A couple of years ago I first started noticing the degree to which our affordable neighborhood was becoming unaffordable to people of my own income level, the one that (obviously) I'm most familiar with. Mrs. Flatbed and I bought a small rowhouse in 2003 on a rough and tumble block, and to make the mortgage we had to pay almost twice what we were paying for rent in le hot South Slope. So while it's still a stretch for us now with two kids and mostly just one income, for the time being, we can just about afford it. I hope we're earning the least we'll earn during our working lives, while the little ones need lots of attention. But you never know. Do you? Heck there were years when I made $5,000 and got by, though there was a lot of cash coming in and going out. Ah, to be young and brash in the '90s.
When we first moved here in 2003, you could still get a one-bedroom for just shy of $1,000. I know because I kept on eye on it, on and around our block anyway. A two bedroom could be had for $1,200. (Remember, I'm not talking about the heart of the Historic District, rather on the southern side, where we have a bit of what I like to call the "Parkside Drawl" and perhaps a slighter higher tolerance for rambunctious streetlife). The 2-bedder is probably what we would have gone for had we not decided to take the plunge and put more than half of our annual income into our home, which we hoped would be our home for at least as long as our mortgage, and maybe beyond. The American Dream. For a modern musician and a rock dancer, wait, rock musician and a modern dancer, it seemed extravagant, and we did our best to slide into working the kind of jobs that could afford us this life, while hanging onto our creative lives as best we could. Then we decided to have two kids. Whoa. Now we were REALLY middle class. Middle. Middle America. Though living in the 'Bush during the Bush years made it seem less middle middle boring middle. It's NYC. City of Dreams. The Big Apple. City of Broad Shoulders! (er, that's Chicago, but our shoulders are pretty broad too). All good. And this is, bar none, one of the most exciting neighborhoods in the whole borough. If you don't think so, you and I got different ideas of exciting. I mean world-class krazy fun and never a dull moment. Great great people, not boring, with great stories and fascinating perspectives. And the Park, man!
My nearby neighbors thought we paid an arm and two legs for this house at the time. It was the most anyone had ever spent on one of these Clarkson row houses - by almost TWICE. Actually, these homes hadn't traded hands much through the years. Some folks had owned their homes for decades, and some died in them. Maybe that'll happen to me. Never know. (Sometimes I wonder how long I'll have to live here before I get to stop being a spoiled gentrifier? Probably til I'm surrounded by richer and whiter people, though I'm pretty damn ruddy pale.)
The rents and the housing prices in Brooklyn had risen before - quite a bit actually since 1996, the start of the big housing run-up. By 2007, a lot of people were acting like they did during the late '90s tech boom - the bubble was in full effect, and you could feel the anxiety. The bubble was palpable. Or rather popable. I remember that people I knew were buying up houses to flip...I never DREAMED of such a thing happening, but the frenzy was on. Then it all came crashing down, and a full-on Argentinian-style meltdown nearly happened here. And then...wow. It started again, and the money that'd been waiting on the sideline got the greenlight to build, build, build. Where were all these people coming from to buy these overpriced apartments and houses? They weren't ALL coming from Manhattan. Folks were calling Brooklyn the "it" city. Really? Brooklyn? Well, okay if you say so. I think that was partly because so many bold-faced names were saying Brooklyn was their home, and many folks in the media actually live here. But a funny thing happened. The whole borough started to become wildly speculative in its pricing. Bed-Stuy even. Bed-Mothereffing-Stuy! The place Billy Joel was CRAAAAZY enough to walk alone. And otherwise sane people started saying that this was the new normal. Mad prices. Mad rises. Irrational exuberance. Delirious Brooklyn.
My friends, this is NOT the new normal. Anytime you hear someone say that you know we're in a time of berserkness. Remember that book called Dow 40,000? And if I needed any more proof, I got it tonight when I finally saw the numbers comparing the "affordable" rents to the market rents at 626 Flatbush. Remember, the affordable rent is unlikely to go up much, since it's based on 50% of median household income, which is roughly $50,000 a year for NYC and hardly budging. I know I don't need to tell you this, but it's worth thinking on it in this context. HALF of NYC households earn more than $50,000. HALF of NYC households earn less. HALF. Wow. (If that doesn't blow your mind then, well, I guess you're not me. And yes, it's barely growing in real dollars, certainly not at the rate of housing.)
Just a few years ago I noticed for the first time that market rents in Brooklyn were becoming 1 1/2 to 2 times what would work for a median to just-above poverty working family, which is often a single parent. Neighborhoods of lowish income families were now officially out for half of the population. Pretty much all of brownstone Brooklyn, save parts of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. People were starting to pay half or more of their gross income in rent. Crazy, but true. And the more hip folk moved here the more crazy it got.
So now I'm looking at the affordable rates vs. market at 626. And if trends continue, market rates will go up considerably by the time the building opens. Remember affordable is based on 50% of median. Oh, and there are almost no 2 or 3 bedroom units in the building. They're simply not as economical for the landlord. Families, it would appear, are simply not where the money's at:
Studio - $696
1 bedroom- $748
2 bedroom - $908
3 bedroom $1039
Studio - $1,875
1 bedroom - $2,200
2 bedroom - $2,800
3 bedroom - $3,500
I recall from my book larnin' that it was just a hundred years ago that socialism and its naughty brother communism broke through to the level of the State. By 50 years ago we'd built nearly 200,000 units of public housing in NYC. By 45 years ago we passed the Rent Stabilization Law. By 35 years ago the City went bankrupt as the middle class left for the suburbs. 30 years ago marked the first age of the yuppy. 25 years ago housing prices plunged. 20 years ago Courtney Love had a hit record. 15 years ago everyone wanted to start a dot com and we all lost our minds in the stock market and frenzied speculation. 13 years ago planes hit the towers and we wondered if NYC would ever recover. From then til now, minus the speed bump of 2008-9, we've been on a tear. A bloombergian mega tear.
It's not sustainable. We're in a bubble. We're in madness. You don't usually know when you're insane. I mean that's part of the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing and expecting different results?
Madness. Unadulterated madness. Who's got a pin?