There is a derelict who lives over a subway vent in my neighborhood. Naturally, both being Greenwich Villagers, we always say hellow when I pass. Lately however, having just received the news from my landlord that he intends to double my rent, I greet the bum more warmly.
"That guy's gonna be my next-door neighbor," I told a friend the other day. "Gonna be me laying out there next to him next month."
"Don't get your hopes up," my friend said, "He's probably paying $300 a month for that vent."
You have heard that the housing situation is bad in New York? Take what you've heard and triple it until the facts are this: studio apartments in Greenwich Village, and much of Manhattan, $700 and $800; one-bedrooms, $850 to $1,250; one-bedroom co-ops, $100,000. There is, however, the occasional $60,000 one-bedroom co-op.
The reporter (we third-person it here to lessen the pain) checked one out the other day. It was in a borderline neighborhood and, according, an entire gut job, plus appliances, having nothing in the kitchen but the disembowle remnant of a sink lying on its side. Estimiated costs, before the place would be habitable were $25,000. The agent, of course, insisted it was a bargain.
"Unlimited roof rights," he said. "The roof rights alone are worth $60,000.
It was a difficult decision, given the market, but the reporter finally demurred. Call her impractical, call her a dreamer, but she had always hoped when the time came for her to buy a little place of her own it would have plumbing. A sink, maybe, with hot and cold water. A toilet, so when it was winter she wouldn't have to go outside. How proud she would be then! She'd take visitors into the bathroom and show them the fixtures.
"And a toilet, too, look how it flushes, and then it fills right up again with water," they'd say.
"Ah, well," the reporter would say modestly, "What can I say? Business is good."
But housing, in Manhattan, is lousy -- worse than anyone can remember. At parties, it is not a topic, it is the only topic, with the players (and if you are a Manhattanite, you are one) divided into two categories: the fortunate and the unfortunate.
The fortunate are those living in rent-controlled apartments, or in co-ops they bought five years ago, or even in apartments that are going co-op and which, in the game, can be bought at "insider's" rates and sold to "outsiders" at double the money. The fortunate are also the landlords, selling buildings at highly inflated prices as co-op conversions and, in many cases, keeping apartments off the market when they anticipate going co-op coversions and, in many cases, keeping apartments off the market when they anticipate going co-op, in order to receive a higher price.
The unfortunate are the newcomers to the city, or the tenants in small buildings -- such as brownstones -- that do not come under rent control. They employ real estate agents at a fee of 14 percent of a year's rent. They bribe doormen. They read, and follow up, the obituaries.
A friend of the reporter's named Melvin, who lives in a loft in Soho, found a neighbor dead in his building last week. That was pretty awful, said Melvin, but what was worse were the people who rang his doorbell the day the obit came out.
"All day long it was, 'Are you the super?' and, 'Is the apartment taken?' Like vultures."
The reporter, so far, has not done that.
But she did, purely by luck, happen to run into a landlord she knows in her dentist's office last week. He had, she knew, a small one-bedroom with garden, right in the neighborhood. Such opportunities are rare. The reporter waited until the landlord was in the chair, then stood over him with the drill.
"There are two clergymen ahead of you," the landlord said, as the reporter gave her case.
"Clergyman are lousy tenants," said the reporter. "They lack the materialistic edge. I, on the other hand, do not."
The reporter has never heard from the landlord. That's okay; she has a month before her lease runs out. There are the suburbs, there are the boroughs, there is that vacant spot over the sidewalk vent where the vagrant lives.
She thought of this, the other night, as she passed him.
"Southern exposure," she said to herself, "and of course, I'd probably have unlimited street rights. For $300 a month, I could do worse."