The Slow, Inevitable Death of Middle-Class Housing

By the time it was completed in the early 1940s, the Parkchester apartment complex in the Bronx had distinguished itself on several levels. The development was the original live-play space, to borrow the current argot, incorporating a movie theater with 2,000 seats and a branch of Macy’s; it was responsible for the largest order of kitchen cabinets ever placed in the country’s history. Given current economic assaults on all but the very affluent, Parkchester’s origins seem almost quixotic in retrospect: especially elegant housing for the middle class. After it opened, the development ranked as the second most valuable property in New York, following Rockefeller Center.

Delivering more than 12,000 apartments, Parkchester arrived during a moment of great enthusiasm for the capacity of urban design to advance the social good, merging two philosophical styles typically set in opposition — Le Corbusier’s high-rise model, with its promise of clean, efficient density, and the principles of the City Beautiful movement, a cri de coeur for artful embellishment and expansive green space.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the apartments were converted to condominiums and made available at relatively low cost to the families who lived in them. Half were bought by a consortium and remained rental properties; some others were bought by individuals who rented them out as well. By the standards of today’s astronomical housing prices, the apartments continue to be relatively reasonable — a two bedroom might go for less than $1,900 a month or turn up for sale around $250,000. While Parkchester was covenanted for whites only when it opened — and remained so through much of the 1960s — it has evolved into a community that is predominantly Hispanic, African American and Bangladeshi whose alchemy and ideals are now imperiled.

The complex and the neighborhood, today. Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

While the housing emergencies in New York are usually cast in terms of the seemingly endless constraints burdening the process of constructing new buildings with affordable units, a parallel crisis has emerged around the preservation of those developed during the mid-20th century, the high point of political and economic momentum directed at meeting the residential needs of working families. To maintain their standard of living today, working people are essentially left fighting both greed and decay — the private takeover of subsidized housing and the deterioration of the buildings that, given their comparatively modest rents and maintenance costs, are not generally flush with the kind of cash necessary to make capital improvements.

Last year, Nancy Johnson, a retired public-school teacher who has lived in Parkchester for 45 years, formed a watchdog group to try and get a handle on the mounting problems in the buildings — regular issues with heat, water damage, mold, garbage collection, elevators that often don’t work and so on.

“When I first moved here, the floors were waxed and shined on a consistent basis,” she told me. “They used to shine the brass, and now we are fighting to keep it livable.” For about 15 years, the monthly maintenance fee was not raised at all, Ms. Johnson said, but more recently it has been going up continuously; this year it will be raised by nearly 5 percent. People have moved, she said — one person to New Jersey, another upstate — in every instance because of structural problems in the buildings. In some hallways, plaster has crumbled off much of the wall surface. For several days last month, some tenants were without running water at all.

Amanda Farías, the City Council member representing Parkchester, finds herself in a bind dealing with all this, because any legal recourse the city might take — liens and fines against building management, for example — would simply result in additional expenses that would, inevitably, be passed on to residents. As she sees it, these problems were playing out all over the city.

On Sunday, Lincoln Restler, her colleague in the City Council, was knocking on doors at a similar development in Brooklyn, Bedford Gardens, helping to organize tenants against a proposed rent increase of 80 percent over the next few years. Bedford Gardens was developed under the Mitchell-Lama program, established in New York in the mid-1950s to provide affordable cooperative and rental housing for middle-income families with state and city subsidies. Although roughly half of the Bedford Gardens tenants have Section 8 vouchers, which limits the rent they pay, the others would be subject to the full rent increase if it passes.

Lincoln Restler, a City Council member, at a recent tenant rights meeting for the Bedford Gardens complex in Brooklyn. Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

“This is an incredibly diverse development, where people live together in a dynamic community,’’ Mr. Restler told me. He pointed out that preserving existing affordable housing is, obviously, much cheaper than building new housing. “This is the low-hanging fruit. Places like Parkchester and Bedford Gardens have served as deep pockets of affordability for generations,” he said. “We need to figure out how to close the loopholes that allow these extreme rent increase.”

He also maintained that government at every level should work to keep these buildings from falling apart. In 2019, the New York State Legislature passed a package of housing reforms that brought tenants historic protections against rent hikes, but the laws govern only certain categories of affordable housing, and Bedford Gardens does not fall under them.

On Wednesday evening, dozens of tenants at Bedford Gardens showed up to a meeting to discuss a municipal hearing scheduled for next week in which the proposed rent increases will be debated. Even if the result is only a marginal increase, Mr. Restler said, the development’s many residents living on fixed incomes will struggle to pay it.

They might find some basis for optimism in the recent outcome of a lawsuit in which a judge decided in favor of tenants of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, who have been fighting Blackstone, the private equity firm that bought the development eight years ago for $5.4 billion, over whether roughly 6,000 apartments would remain rent-stabilized.

It seems fitting that one of the most acclaimed shows of the current Broadway season should be a revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 play, “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which revolves around a widowed ex-cop’s efforts to hold on to his rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side.

But if you are searching for another metaphor, almost bulldozing in its obviousness, that expresses how the city’s unionized work force is getting flattened, all you need to do is walk around Parkchester and look up. There, a trove of terra-cotta statues original to the buildings, some depicting steelworkers and firefighters, are breaking down or have disappeared completely. As Sharon Pandolfo Pérez, who spent her childhood in Parkchester put it in an interview with The Times last year: “It’s a sign that they are being taken for granted, and the people here feel taken for granted. This is working-class New York. If you’re taking that down, what’s that saying?”

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