New York remains an economic dynamo with record-low unemployment, overflowing city coffers and a building boom that stretches across the five boroughs. Beneath the veneer, however, there are plenty of challenges, including an aging transit system, rising homelessness and the ongoing threat of terrorism. This is a city, however, that takes everything in its stride. As former president Barack Obama wrote on Twitter in 2017, ‘New Yorkers are as tough as they come.’
Tale of Two Cities
In many ways, New York is becoming ever more divided between the haves and the have-nots. Staggering development projects and high-priced apartments litter the landscape, from the $4.5-billion Hudson Yards to 432 Park, the Rafael Viñoly–designed superslim tower that in 2018 became the single best-selling building in NYC with luxury condo sales topping $2 billion. For the wealthy, New York is the playground par excellence. One Upper East Side property, selling for $85 million, also came with a $1 million yacht and two Rolls Royce Phantoms.
Meanwhile, as developers race toward building ever taller and more luxurious condos across the city, the ranks of the homeless continue to grow. Today, there are more than 70,000 homeless people in the city, the highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stagnant wages and skyrocketing rents have helped fuel the crisis. From 2010 to 2017, the median NYC rent rose by around 33% to over $3000 a month. Annually, rents during that period increased more than twice as fast as wages.
Most New Yorkers live between the two extremes, though the lack of affordable housing has placed a huge strain on residents. As more neighborhoods undergo gentrification, prices go up and landlords chip away at rent-stabilized apartments to command ever higher returns. This leaves many New Yorkers paying unsustainably high rents – on average residents pay nearly 60% of their income on rent. Rents in some Bronx neighborhoods skyrocketed 15% to 20% in 2017. And it’s no wonder that of the families living in NYC’s homeless shelters, one-third of the adults in these families have a job.
Increasingly, young professionals and families are being forced to move further out to new frontiers like Jersey City, where the resident population has risen almost 10% since 2010.
A Progressive Mayor
Politically, New Yorkers are a liberal bunch (look out for the President Trump–bating on church billboards and in retail stores around town). Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio came into office in 2014 aiming to address the egregious inequalities in New York. One of his big early successes was the creation of free universal prekindergarten for all New Yorkers. By September 2015, some 68,000 four-year-olds were enrolled in a free one-year head start on their educational path. In 2015 and 2016, under de Blasio, the city also instituted a rent-freeze, which benefited more than two million people living in rent-controlled apartments.
Creating affordable housing was another central goal of his agenda – envisioning the creation or preservation of 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2024. By the end of his first term in 2017, the mayor trumpeted the creation of 77,000 affordable housing units.
In the realm of wages, he gave all 50,000 city workers a raise, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which went into effect at the end of 2018. Under the mayor, unemployment also reached record lows of 4% – its lowest in nearly 40 years – with the private sector adding 100,000 new jobs a year during his first term. The city has also seen record-low crime rates under de Blasio.
Given his many successes, Bill de Blasio coasted to victory during his bid for reelection, winning handily his second term as the head of America’s largest city in 2017.
One of the big challenges New York faces is maintaining its transit system. The century-old subway has been much afflicted lately, with a host of problems. Severely overcrowded trains and the increasing frequency of train breakdowns have led to much public resentment toward the Metropolitan Transit Authority (better known as the MTA). During rush hour, some carriages are so crowded that commuters must wait for one or two trains to pass by before they can jam themselves inside. Part of the problem stems from the 1930s-era signal system that the subway still uses. The trains themselves, along with the platforms and stations, are also woeful compared with those in other world cities such as London. According to MTA officials, updating the system would take decades and cost billions of dollars.
Adding to many New Yorkers' troubles is the planned shutdown of the L train for much-needed repairs. This key Manhattan–Brooklyn line provides service for some 225,000 riders daily. They’ll have to find alternate means of transport when the L train is shut down (for a scheduled 15 months) starting in April 2019.