Squeeze on Middle Class Tightens Uptown

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The Upper West Side has become known as a bastion of middle-class life, a family-centric haven that, while not cheap, offers an attainable life in Manhattan for average people. But over the past few years, as the economy slowly recovers, middle-class residents are increasingly finding themselves squeezed out of their beloved neighborhood. "We see it all the time," said Jason Haber, an Upper West Side resident and CEO of Rubicon Property, which recently opened an office on Columbus Avenue. "These are people who are victims of their own success. The community rises and becomes a more desirable place to live because the people who live there help to build up the community, and then they get priced out of it." What Haber described is not an uncommon occurrence in the city, but these scenarios have been creeping into the Upper West Side with more frequency in recent years. Local elected officials and community leaders have been hearing a growing number of complaints about the rising costs of living in the area, and the problem is not likely to be alleviated with any quick fixes. "The lack of new development on the Upper West Side and its continuing appeal is going to create rent pressure in the neighborhood," said Michael Slattery, a senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York. The economic crash of 2009 is still affecting the housing market, even as rents and prices continue to climb, Slattery said. "The other part of it is that five years ago, you saw financing was readily available to purchase [real estate]; there was a lot more co-op and condo development taking place. It was easy for someone to move from a renter to a condo owner with very little change in their cost of living," Slattery said. "That took some of the pressure off rental housing. Today, it's harder to get financing to buy." With more renters flooding the market, landlords have the opportunity to charge their current tenants more-or simply take their chances with new ones who can afford to pay much more. Daniel Holt is an Upper West Sider who is desperately hoping he can remain one. He and his wife and their 7-year-old daughter have lived in their building for four years, while Holt has lived in the neighborhood since 1998. When their lease was set to expire this spring, they received a renewal offer-for an increase of over 20 percent. Not able to afford the jump from $3,500 to $4,250 a month, they are waiting to hear back from their landlord about negotiating a lower rate. Holt, an out-of-work lawyer, and his wife, a teacher, are waiting and searching for alternate locations in the meantime. "It's impossible to find anything that is in our price range that meets our needs and is in our neighborhood," Holt said. "We don't have much hope that [the landlord] is going to turn around and say, 'OK fine.'" He said that others in his building have already left rather than pay higher rents. "We've been looking at Inwood and we've been looking in Hudson Heights, a neighborhood west of Broadway between the George Washington Bridge and Fort Tryon Park," Holt said. He worries about his daughter switching schools or having to commute on the subway every day if they move north, but he doesn't see staying on the Upper West Side as an option. "We're forced to chose between something that's outrageous and something that may not even exist," he said of their futile search. Other residents have faced even bigger increases-some up to 40 percent-and find themselves in the same situation. City Council Member Gale Brewer said she hears about this issue constantly from her constituents, and she worries about driving the middle class out of the area. "The rental or co-op situation is such that people in Manhattan want to raise their families-they get married, they have a kid, they want to stay," Brewer said. She remembers past decades, when young families would routinely move out to the suburbs because they felt that the city wasn't safe enough to raise children; now that it's increasingly safe, it's also increasingly pricey. "[Now] they're leaving for the suburbs not because of security issues but because of lack of affordability. These are people who we would really like to stay in Manhattan." Brewer said she's concerned that if the middle class continues to be driven out by rental prices, the neighborhood will lose the very appeal that is attracting the high costs. "The persons who are involved with the PTA and the police precinct community council and the community board are people who stay for a long time and have a stake in the community, and they have to have an affordable place to live, a job," she said. "The very wealthy don't do it. And the very poor, with some exceptions, don't get too involved either. I've been here 40 years; this is how it works." Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who lives on the Upper West Side, said this is an issue he's seen in his own neighborhood as well as borough-wide. "The middle-class squeeze is becoming a chokehold," Stringer said in a telephone interview. "The skyrocketing rents on the West Side are causing families to look elsewhere, and that's not good for the city." Stringer has advocated for citywide middle-class tax cuts similar to the ones Gov. Andrew Cuomo has championed at the state level, a move that he said wouldn't solve the problem but could help if combined with more strategic efforts from city government on keeping the middle class in place. Haber agreed that the city should work more closely with developers to figure out ways to accommodate the rising housing demands. He said that the large swaths of historic districts in the area-one of the big attractions-also limit the ability of developers to put up multiple high-rise buildings to meet the demand for apartments. "That's one of the things that makes the Upper West Side great, that we don't have these giant towers rising up on either side of brick buildings on the avenues like you do over on the East Side," Haber said. "[But] there's a scarcity of supply here. And it doesn't just push one price cohort up, it pushes all price cohorts up." While that's good for his business in some regards, Haber said, it also means there are fewer transactions, and even real estate honchos don't want to see the middle class disappear from the area. Stringer said, "You want the West Side to improve and you love the fact that everyone wants to live on the West Side. You also have to make sure that the entrance fee to this neighborhood isn't a $1- or $2 million condo. You shouldn't have to choose between a second kid and the suburbs."

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