It’s funny how greed only afflicts the other guy. With John McCain jumping on the anti-avarice bandwagon, the consensus that the greed of rich Wall Street CEOs, analysts, and investors is to blame for the financial market turmoil now spans the New York Times editorial page, the Democratic punditocracy, and the highest reaches of the Republican ticket. Liberal columnists, university professors, and crusading politicians railing against market selfishness are all supremely confident that their own salaries reflect exactly their worth and not a penny more—because they would never seek to make a profit from their labor, right?
It’s also axiomatic that only the rich—that is, anyone making more money than you—seek to get something for nothing. Thus, several developments last week in New York City’s massive housing-welfare regime will never be portrayed as a manifestation of greed among the poor, but only as social justice.
In June, the city’s Rent Guidelines Board approved a rent increase for apartments whose tenants have lived in them for more than six years and that rent for less than $1,000 a month. The Board acted in response to rising fuel, water, and tax expenses, which have hit small property owners particularly hard. On September 16, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services of New York sued the Rent Guidelines Board over the new rates.
The rent increase—$45 a month for one-year leases and $85 a month for two-year leases—will affect tenants like Santiago Garza, who has been living in a rent-stabilized apartment on West 48th Street since 1981. Garza pays $570 a month for his digs, while a comparable apartment next to him rents for $1,800, he told the New York Post in June. Yet Garza and the hundreds of angry tenants and advocates who protested the rent hike when it was approved believe that they are merely getting what they deserve—unlike their landlords, who don’t “do enough,” Garza complained. Getting a $1200-a-month subsidy from your landlord, and forcing him to take a huge loss on the market value of his property, isn’t greed, it’s a right! A $1200-a-month windfall to a tenant: simple justice. A market-driven level of rent: landlord avarice.
This remarkable sense of entitlement is of course the official creed in New York, whose city council and representatives in Albany believe that landlords are virtually public entities, obligated—at whatever cost to themselves in foregone income—to provide services and shelter to a lucky group of renters (and at whatever cost to the city in unbuilt rental units). Imagine if the New York City Council, whose speaker, Christine Quinn, enjoys a rent-stabilized apartment in Chelsea, capped worker salaries, so that employers would not face the hardship of competing in the marketplace for employee talent. Such a law would be denounced as a grotesque infringement on the economic rights of the common man. But if the first-time owner of a duplex in Queens seeks a market return on his investment, he is pilloried for ripping off the poor.
New York’s entitlements for “homeless” families are another case where what would appear to be the desire to get something for nothing is reformulated as a victory against capitalist hard-heartedness. Last week, the Bloomberg administration settled a lawsuit that has required the city to provide immediate free shelter to families claiming homelessness. The Legal Aid Society has kept the litigation churning and generating handsome fees for 25 years, at enormous taxpayer expense. But taxpayers can hardly breathe a sigh of relief. While the settlement ends, at least for now, the judicial dictatorship over the city’s gigantic homeless services department, it writes into law a family right to shelter, which the Legal Aid Society can choose to litigate at any moment.
The main sticking point in the case over the years has been whether a family is “homeless.” Virtually all the families in the system are single-mother households, many headed by very young women or teenagers. These young unwed mothers often live with their own single mothers, who themselves usually occupy public housing or rent-controlled apartments. At some point, grandmother, mother, and grandchildren decide they’ve had enough family togetherness, and the younger single mother applies to the city’s homeless-services department for her own city-subsidized apartment. The second-generation single mother and her lawyers claim that she is “homeless”; the city maintains that she has available housing, even if it is more crowded than an apartment of her own would be. This scenario has many possible variants: the single mother may be living with friends or other relatives, or she may be facing eviction from her own apartment but have another possible apartment—that of friends or relatives—theoretically available to her. In almost none of the cases has the shelter-seeking mother literally lost her home through an emergency like a natural disaster. Her housing situation, while crowded, is usually no worse than that of immigrants who may live five to a room and sleep in rotating shifts.
If the city does declare the single mother “homeless,” she will stay an average of nearly a year in free shelter housing, costing taxpayers $31,000. Don’t think of these family “shelters” as communal barracks; with private cooking and bathroom facilities, they are indistinguishable from apartments. In 2008, taxpayers will shell out at least $433 million for homeless family housing alone. That gigantic sum does not include city homeless “prevention” spending—nearly $200 million for one-time cash grants averaging $1,315 and for funding lawyers to defend against eviction suits (naturally, the landlords have to pay their own legal costs). And when her shelter stay is over, the “homeless” mother receives the biggest taxpayer-subsidized benefit of all: fast-tracked eligibility for a federal Section 8 housing voucher or for an apartment in a public housing project.
Two alternatives to the “homeless” housing scenario lie outside the conceptual universe of New York pols and welfare advocates: getting help from the baby’s daddy or moving to a less expensive city. The fathers in these would-be homeless families are not just absent; as far as the city is concerned, they don’t even exist. It is simply inconceivable that a city bureaucrat would ask the mother: Why doesn’t the able-bodied father of your children support them? Such a possibility is apparently too radical to contemplate. So, too, is the idea of relocating to a city that one can afford. The poor once moved in search of opportunity and affordability, but now, living in New York City is considered an entitlement.
The economic instability of single-mother households is a given. It’s also foreseeable and preventable: a simple solution to family homelessness is to marry the father of your children. If you’re not prepared to marry the father of your children, and you can’t support them without a husband, then don’t have them in the first place. Marriage would wipe out not just family homelessness, but also a large portion of poverty in New York City and the nation. Yet to suggest marriage as a solution to poverty and homelessness is to commit a faux pas among the liberal intelligentsia: such a thing is simply not mentioned, much less done.
Equally indiscreet is the suggestion that single-parent families in New York’s shelter system are trying to get something for nothing. Only derivatives traders and subprime mortgage bundlers do that. But many “homeless” families have alternatives to taxpayer support—admittedly, less than ideal ones in the case of doubling up with relatives or friends. Until these alternatives are exhausted, however, it’s hard to see why “greed” should be considered a unique affliction of the rich.