As all New Yorkers know, “rent is too damn high.” Even for a single person with no other financial responsibilities beyond putting food and alcohol in their gut, finding a place to rest that fat, drunk head can be challenging. For a family of modest means it’s impossible without significant government subsidy. We laugh (cry) it off as an inescapable part of life in the Big Apple. Get an eight-story walk-up studio for under two grand a month and people will try to assure you that you “really got a good deal.” Many in this town with otherwise sound financial habits, in effect, torch half (or more) of their monthly income just to avoid sleeping outside. After years of faithfully feeding the insatiable rent monster, how is the responsible tenant rewarded? Another bill at the first of the month, of course!
This system of housing is economically and socially unjust, and completely unnecessary. Maybe, with enough creativity, not only can we correct this insanity, we can do it in a way that allows for return on investment. The financial stability, happiness and health of the City’s workers and inhabitants are what’s at stake.
New York City real estate is a sector of the economy in which many significant investments have been made. The tycoons wield considerable influence in City Hall, Albany, and even D.C.. New York is the pulsing heart of capitalism, and no amount of rosy populism will convince the Trumps of Gotham to take a loss. So the challenge is finding a just solution to the City’s housing problem that allows for a healthy market, but does not concede too much to the forces of greed. Imagine, if you will, that a portion of every month’s rent was invested on your behalf in the form of equity in the house or apartment you live in. A situation where part of your money went into the pocket of landlords, as it already does, and part went toward your ownership of the property until eventually tenant becomes titleholder.
This approach, as I see it, has distinct benefits for tenants if applied properly. If a formula is created to tie the monthly fees to the equity earned (i.e., if fees were allowed to be a maximum of 100 percent of equity given per month, a $1,000 monthly rent would put $500 in the landlord’s pocket and put $500 toward equity in the property for the tenant), rent could be controlled by the value of the property and the landlord’s desire to not accede too much equity. Secondly, it provides financial security to the vast majority of City citizens who rent their homes. If hard times befall a tenant who has been faithful in their payments, the equity they’ve earned could be applied to their monthly bill. If a tenant lives in an apartment long enough, they can acquire enough equity to have a solid financial foundation for retirement or their families. Furthermore, this system would allow for the American arch-virtue of profit. Those with credit, property, or capital to leverage could still do so, just not indefinitely.
I’m sure there is a learned economist out there who could pick apart all of the flaws in this modest system I’ve proposed. If formulas are not properly concocted, new forms of predation could arise. Maybe there is a factor here that I don’t fully understand that would cause rents to skyrocket. NYC is full of real estate scams, and this proposal may offer a new one. There would have to be a host of exceptions for things like short-term rentals and rentals in which the property is also the primary residence of the homeowner. The land-owning gentry has been screwing over and maneuvering around tenants since the days of feudalism; it’s probably presumptuous of me to think I’ve devised a way around this. Even my father, who tends to indulge my childish radicalism, told me that property rights are so fundamental to American jurisprudence that any attempt at reform like this is DOA, legally and politically.
All of these criticisms, and many more, may have merit. The point is that debt peonage in the form of rent is an unfair system that favors very few and leaves many more in a difficult and precarious system. Government programs may be helpful, but they do little to address the root problems. People shouldn’t be pushed out of a city like New York because they can’t find a place to live. Property ownership matters, but not all have the resources to buy outright, so a path to ownership is preferable. I may not have the specifics properly worked out, but I hope at least to make a few rethink the way property is distributed in the City.
If nothing else, it allows me to feel less like a piece of shit when I don’t pay my rent.