As the economy continues to unravel, editors at The New York Times are keeping close tabs on how wealthy people are weathering the recession. But in three recent stories, the paper failed to consider how the other half is living through the financial decline.
Yesterday’s Times put a silver-lining spin on the recession with a rosy story about falling rents in New York. Renters are getting unprecedented perks, such as discounts for renewed leases, and one-month-free incentives in buildings whose landlords are scrounging for tenants. In fact, the three couples or families mentioned in the story were able to get handsome savings. A two-bedroom apartment listed for $4200 was rented for $3215; a three-bedroom/three-and-a-half-bath went for $7400, after an initial price tag of $8500. One modest two-bedroom in Brooklyn was scooped up for $1900 (original price $2000).
New York real-estate prices have always been notoriously steep, and a little bit of give in a ruthless market is a good thing, right? Well, sort of. What the story doesn’t bother asking is what effect these rent concessions will have on poorer families. These so-called discounted apartments are still exorbitantly expensive by the standards of the Times’s readers, but the headline implies that these rent breaks are available to everyone, not just the super-wealthy who can afford these luxury apartments. What’s more, the piece shows a lack of awareness of its own bias toward the very wealthy, by neglecting to consider the consequences and implications of the much-touted discounts.
As the city continues to lose jobs—and not just those on Wall Street—what will happen to those who can barely afford housing? Will landlords convert their properties to low-income housing to benefit from government subsidies and guaranteed tenants? Or will poor families have nowhere to go? Will cash-strapped landlords stop making necessary repairs to their properties? As wealthy New Yorkers abandon their high-priced digs for (relatively) cheaper apartments, will they start to push out middle- and lower-income families living in the boroughs?
These are questions that the Times does not answer. Given the affordable housing crunch that plagues this city, a headline and a story that allege the availability of cheaper apartments blatantly clash with the reality faced by many New Yorkers. Unless the headline “A Month Free? Rents Are Falling Fast” is changed to include the clause “On Originally Over-Priced Luxury Apartments,” the statement simply does not reflect the reality on the ground.
The circumstances associated with wealthy couples’ divorces must have also been jarring for most low- and middle-income Americans in the middle of their own divorce proceedings. At the end of December, the Times published a piece on divorcing couples who are struggling to sell their shared homes:
In a normal economy, couples typically build equity in their homes, then divide that equity in a divorce, either after selling the house or with one partner buying out the other’s share. But after the recent boom-and-bust cycle, more couples own houses that neither spouse can afford to maintain, and that they cannot sell for what they owe. For couples already under stress, the family home has become a toxic asset.
“It’s much harder to move on with their lives,” said Alton L. Abramowitz, a partner in the New York firm Mayerson Stutman Abramowitz Royer.
The three couples interviewed for the story own homes that were, at the time of purchase, appraised at $2.3 million, $1 million, and $1.5 million. No one takes lightly the loss of wealth that many homeowners have experienced as a result of of the current housing slump. Still, couples who were able to afford such expensive homes in the beginning of their relationships are likely to pull through just fine in the aftermath. But what about low-income families in which pooled incomes barely provided for necessities? Faced with divorce, lost jobs, and falling home prices, these spouses are much less likely to part ways with “starter money” in the six-figures.
Here’s another story about how the wealthy are dealing with this economic downturn: “As the Rich Get Poorer, Teenagers Feel the Crunch,” which catalogs how teens from affluent families are now getting after-school jobs to pay for their own expenses. One student makes $150 a week through tutoring and baby-sitting jobs, another $80 a weekend taking care of animals at a vet’s office. Allowances that were $100 a week have dropped to $60.
The absence of the low- and middle-income voices in these stories is unfortunate. Wealthy teens who are saving for “a ring, a necklace, a handbag” are now competing for jobs with poorer teens whose incomes are necessary to keep families afloat.