -- they regard their apartments, and their neighborhoods, as a home. It's part of their identity, and many of them have invested money and sweat in making their home more hospitable. Letty Aronson, who lives in a rent-controlled six- room apartment on Park Avenue that goes for a shade less than $2,000 a month, readily concedes she may not be the most effective poster child for preserving rent controls. After all, Ms. Aronson, the owner of a film production company, happens to be Woody Allen's sister. Still, she wonders, shouldn't it count for something that she may be forced to give up the apartment where she and her husband, a public school principal in Brooklyn, raised their children? "We have a beautiful apartment," Ms. Aronson said sadly. "l totally redid the kitchen at my own expense because there was no reason to think that we wouldn't always be here." Park Avenue will surely survive without its rent-stabilized tenants. But would other neighborhoods? The Upper West Side, for instance, is often derided as a place where rent rules permit do- nothing Cosmo Kramer types to live in giveaway apartments, free to indulge silly dreams without the rigors of the market to keep them honest and productive. A seductive view, no doubt, dutifully peddled by pro-landlord think tanks. But, alas. reality intrudes. The Upper West Side might not be the thriving smoked salmon-and- latte neighborhood it is today were it not for rent regulations. In the 1950's, the neighborhood began a slow tumble into decline and disrepair. In fact, when Mr. Munson moved into his building at the corner of West 76th Street and Broadway, drug dealers and prostitutes did a thriving business in the building across the street. "This used to be a tough neighborhood," he said. "You should have seen the hallway in my place. It looked like a bordello. It had that red-and-black fuzzy wallpaper." But rent regulations encouraged the Munsons and other middle- class families to dig in and fix up their homes, helping to set the stage for the neighborhood's eventual comeback. "All the landlords there [who are] raking in millions of dollars owe a lot to rent control," said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. In post-rent-control Manhattan, those neighborhoods will become playgrounds and transient living quarters for investment bankers and the varied flotsam and jetsam of Wall Street. And to what end? Anti-regulation forces argue that there will be a dramatic upgrading of the city's dismal housing stock if rent laws are done-away with, that landlords will finally improve their dilapidated buildings if they are no longer squeezed by freeloading tenants. A lovely thought, but it's unlikely that this refurbishment renaissance would extend to the city's poorer neighborhoods. Most tenants driven from the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village are more likely to migrate to New Jersey or Westchester County (where there are already plenty of other middle-class urban refugees) than, say, East New York or some other neighborhood in desperate need of refurbishment. The result? Manhattan land prices will soar. and Trump cities will bloom. Meanwhile, the yawning gap between Manhattan's core of wealth and privilege and its crumbling outerborough ghettos will grow worse. Not to worry, though; the price of a martini at "44" probably will stay the same. But while you're sipping that Bombay Sapphire gin, it might be worth considering what this brain drain will mean for the revitalized Manhattan we have been hearing so much about lately. "Think of the changes taking place in the entertainment industry, Disney, Bertelsmann, Sony setting up here," said Emanuel Tobier, professor of economics and planning at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. "A lot of live entertainment products are being incubated here. Broadway shows, musicals, rock bands. The industry thinks if it really works here, it can go to videos, movies and other things. But Mr. Tobier fears that if rent regulations are done away with, many of the city's singers, actors and other creative talents won't be around to feed this growing industry. Ms. Farmer, the classical singer, would love to work for Disney. But with the end of rent regulation looming, Chicago looks tempting. "People in Chicago love classical music," Ms. Farmer said. "They love theater. A friend of mine, a librettist, was living in the tiniest rent-stabilized apartment imaginable in the East Village. I remember going over to his apartment for Thanksgiving, and the dining table was the window sill. And he had a roommate! Now he's living in Chicago and doing really well." Chicago's gain is New York's loss, and that story may be repeated thousands of times over if rent regulates expire on June 15. Yet the people most affected are the very people who make Manhattan worth living in: a city of people with divergent interests, habits. talents and backgrounds. "That's why people have always come here," said Ms. Lippman, the documentary film producer. "Whether they are successful or not isn't the point. People come here because they want to be surrounded by that palpable energy on the street, that palpable creative energy." Where else can you take your Dalton School-bred kid out to see a Juilliard School-trained violist juggling in Central Park to pay for his dinner? Where else could you wind up at a bar talking to some underpaid journalistic grunt who helped fact-check the latest Michael Ovitz profile in Vanity Fair? Or someone who helped research the current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York? Or with someone who assisted in the lighting on Rent? If these people are forced out of their apartments so that people with fatter wallets and better credit ratings can move in, Manhattan will become crueler and more prosaic, merely a place to do business, to talk about business, to eat business lunches and to swill business martinis. Besides, without out-of-work actors and actresses, who will serve the lunchtime steak frites at Balthazar? ***** With additional reporting by Alex Kuczynski.