Building Offices and Homes for the Rich in NYC

When you look at the diagram of skyscrapers in New York City, you might be impressed with how high so many of them are. You might also notice that most of the tallest buildings in the city (and in the country) are proposed, under construction, or new. Three were built in the 1930s, two were just built in the late-2000s, everything else is in progress. In other words, there’s a boom in skyscraper construction like New York has never seen.

Skyscrapers in NYC, by height

Skyscrapers in NYC, by height

You might also notice that, of those seventeen contemporary structures, nine are office-only, five are mixed use, and only two are residential. These new, expensive buildings are to be places where money is made – by those who already have money.

But even the residential properties being built in New York aren’t the types of homes that you and I think of – they’re homes for the elite. One57, a construction project on the edge of Central Park, will house duplex apartments at $90 million each. 432 Park, soon to be the tallest residential building in New York, includes a lower floor studio apartment – to house staff like maids or butlers – to the tune of $1.59 million. And what types of people are buying these places?

[A] transnational nouveau riche looking for a second (or third or fourth) home. Having made fortunes in nations less regulated economically and less stable politically than the USA, these buyers want a safe investment as much as, or more than, shelter. And they don’t want to pay New York resident income taxes.


One57 says that more than half of ts buyers come from outside the USA, including 15% from China. A Chinese couple bought a small, $6.5 million apartment for their daughter to use when she’s in college — around 2030.

You know who isn’t buying these apartments? People who can’t, because they can’t afford to stay in their own city. People have been talking for a while about how the biggest cities are pricing out even the upper-middle class, leaving room for only the elite. These cities have been turned into “vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself.”

Indeed, some people in New York can work two jobs and still be homeless. And, while high-rise office tower construction is rapidly increasing, and rents along with them, so is homelessness. The number of people in the city’s homeless shelters hit a record 64,000 in January. That was nearly a year ago, and it was a 13% increase from 2012 – the future isn’t bright either. In September the number of children in homeless shelters past 22,000 – children like Dasani, who was recently highlighted in a much-talked-about NYT piece.

And sometimes, when new building developments do offer homes to those who who don’t have millions of dollars, they do it like this:

Manhattan developer Extell is seeking millions in air rights and tax breaks for building 55 low-income units at 40 Riverside Boulevard, but the company is sequestering the cash-poor tenants who make the lucrative incentives possible.

Five floors of affordable housing will face away from the Hudson River and have a separate entrance, elevator and maintenance company, while 219 market-rate condominiums will overlook the waterfront.

That building, which relegates the poor to a separate entrance, saved the development company $21.5 million in tax breaks – taxes that could potentially go into relief for far more than 55 families.

This is what the world’s richest cities are doing: building new houses and offices for the elite to use part-time, while homeless shelters are overrun and those lucky enough to not be homeless either move out of the city center or turn to low-income housing.


One Day I’ll Be Thankful for a Welfare State

In a recent column about empathy, Nick Kristof responded to terrible critics of his call for people to take care of one another:

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”


After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?

This isn’t new. People who don’t want to help each other and don’t feel like they have to really like to blame others for their circumstances. But then Kristof kind of allows it, in defense of the children:

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

He takes it as a given that some adults are to blame for their bad decisions, and chooses to guilt-trip the assholes by pointing to the children that are the innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Nevermind that A. poor adults make the same kinds of bad decisions as middle class and rich adults, they just don’t have a personal safety net, and B. adults who need help deserve it – no matter what the reason, just like children.

When rich and even middle-class, especially white, people enjoy privileges that are invisible to them but incredibly apparent to everyone else, it demands that everyone else receive the help that they deserve. In my city, if you’re caught doing drugs in one part of town you’ll probably get a reprimand, maybe get sent to rehab, if you get caught on the other side of town you’ll probably meet the carceral state up close. Being injured or sick when you’re rich is still a terrible thing to be, but at least you can get treatment while the uninsured are merely kept alive. Missing in all of this is that the middle-class and rich get government help all of the time: income tax credits, quality education for their children, well-maintained highways – things that are meant for everybody but really don’t benefit those who don’t have much of an income, who send their children to under-funded schools due to property tax inequity, who take the bus for an hour to work. A proper safety net is the only way to help these people, and that’s what we should be doing.