One Weird Trick to Forget About the Housing Crisis
The solutions to the housing crisis are not as sexy as the problem, and the problem is the overwhelming power and weight of wealth. The problem is our desire for the problem: to see it, to touch it, and perhaps one day to inhabit it.
6:45 AM EDT on July 30, 2022
My rent is too high—my landlord just raised it $625 a month. It was already too high before this—I moved into my apartment just last fall, choking back the nausea-entitlement-guilt cocktail that came with paying approximately $1,600 more than what my boyfriend Andrew and I had paid for the last eight years to rent our old one-bedroom on the border of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, thirteen minutes from the G train and a stone’s throw from the picturesque BQE.
As one does now, I lost my mind in the process of finding that apartment. Andrew and I were moving back to the city full time—like a ready-made Styles section cliché, we had spent most of the pandemic in the house we’d bought upstate in 2018. (“Pre-COVID Hudson Valley Gentrifiers Are Feeling Lucky,” New York Times, May 25, 2020: “Everyone’s paying double all cash right now to contribute to longtime residents getting priced out of the area,” Ms. Tolentino said. “And we got to do it while only putting down 60K!”) Andrew was down for any neighborhood, any apartment, as long as it meant we could avoid the rent spikes that were hitting the city now that everyone who was exactly like us (or worse) was returning. I, in a sort of personal-historical first, was the opposite of down for anything. My desire to stay in Fort Greene felt childish, painful, and basically chemical—the apartment hunt was occurring while I was weaning my ten-month old, a hormonal process that made me feel every second as if I was on a plane that had just plummeted several hundred feet. Overwhelmed by the future, I desperately wanted continuity with my old life, before COVID and the baby: friends close by, the park at twilight, and an apartment with good vibes, like our old place, where so many people had misbehaved and come for dinner and moved in temporarily and all the other things you do when you feel at home.
After a soul-shredding search—it seems quaint now, but I was shocked at the packed open houses for tiny garden apartments listed at $4,500—I started begging strangers on Instagram for leads. Everyone was wonderful, and still I kept striking out: At one point, I offered cuck money and a passionate letter for a place that wasn’t listed yet, and still failed. I was disintegrating, hammered by the hormone anvil, unable to sleep or eat or stop crying. I took every setback as a sign that I was a piece of shit. If I—a person with so many resources, including the ability to solicit help from thousands of strangers—was finding it impossible to rent a pleasant two-bedroom in my neighborhood with no stairs to torture my old dog, what the fuck were people without these things doing? What was happening to the people who this city actually needed? They were, as ever, being pushed out to Bensonhurst or New Jersey, commuting for ninety minutes each way to their jobs. They were getting evicted and moving into relatives’ living rooms; they were being forced into homelessness, or finding illegal basement dwellings that would threaten their lives in every flood. I was looking for a way to contribute to the problem: If you’re lucky, that’s what looking for an apartment in New York often means.
Then another lead from a lovely stranger landed: a big first-floor two-bedroom, near the park, with high ceilings and huge windows. It would be vacated in September, and it had been shown to no one. We could afford rent and daycare if I kept finding screenwriting work; the bathroom was tiny, but we could live in this space for a decade, easy. The weaning hormones began subsiding. I became less prone to marinating my brain in large-scale crises. I started thinking less about whether Good Cause Eviction would pass in various upstate cities. I started dreaming about house parties, luxurious secondhand furniture, hanging plants.
The housing crisis is a nightmare across the country. The market “is caught in a vicious cycle of broken expectations that operates like a food chain,” the Times wrote in February, in a piece about Spokane, Washington, where housing prices have risen 60 percent over the last two years. “The sharks flee New York and Los Angeles and gobble up the housing in Austin and Portland, whose priced-out home buyers swim to the cheaper feeding grounds of places like Spokane.” For the people who can’t afford to buy a home in their community—a population that now includes 61 percent of renters in major U.S. metropolitan areas and 95 percent of renters in Los Angeles—there is the looming possibility of not being able to afford rent, either. Nearly a quarter of American renters spent more than half their income on rent in 2020. The nation is short almost four million housing units for the population. A person working full time at minimum wage cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom in any U.S. county—in 94 percent of counties, not even a one-bedroom. What’s left after that? Not much: In some places, even mobile home rents have tripled.
In New York City, most people are renters—two-thirds of the population, as opposed to one-third of the population in the country as a whole. In the year since I hunted for my place, the situation for renters has become one, as Bridget Read wrote at Curbed, of “abject indignity.” In May, the median Manhattan rent reached nearly $4,000, meaning you’d have to make $160,000 to qualify; the median income in New York City is $67,000. (And now, the average Manhattan rent is a record $5,000.) Between 2017 and 2021, the city lost nearly a hundred thousand units with rents less than $1,500; in the same period, the city gained over a hundred thousand units with rents higher than $2,300. There is less than one percent vacancy for the places that rent for less than $1,500. There are more Airbnbs than available apartments. There are around three hundred and fifty thousand units that are both vacant and unavailable for rent, and there are around fifty thousand New Yorkers, many of them children, in shelters every night.
Conversations keep drifting toward the housing crisis. I’ve talked about it at bars with people I’ve just met; by the playground, with a Fort Greene friend who lives in public housing; with the new residents of our old place, who are a decade younger than us and pay $900 more than we did; on group texts, where the apocryphal horror stories are flying—could it be true that a downtown Brooklyn studio’s rent increased from $1,800 to $6,000 in two years? “Isn’t this illegal?” everyone says about everything. But New York’s rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments have been continually wrested by landlords out of regulation and into the free market. Good Cause Eviction—the bill that would’ve made it illegal to evict tenants without evidence of nonpayment or misconduct, and that would’ve given tenants the ability to contest any raises in rent above three percent or 1.5 times inflation—failed in Albany this summer; landlord lobbying groups, mobilizing in response to 2019 rent reforms, have recently spent more than eight million dollars on donations to the politicians who handled the bill.
Half of the American population—a ten percent increase from three years ago—believes that affordable housing is a major problem. One poll found that 79 percent of Democrats and half of Republicans in New York supported Good Cause Eviction. Oregon and California recently implemented statewide rent control. In 2019, Moms 4 Housing occupied an Oakland house owned by speculators and got it turned over to a community-owned trust. In Vienna and other European cities, public housing is mixed-income, beautiful, desirable. So much else is possible! Always! But we’ve developed Stockholm Syndrome regarding the American model of life as a roulette wheel of fortune and disaster. Thirty-six states prohibit rent control entirely. In New York, the mayor is busy flamboyantly policing the results of the housing crisis, and landlords continue to have renters by the throat. “My pessimistic view is that the economy is perfectly capable of running with unaffordable housing,” the chief economist at Redfin told the Times this year. The crisis has been escalating for years, and politicians have gotten away with doing nothing, so why would they start now? “Another way to phrase that,” she said, “is that people will still get up and go to their jobs, even if they’re housing insecure.”
There are activists and community groups, like For the Many and Housing Justice For All, who are doggedly working to make our politicians take responsibility for the crisis. But with housing—as with climate change, abortion, anything—radical desire doesn’t amount to anything unless it passes through meetings and phone calls and the tedious labor of organizing. And we, or maybe I’ll just speak for myself here—I still, reflexively, always let my brain drift away from housing as a collective problem and towards housing as an individual dream. It’s the process that Ryan Gunderson, in “Hothouse Utopia,” calls “alienated reconciliation”—the meandering through “justification (‘It’s not so bad’)…into pseudoactivity (‘OK, this is bad. What can I do to help?’)…[to] hiding (‘The world can’t be saved so I might as well meditate’).”
Except I don’t meditate—I look at Zillow, at, say, an owner’s triplex with triangles of sunlight on the floor next to an original wooden staircase, and I imagine what it would feel like to have a $3.2 million house budget. Really good, I bet—as good as plenty of other people might imagine it is to simply go home every day to a beautiful two-bedroom in Fort Greene.
With housing as with everything else—but, well, it’s especially bad with housing—the solutions are not as sexy as the problem, and the problem is the overwhelming power and weight of wealth. The problem is our desire for the problem: to see it, to touch it, and perhaps one day to inhabit it. The New York Times and Curbed, the outlets that run the most essential coverage of the housing crisis, also run showcases of real-estate wealth and luxury on a near-daily basis. Even the pieces that ostensibly function as eat-the-rich critique—look, here’s the duplex with a rooftop terrace that a student is renting for $20,000 a month; here’s the nonfunctional super-tall for sociopaths who buy $17 million pied-a-terres—are demobilizing reminders that this city, this country, are built to cater to stratospheric wealth above all. (The Times, by the way, keeps producing viral coverage of the current rent hikes without ever mentioning Good Cause Eviction.) There’s no shortage of unabashed real-estate porn, the kind with no other angle than “look at this, maybe imagine yourself in there.” I click through every time, huffing the fumes of capitalism in hyperdrive, letting the white glove seal its hand over my mouth. Those 22-foot-high ceilings in the 8,700-square-foot Turtle Bay townhouse that Mary-Kate Olsen never actually lived in! The arched doorways in this manor in Majorca! I think something like, Fuck the world that allowed anyone to accumulate the money to buy this, though of course that’s the same world that allows me to rent a two-bedroom in a neighborhood that has shut out its nurses and teachers, and of course, it is a fact that in most conversations about real estate I might start with the dream of federal rent control but then usually end up “joking” about ways to get rich.
It should be so much simpler: Housing, being a universal need, should be a universal right. Instead, housing has been made into the primary financial vehicle through which Americans establish security in a system that otherwise does not tend to provide it. It’s been made into a wealth-building instrument, a commodity whose success requires all prices to go up forever, making this crisis and its attendant human misery inevitable. It has locked landlords into a mass delusion that anything but maximal greed will cause their lives to collapse; by displacing the profit-seeking obligation, it locks tenants into that delusion, too.
I’m keeping my apartment for another year despite the rent raise; the open market is too scary. We tried to negotiate with our landlord, obviously. We went back and forth for six weeks and got nowhere; he simply could not afford to go any lower, he said. Hearing him, I realized the extent to which no beautiful apartment was worth replicating this thinking in my own life, and now when I walk my dog around the neighborhood, looking up at the condo towers where the $6,000 two-bedrooms loom against the sunset, I think that I was lucky to be here for so long, and that it’s getting to be about time to leave.
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Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the essay collection "Trick Mirror."
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