Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Rent is Too Damn High

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But you didn’t need me to tell you that.

As it turns out, about a third of New Yorkers pay fully half their income in rent, and while wages have been stagnant the last decade, the rents have gone up by some 9% in the last three years alone, 13% in Manhattan. Two thirds of renters rent from rent-subsidized or -regulated apartments at well below market rates – a stock that dwindles year by year as apartments hit the barrier of $2500 monthly and convert into market-rate apartments – yet can still barely afford the rates offered as they are still well above the national average.

Simply put, housing isn’t keeping up with demand, resulting in higher costs for everybody. Why hasn’t housing kept up? My guesses are twofold:

1) Historical preservation. Height limits and restrictions that attempt to “preserve the character of the neighborhood” are severely limiting the amount of potential housing stock. Now, this would be bad enough on its own, but it’s also being improperly enforced, where developers can overcome such restrictions at great cost by piling on air rights from neighboring properties, resulting not only in the undermining of what the regulations were attempting to preserve, but also ensuring that any new housing stock created in that manner would be as unaffordable as possible, as they would have to be luxury apartments or condominiums to compensate for the legal horsetrading involved in making them.

Simply put, if it’s not going to help – and rich people do what they want anyway – then what character is it preserving? It’s not the people. Both the East and Greenwich Villages do not have the same close-knit character that made them important to the city culture, and SoHo and the Lower East Side are cynical jokes – high end shopping malls where artists used to live. What’s the point of preserving the “character” of a neighborhood when every storefront is a Bank of America and every resident is a yuppie douchebag who works in finance? What’s the point of saving the buildings if nobody can afford to live there?

2) Suburban-style restrictions on new construction. I’m talking primarily of parking requirements. In my Manhattan neighborhood, all new buildings under the current zoning plan must include parking spaces for 50% of their units. Why? It’s wasted space. This is Manhattan: The pinnacle of a walking city, with more mass transit than the rest of the country combined. Why are rules like this still on the books? They raise the cost of construction – which in turn effects the cost of living – and add nothing of value. The chock-a-block pre-war tenements that comprise most of uptown never had these requirements, and they’re what house most of us in this city: By these rules we can’t even build the sorts of apartments we’re all dying to rent anyway!

Libertarians complain that rent regulation and rent control are strangling new development. I think the numbers proves that rent regulation and rent control are absolutely necessary to stop New York City – and Manhattan especially – from becoming a homogeneous playground for the rich. But what I can agree with them on is the necessity for a freer hand at development in order to capitalize on this incredible demand for this city. Officially, New York grew only by about a quarter million in the last decade. Everybody knows that’s complete bullshit – nobody who’s sharing a two-bedroom with seven other people is going to tell the truth to a census taker – but one of the things it’s shown is that we’re simply not providing enough places for people to live.

If the city can provide variances and tax breaks to luxury towers, they can change zoning rules and stop preserving entire neighborhoods for the rest of us. After all: If I had to choose between preserving the buildings and preserving the people, I would invariably choose the latter. Let’s not turn this into Paris or Venice: New York is not a museum city. It is a living city, and in order to do so it needs to breathe.

Now if only we had a Democratic candidate brave enough to carry this flag.

To Speak of City Issues That Matter

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It’s been reported that we’ve recently broke a milestone for public housing in New York City: There are now more applicants for public housing than there are apartments in public housing. Specifically, there are some 227,000 applicants and only some 178,900 units total in the city, about 3% of which may actually become available in any one year.

Mind you: That’s not a quarter million people. That’s a quarter million applicants – both individuals and families. It actually works out to half a million people. We have a transient population in New York of half a million people. That puts us in the in the same ballpark as eastern Chinese cities, except they’ve been doing something about it.

Bloomberg’s response was to tie “affordable” housing with luxury development – wherein each new building has to have some 20% of housing that is affordable, but it’s simply not enough. The average monthly rent in New York, despite economic stagnation and collapse, shot up from $1200 in 2002 to $1900 in 2011, with Manhattan alone being over $3400, as demand completely outstripped supply.

This is a crisis. It’s not new – we’ve had a crisis since before I was born, which is why we made rent control and rent regulation (and thank god for that or I wouldn’t be able to live in this city) – but it’s worse than ever before. Each of the Democratic candidates for mayor have proposed to build new housing, but the numbers they give wouldn’t even make a dent in the magnitude of the problem, should they even achieve them, and their plans are actually dwarfed by what Bloomberg’s succeeded in doing. (Indeed, they seem to have fallen on the “we feel your pain” route as of late in lieu of actual plans.)

Today, we have China-sized problems. We need China-sized solutions. We need to flood this city with housing, and damn the NIMBYs. Bloomberg prompted a building boom: We need a boom to make that one look like a store-bought firecracker. We simply cannot have this outsized underclass eking away an existence nor can we truly afford to price out people who could make a living practically everywhere else in the country. We’re causing working New Yorkers to exist in an untenable tenancy situation, which is driving down the economy overall.

We need a New Deal shot in the arm. We’ve needed that for at least ten years. I know Obama isn’t FDR, but can he at least pretend to be?

Who Gives a Shit?

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The New York Times is perhaps giving this rehash of the same Weiner scandal more gravity than it’s worth, but then excoriating Democrats is perhaps the low-hanging fruit of political reporting: Having a tiny modicum of self-regard, Dems cave to truthful accusations like it actually mattered. I’m not saying Mark Sanford should be a role model, but for fuck’s sake: Mark Sanford is a role model in how it really does not matter if you simply don’t give a fuck.

In a city where bankers can sink the entire economy, take federal zero-interest bailouts, and still complain about the “mooching class,” where term limits can be sidestepped by the depth of one man’s pockets, where the world’s most expensive luxury condominiums are getting tax breaks, and where Donald Trump exists, do we really think that this sexting scandal is what’s bringing us down?

Not only is this perhaps the tamest sex scandal in the history of politics – for starters, there’s no actual sex – but when it comes to personal foibles, I think narcissism is more or less par for the course in politics – if not a job requirement. Do I think Weiner’s a predator? Hell, this scandal came out just now because the woman wanted a condo out of him and he didn’t oblige. If it was predation, it was mutual. That does make him an idiot, but that never stopped anybody from achieving office before.

It’s almost heartening, in a way, that we’ve flung open the closets and shaken out the skeletons and all we have are ridiculous online flirts. Maybe the Times should do an opinion piece on how the current guy in office is screwing us all, not just teasing to.

False Equivalences

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There’s a tendency for each side to mask any actual problems by saying the other side has equivalent wrongs that have gone unaddressed. Most often this is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty, and the current conservative retort to the Zimmerman verdict is no different: They point out that in 2009, a middle-aged Black man named Roderick Scott shot dead a 16 year old white boy named Christopher Cervini, was tried and acquitted on a self-defense charge, and there was no national outcry or remarks of racial prejudice, implying that the declaration that were Zimmerman Black, circumstances would be different, is false.

The cases do seem broadly similar, in that in both cases were the victims minors, in both cases the gunmen were not on their own properties when the altercation occurred, and in both cases were the gunmen acquitted. But that’s where the similarities end. Let me enumerate the differences:

  1. Christopher Cervini was actually engaging in criminal behavior, namely: Breaking into cars. Trayvon Martin was just walking home.
  2. Christopher Cervini was not alone in his criminal activities, and Roderick Scott was thus outnumbered. Trayvon Martin was alone.
  3. Christopher Cervini’s accomplices had police records for burglary, robbery and assault. Trayvon’s record is clean. Roderick Scott did not have a criminal background of violent altercations. George Zimmerman did, including charges of assault, domestic violence and violently resisting arrest.
  4. Roderick Scott did not follow Christopher Cervini, nor did Christopher Cervini attempt to flee. The altercation started when Roderick Scott found Christopher Cervini breaking into his car. George Zimmerman followed and then gave chase to Trayvon Martin when Trayvon Martin fled.
  5. Roderick Scott clearly identified himself and that he was armed. George Zimmerman started with an accusation and at no point did he identify himself.
  6. Roderick Scott instructed Christopher Cervini and his accomplices to wait for the police to arrive. George Zimmerman gave no such instruction before giving chase to Trayvon Martin.
  7. Christopher Cervini was drunk and high on amphetamines at the time of the altercation whereas Roderick Scott was sober and, according to the 911 transcripts, not agitated. There were no drugs or alcohol in Trayvon Martin’s system at the time of his death, and no tests as to George Zimmerman’s sobriety were made.
  8. Christopher Cervini yelled and attacked Roderick Scott with witnesses present. There are no witnesses to corroborate George Zimmerman’s account of his altercation with Trayvon Martin.
  9. Roderick Scott was immediately arrested and indicted. The police only arrested George Zimmerman after 45 days, prompted only by national media coverage and the replacement of the police chief.
  10. Roderick Scott had to defend himself in court. George Zimmerman had a private lawyer paid for by political supporters who advised him not to speak.

Of course, this would obviously muddle the claim of equivalency, so ends up going missing in latter-day comparisons. That the comparison was never very strong to begin with hasn’t dissuaded pundits from using it, for it’s an often-used tactic to exploit the initial reactions in the interim before such declarations are inevitably debunked. It’s useful, then, that this comparison was made a year ago, and was noted as not being very apt then either.

Zimmerman, Post-Verdict

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“There are factions, there are groups, there are people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it or be vigilantes in some sense,” said Robert Zimmerman.

“They will always present a threat to George and to his family.”

Ironic.

What has come to pass is tragic as it was predictable. Trayvon Martin’s Blackness trumped his age. Martin’s Blackness trumped his right to defend himself. Martin’s Blackness was to any watchful eye the crux in George Zimmerman’s decision-making that night. Zimmerman played the gun-slinging vigilante and was vindicated by a non-Black jury in a case where race was forbidden from being discussed. Thus, with Zimmerman’s acquittal, two precedents were set:

1) You can pick a fight and, if you are losing, you can end it with lethal force without fear of imprisonment.

2) #1 does not apply if you’re Black.

There are those who would argue that Martin was a little thug for whom this was, if not an inevitability, a likely and justified end. This supposition is fantastically off-target. Trayvon Martin had no criminal record, and the only trouble he’s gotten into was for minor marijuana possession in school, for which he was suspended. If that gives somebody a death sentence, or ranks them among criminals, then none of us are innocent and my career as a teacher was a quixotic endeavor at best. Of course, this is not the case and such characterization for want of better justification is likely born out of prejudice. Moreover, such a record is not only objectively minuscule, but is absolutely nothing in comparison to George Zimmerman, who has police records for battery, domestic violence, sexual assault, and – in the height of hypocrisy – violently resisting arrest from a real police officer.

There are those who would argue that Zimmerman, on account of being part Peruvian, did not act because of Martin’s race nor did he receive preferential treatment. Imagine, however, if Zimmerman were Black. He would not have gotten the same treatment from the police, who failed to do so much as charge him with a crime for 45 days. He would not have gotten the monetary support from right-wing individuals and organizations in order to afford his attorney. His attorney would not have been able to get a favorable jury that resembled him and not his victim and a judge willing to take the talk of race and vigilantism off the table. Furthermore, he would not have had a record of 46 calls to Sanford police exclusively reporting Black males: Simply put, he may not even have considered this teenager suspicious. Let’s face it: Zimmerman, an armed, self-appointed volunteer watch captain in a gated community, is about as Latino as McGloin was Irish in Gangs of New York.

Thanks to this verdict, it’s open season in Florida today: Evoking scenes from South Park, all you have to do before opening fire is declare that you feel threatened. I only wonder just whether Zimmerman is capable of understanding just what he has justified today, but maybe he’s just vainly hoping that he got the last shot in.

Zimmerman Pre-Verdict

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Years back when I was living in Flushing, Queens, there was a horrific armed robbery in a Wendy’s on Main Street. Gunmen corralled all seven employees attending at that time into the basement, put bags over their heads and shot each one from behind.

Two survived, and one was able to describe their vehicle to the police, who immediately put up an all-hands dragnet in the entire area, complete with roadblocks and checkpoints. The news was all over the event, flabbergasted over the egregious death toll in contrast to the modest amount of money taken. Why so much bloodshed?

The answer was simple: Leave no witnesses that could identify them.

George Zimmerman followed, cornered, fought and killed an unarmed Black teenager, and while the jury is currently deliberating, I suspect they will not convict him of the charge of second degree murder but of a lesser charge of manslaughter – perhaps even involuntary manslaughter – due to lack of evidence.

The main evidence, of course, would have been the testimony of Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead, leaving nobody to dispute Zimmerman’s account of that night. I’ve observed earlier that previous uses of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida followed a trend of gang members and barroom brawlers using it to justify their murders, and that acquittals were largely due to lack of contravening evidence.

Needless to say, this case, while being one of racial profiling and violent vigilantism, is also one of legalized lawlessness: It grants carte blanche to premeditated murders, so long as there are no witnesses. As there is no need to flee and there is no possible means of accurately assessing whether one feels threatened, it becomes child’s play to get away with murder.

The longer it takes for a verdict to arrive, the more likely the jury – with not one Black juror – will convict Zimmerman of a lesser charge or acquit him altogether. I would not want to be in Florida should that happen, but ever since this law was passed, I didn’t want to be in Florida anyway.

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