Volume 73, Number 54 | May 12 - 18, 2004

Talking Point

Losing affordable housing means losing Democrats

By Chad Marlow

(Reprinted below is a portion of the introductory speech by Chad Marlow, Village Independent Democrats president, at V.I.D.’s 47th Annual Awards Dinner on May 6.)

Recently, one of the members of the Village Independent Democrats’ executive committee, Jim Fouratt, reintroduced the phrase “ignoring the elephant in the room” back into the V.I.D. lexicon. Jim’s point in doing so, which is well taken, is that too often people shy away from addressing topics that seem too difficult to discuss and problems that appear impossible to solve, because they are uncomfortable with the topic or in denial about the problem. I would like to talk about one such elephant. It might not be accurate to say this elephant is in the room — but it is standing right outside on the street and it looks like it is coming in. And it is a very large elephant, indeed.

The problem I am referring to is the impending near-total loss of Manhattan’s Democratic base by the year 2020. The cause of this problem is a daunting one, and one that is not easily solved: It is Manhattan’s highest-in-the-nation cost of living, which is continuing to rise at an astronomic rate. The Douglas Elliman and Corcoran real estate firms reported earlier this year that in 2003, the average cost of an apartment in Manhattan reached the $1 million mark (a 32 percent increase over the prior year), while the median price for an apartment was $625,000 (a 21 percent increase over last year).

While housing may be the single largest expense Manhattanites face, their bars of soap and loaves of bread are also exorbitantly expensive. In the recently released annual ACCRA Cost of Living Index, in which the nationwide average cost of living is given a 100 on the scale, Manhattan’s cost of living is the highest in the country, with a rating of 219.1, making our borough the only “city” to exceed twice the national average. But our cost of living is not merely high relative to cities like Omaha and Memphis, which is to be expected. Manhattan is also significantly more expensive than every other major American city. For example, Manhattan’s cost of living is 18 percent higher than that of San Francisco, 37 percent higher than Washington, D.C., 38 percent higher than Chicago and 57 percent higher than Baltimore.

If the cost of living in Manhattan continues to rise unabated, by 2020 most of Manhattan’s residents will either be millionaires or billionaires. We know full well that this group is overwhelmingly made up of Republicans and persons who do not subscribe to a progressive political philosophy. It should be abundantly clear that we need to dramatically increase the supply of affordable housing and to bring the cost of living in Manhattan under control. This is not just as a matter of good public policy; it is necessary if we are to preserve Manhattan’s Democratic base.

We cannot allow Manhattan to become a place where the middle class, and those aspiring to join the middle class, cannot afford to live; but at the rate we are going, it is unquestionable that in 15 years the New York County Democratic Party will be a mere shadow of its present self. It is plainly obvious that without the presence of a substantial stock of non-wealthy voters, Democratic officials will not be able to get elected to office in this borough. We are already seeing previews of this problem: Twelve years of Republican mayors is not a fluke.

Increasingly, voters who were raised in the progressive tradition and who do not come from an ultra-rich, progressive family (like the Kennedys) are being priced out of our borough. To illustrate this problem, rather than relying on general statements and abstract examples, I would like to present an example of the problem from my own life and that of my fiancée, Goldie Weixel.

Goldie grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. Her family was able to live in Manhattan only because they were fortunate enough to live in the rent-stabilized Village View apartment complex on the Lower East Side (which has since become the ultra-hip, and far more pricey “East Village”). Goldie’s father earned his living driving a taxi six days a week, and her mother taught English as a Second Language in the public schools. Although not wealthy, her family comes from an impressive progressive tradition. Her grandmother on her father’s side, Lola Weixel, worked as a riveter during World War II and later became the star of the famous “Rosie the Riveter” documentary film. Her grandfather on her mother’s side, Herman Myers, was one of the original founders of both the C.I.O. and New York Taxidrivers Union. Goldie’s parents are likewise progressive activists, and Goldie still talks fondly of attending protests with her parents as a child. Although not blessed with money, Goldie worked very hard in life and has reaped the rewards of her efforts. She gained admittance into Stuyvesant High School despite attending one of Manhattan’s worst public elementary schools, and she graduated from N.Y.U. Law School. She now resides, with me, in the West Village.

When I was 23 years old, my father was struck by a drunk driver while changing a flat tire on his car on the Harlem River Drive. As a result of his accident, he was paralyzed and lay in a semi-coma for several weeks. Today my father is a quadriparetic (which means he has only limited mobility in his arms and legs) and he suffers from a brain injury that severely affects his short-term memory.

Having lost his textile-manufacturing company to oversees competition during the recession of the early 1990s, my father was just starting up a new consulting business at the time his accident occurred. That meant he had no savings, no health insurance and woefully insufficient automobile insurance when he was nearly killed. Facing a major health crisis without any financial resources or insurance made a terrible situation dramatically worse. And if that was not enough, a short time after nearly losing my father, my family lost our home when we could not keep up the payments on its mortgage.

At the time of the accident, I had just been accepted to law school, and my family and I made the tough decision that I was better off going to law school than staying home, so in three years I would be in a position to help my family financially. Although I wanted to be a public-interest lawyer when I applied to law school, when I graduated from the University of Virginia, I took a job at a big law firm and began to help support my family. When I returned to New York City in 1999, I had only a few hundred dollars in the bank, almost $100,000 in student loans and a family still in crisis. My family and I had lost virtually everything we had. Like Goldie, I had gotten used to knowing that any breaks I got in life, I would have to earn.

When I hear that over 20 million Americans do not have health insurance, I remember what it was like to stand in a line trying to get Medicare and public assistance so my father could receive medical care. I also live with the painful understanding that if my father had private health insurance, he would have received substantially better care and might be better off today.

When I try to help Mitchell-Lama tenants save their affordable housing, my fight for them is a personal one, because I know what it is like to have your home taken away.

Backgrounds like those of Goldie and myself, though distinguishable on their details, are not that uncommon among Manhattanites; however, those of us whose families are not wealthy are growing less and less common in this borough. Although both of us worked very hard and now earn good salaries, because we do not have wealthy families, we have massive student loans to pay, and without a trust fund or wealthy parents to turn to for help, if we cannot afford to stay in Manhattan based on our own efforts, we will be forced to move.

And in addition to the problem of losing voters, what will Manhattan’s future political leaders look like in 2020? Assemblymember Deborah Glick recently told me something that is common to many of our local political leaders: if Deborah did not have a rent-stabilized apartment, she could not afford to live in her district. Our community has Deborah Glick only because Deborah Glick has affordable housing. In that regard we are both very lucky, but our plan for finding New York’s next generation of Democratic leaders cannot rely solely on luck. If we fail to control the cost of living in Manhattan, what will our choice of future leaders look like? To be certain, most will be rich Republicans. But beyond that, our choice of future leaders will come from a very unsettling source: The only Democrats who may be able to run for public office in Manhattan 15 years from now will be those who happen to come from great wealth, and thereby are relieved of the burden of earning a massive paycheck to live in our borough. That pool is too small, and those who are in it — who did nothing to earn their good fortune — will not constitute the cream-of-the-crop leaders our city’s residents need in elected office.

If we do not control the cost of living in this borough, the future leaders we are counting on may instead be forced to move. Should this happen, Manhattan may end up providing Brooklyn or Boston or Philadelphia with a great Democratic congressmember, while it sends an all-Republican delegation to represent Manhattan’s residents in Washington.

The Democrats of New York County are facing a crisis, and we must act now while we still can alter the course we are on. Otherwise, unless we start now to take on this monumental problem, in 20 years this room may be hosting the annual dinner of the Village Independent Republicans.


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