The Sale of Stuyvesant Town: Preserving Rent Controls and the Right to the City

—Rachael Woldoff

On April 18, 1943, the plans to build Stuyvesant Town were first made public. The plans called for the construction on an eighteen-block area that could house 11,250 middle-income World War II veterans and their families. How times have changed.

In December 2015, Stuyvesant Town was sold to Blackstone for $5.4 billion, and citizens were asked to celebrate the fact that “almost half of the units are to remain affordable” and to conclude that this sale will “preserve middle-class housing” in Manhattan. These statements published in media outlets show how low our expectations and standards have become when it comes to preserving the affordable housing in the city. After all, the sale actually means that only a very small number of unrenovated units will be affordable based on residents’ income, a far larger number of rent-stabilized unrenovated units will remain stabilized for only twenty years, and thousands of other renovated apartments will become market-rate in five to ten years.

Why has rent-stabilized housing declined? Some view rent control as an unjust “entitlement,” a market-distorting violation of the free-market rhetoric upon which the United States prides itself. It is true that some New Yorkers have been lucky enough to score affordable, or even inexpensive, rent-stabilized apartments, either through an inheritance or a lottery. However, this is a relatively small, and, arguably, privileged group. Still, friends and neighbors envy them, newspaper headlines vilify them, and their fellow New Yorkers scorn them. This all feeds into accounts that promote rent deregulation and housing privatization. Critics have blamed rent control for a wide range of economic and social ills, from homelessness and the loss of affordable housing to declining neighborhood property values, to the rise of socialism and the inability of independent landlords to make an honest living.

Yet some may forget that Stuyvesant Town was only able to cater to families with moderate incomes because of the strong rent controls. New York’s rent control legislation changed over the subsequent decades, but many of Stuyvesant Town’s rental units were still covered by some form of rent stabilization, hence generating less revenue for the landlords than would otherwise have been possible in Manhattan’s robust housing market. Residents stayed put and Stuyvesant Town provided a sense of place and community, aspects of urban life that are commonly overlooked in heated debates over the economic merits of rent-control legislation.

Many elected officials and political hopefuls give speeches about their own modest middle-class roots and pledge their allegiance to middle-class families who are struggling to get by in New York City, but many, like former mayor Bloomberg, also loudly celebrate New York as a “luxury city” catering to the upper class and global elites who dine at the hottest new restaurants, shop in expensive fashion boutiques, and plan vacations to exotic locations.

Putting aside efforts to brand the city as a home for the 1 percent, New York City’s many competitive economic advantages over other cities require a diverse workforce to support industries and populations. It is not enough to create middle-class jobs; Manhattan’s workers need someplace to live that is reasonable in terms of cost of living, quality public schools, transit and commute times, affordable housing, fair taxes, and broad economic opportunities.

According to a 2013 report entitled “The Middle-Class Squeeze” prepared by the New York City Council, New York’s middle class, which is defined as those with a household income between 100 and 300 percent of the city’s median income, is indeed shrinking, causing a decline in economic diversity among the populace. Excessive inequality, such as that found in New York City’s boroughs, interferes with cooperation, trust, and social cohesion as workers receive the message that they are needed to work for and serve Manhattan’s rich, but they are not fit to live among them.

New York City is a place where the wealthy have traditionally been more likely to rub elbows with average citizens, and the current period marks a major change that has implications for the city’s culture of striving, and even for the nation as a whole. After all, New York has been revered as a visible example of a place where people of modest means truly live close to elites. Even in the age of social media, one of the reasons that ambitious people move to New York is that they aspire to “make it there” in their career, or at least be closer to the more influential people in their industry. Hence, the image of New York City’s urban core as the vibrant place where artists, writers, and other creative people live the mythical American Dream may become a thing of the past. Making matters worse, this group is increasingly priced out of the outer boroughs, which then pushes them to the suburbs and other cities, all so that Manhattan can be reserved for merchant bankers and those in the professional class.

But cities need the middle class to balance the interests of the rich and poor. Furthermore, planners, scholars, and activists argue that people have a “right to the city.” According to this viewpoint, surely perceived as radical to some, access to the city is a human right that exists as much for people in the five boroughs of New York City as it does in the shantytowns of Brazil.

Historically, admission to Stuyvesant Town meant that a family had finally attained reliable, permanent, affordable residency in Manhattan. This base, in turn, contributed to New York’s mid-tier workforce and created a stable, safe residential community in the city. Interviews with Stuy Town tenants, specifically those with middle-class families, reveal a near-universal concern that this permanency will be lost, and with it, the hope of a long and flourishing career in the city will be diminished. One possible rhetorical response from a neoliberal perspective might be to assert that industries that require such a workforce do not belong in Manhattan unless they can justify salaries that are commensurate with market-rate rents. Yet viewed from a rights-based perspective, in which community affordability, stability, and cohesion are seen as necessary components of vital cities, Manhattan’s real estate market should not be completely overtaken by the drive to furnish intermittently occupied apartments to the world’s wealthiest citizens. Doing so might easily result in overshooting the target to the point of destroying the very fabric that draws such individuals to New York in the first place.

Certainly, a large part of Stuyvesant Town’s value lies in its very stability and strength of community. Just as industries such as manufacturing are limited in their ability to rebound when the economic winds change, extinguishing Manhattan’s few remaining middle-class refuges might have lasting effects even after the real estate markets change. It is necessary to look past the short- and medium-term rents that landlords might attain and to focus on city’s longer-term health. A market-fueled exodus of middle-class and working-class people leads to class-based homogenization. Many are already finding themselves missing the very characteristics that make New York City what it is (or was), and without intervention, there may be no easy way to get it back.

Rachael A. Woldoff is Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University. She is a co-author of Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods (NYU Press, 2016) and author of White Flight / Black Flight: The Dynamics of Racial Change in an American Neighborhood, winner of the 2013 Best Book in Urban Affairs Award given by the Urban Affairs Association.