Nicole Gelinas joins Seth Barron to discuss recent violence on New York's Upper West Side, why the decision to house homeless men in nearby hotels isn't good for them or their neighbors, and the risk that the city faces of losing wealthier residents due to quality-of-life concerns.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is Seth Barron, your host for today. I'm the Associate Editor of City Journal. I'm joined by Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor to City Journal, and the author of a recent piece for City Journal called West Side Storm. Nicole, thanks for joining us today.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Seth. Good to be on with you again.

Seth Barron: So we're talking about your article's about the Upper West Side and you referenced some goings on in the neighborhood that had sparked a lot of interest in the media. What's happening in this neighborhood, which happens to be your neighborhood?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, a little north of my neighborhood, but what was striking last week is the Upper West Side had two random attacks within the space of 24 hours. A man eating outside for dinner with his wife was punched for no reason by an apparently disturbed person whose last address was a homeless shelter and a woman coming out of the 72nd Street Subway Station was stabbed also by a random stranger. And so in a neighborhood where the two police precincts usually have far fewer than one assault a day in a given year, striking to have two random assaults.

Now, of course, you could have two crimes in one day, just the bad luck of the draw in any time, but it comes in the context of crime data that is not very good for the neighborhood or the city. These same two police precincts, the 20th and the 24th, last year between them they had one murder so far for the year. This year, they've had eight murders this year. And that in turn mirrors the citywide trend.

If we go up to the first week in August, the murder rate for the city overall is up by 31%. We've had 237 murders this year instead of 181, shootings have doubled over the course of the first seven months of the year. So it's very hard, a lot of the newcomer urbanists who don't like to talk about crime, they spent a lot of the first few months of the pandemic minimizing this, that there's no crime spike, there's just a couple of random events that we should ignore, that crime isn't rising. Very, very difficult to make that argument now. I mean crime has clearly been rising since Memorial Day in June and July. The number's not very good.

Seth Barron: Well, hold on a second. Your own piece contradicts what you just said, because you said assaults in the area are down 13% and robberies are flat. So that indicates that yes, well, murders may be up, but other crimes are down. So how do you respond to that?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I mean, it's striking that during the month of April, half of March and going into May, people were not really supposed to go outside. I mean, you weren't supposed to go out except for essential chores, like going to the supermarket or getting some exercise. Everything in the city was closed and much of it is still closed. I mean, cultural institutions are still closed, indoor dining is still closed, retail stores are sort of, they're allowed to be open, but a lot of them are still closed.

So foot traffic was down enormously, but yet crime did not fall concurrent with the fall in foot traffic. And you see that particularly in the subway system where they actually keep very good track of foot traffic, unlike people walking around on the street where accounting for the lower foot traffic for the three months of the pandemic, April, May, June that they have data for, every single subway rider had a six times higher risk of being robbed, a five times higher risk of being assaulted relative to last year.

Seth Barron: I see. And I guess they have suggested that many people in Manhattan have left the city too. So I guess what you're saying is that in a sense, crime should be much lower given the lower foot traffic and the number of people who left.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I mean we have garbage pickup data that in the Upper West Side alone, residential garbage pickup was down 11% in June compared to last June. When, of course, if people are home all the time, they should be generating more residential garbage.

Seth Barron: So what else is going on on the Upper West Side? They've been talking a lot about hotels that they've turned into places for people who are sick. What's happening with the hotels up there?

Nicole Gelinas: Right. I mean with the tourism industry completely dead, with business travel completely dead, these hotels are empty. And so the city has been taking over empty hotels at close to $200 a night per hotel room and putting homeless adult men in these hotel rooms so that they are not in a communal shelter, like the Bellevue Men's Shelter anymore. And they're doing that indefinitely. I mean, the mayor said last week, homeless adult men will be in these hotel room shelters until the pandemic is over, which depending on your definition of when the pandemic is over, this could be years. So it just so happens there are three mid-sized boutique hotels up on the Upper West Side, all within a couple of blocks of each other that are now populated by adult homeless men.

Now, of course, we can't leave people with mental illness and drug addiction and alcohol addiction to their own devices. But the problem is, this population needs a lot of support, as our colleague Steve [inaudible 00:06:30] would say, and unfortunately they're pretty much just left to their own devices during the day. And so they're out on the Upper West Side, not really very much constructive for them to do, so they're openly drinking, openly shooting up drugs, harassing women and so forth. Certainly of course not all of them or not even most of them, but enough that it is really harming the equilibrium of the neighborhood.

Seth Barron: And is there also homeless encampments or people camping out on the street?

Nicole Gelinas: Not there. I mean, there are certainly people congregating into daytime in a park and doing things like open drinking or open drug use, but in other parts of the city, under scaffolding on the Lower East Side and so forth, yes, we've seen homeless encampments. And the city to its credit, when it hears of an encampment, it goes and takes it down. But the people are right back there the next day setting up the encampment again.

Seth Barron: So if this is going to be the new semi-permanent state of affairs, well, what's wrong with that? If these hotels are empty, why not convert them to housing for people who need housing?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, this is not a good longterm housing solution on many levels. I mean, first of all, a hotel is not really an apartment. There's no kitchen facility, it's very small, isolated. If you've ever done business travel, I mean, unless you're staying in an amazing suite somewhere, it's okay for the night, but you wouldn't want to live there. And secondly again, as Steve and I might say, the biggest problem with a lot of these adult men is that the lack of house is a symptom of the problem, it's not the underlying problem. The underlying problem is drug addiction, alcohol addiction, severe mental illness. These are the things that prevent these men from working and leading a stable life, which is why they end up homeless. So you're putting the cart before the horse and saying, "Okay, we'll give you this hotel room, but you don't have to participate in a program where every step that you pass and every milestone that you meet, those are the steps toward getting a job and then being able to contribute something to getting your own apartment in a supported facility." Just doing this in hotels doesn't get you there.

Nicole Gelinas: And it is massively destabilizing for the neighborhood. I mean, people might say, "Well, who cares? Why should these rich people on the Upper West Side, why should they not have to put up with what the rest of the city is putting up with?" But nobody should have to put up with this disorder on the street. And in a practical way, this is just going to result in people with means going to live in gated communities, the middle class going to live in the suburbs, and really nobody left to fund these social services.

Seth Barron: Well, there's been some talk about this issue lately with AOC and some more liberal members of the congressional delegation in the state and also local politicians saying, "Well, what we need to do is tax the billionaires. Tax everybody very, very, very strongly." And Cuomo, the governor says, "No, that's a bad idea." And de Blasio made a comment the other day that he doesn't really, if people are going to flee the city, well, that's fine. They're just fair weather friends, they'll be replaced. And he's interested in the working people and taking care of the working people of the city. Or I guess the people who don't work as well, maybe he would include them. So what do you think about this debate? How is this going to reconcile? Is it really important for us to worry about keeping the billionaires happy?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, a lot of people, they don't know that if you make above half a million dollars a year for a family, which is certainly a lot of money, you're doing well. Your tax rate at the state and local level is already pretty high. I mean, you're starting to pay upwards of 12%, 13% of your income to the state and the city. So considering that many states don't have an income tax, Florida, Arizona, Texas, there is a big incentive to relocate somewhere else.

And of course that incentive has only grown because right now, if you are a billionaire or you're in the tens of millions of dollars, there aren't a lot of reasons to be in the city. I mean, even if you have a really nice, big apartment, it's still an apartment. Your outdoor space is still pretty constrained to a backyard or a roof deck. And so you have to be thinking, "Do I want my family and my kids to be going out on the street, walking the dog at night with robberies, a spate of robberies on the Upper East Side?" Last week, robberies down along Park Avenue South in the past few months. And one of the things that draws high income people to the city, ability to make money in the financial industry. Financial industry has proven over the past five months, it can do this work from home. Maybe people aren't going to work five days a week at home for the rest of their lives, but just the idea that you have to come into Manhattan five days a week, it's pretty much completely, indefinitely dead.

The other thing is cultural events. A lot of wealthier people, they like to go to art shows, they like to go to the opera, they like to go to fancy dinners, they like to go to expensive restaurants with their friends. Basically all of that is closed right now, or if it's not closed, you can eat outside. A lot of older people in particular are just afraid of partaking in those things. And that's going to be the case at least until the end of the year. So if you're talking about new tax increases on a class of people that is not even here right now, you are really playing a dangerous game there in that people might just say, and will say, "You know what? I don't have to come back here to be vilified and to pay an even higher tax rate," for basically a reduced level of public services in terms of public safety.

Seth Barron: Well, that's an interesting point, but what's happening with businesses across the city? Are we seeing the kind of closures that have been predicted or was that all blown out of proportion?

Nicole Gelinas:Well, I think it's a little early to tell in the longterm. I mean, there are certainly some bad signs. Yes, if you look at the universe of small businesses, small restaurants, small retail stores, one study a couple of weeks ago said that 40% of these small restaurants, small stores could end up going out of business because even if you've put out tables for people to dine outside, it's not as much capacity usually as you have in the restaurant and it's going to start to get cold.

I mean, November, December, going into early next year. If we can't pack people into restaurants inside safely, they're going to be looking at substantially reduced income again, when they still owe this back rent for March, April, May, June. The city never set up a mediation process for them to work with the property owners and the property owners in turn have gotten no relief on their property taxes. As for larger businesses, corporations that have a white collar workforce in New York, as well as larger retailers, I think one of the risks they have to think about is what happened in Chicago over the past couple of days. Are we going to have a pattern of looting and unrest and property damage every couple of months now? And is that something I have to build into? Do I want my workforce to come back to commuting in Manhattan? Are they going to be disrupted from doing that every couple of months with massive civil unrest actions on major central urban thoroughfares?

Seth Barron: So things aren't sounding so great from the way you put it. What about this idea of canceling the rent? State Senator Julia Salazar and assembly member, Yuh-Line Niou have this proposal to cancel rent. Do you think that'll work? If we just get rid of all residential rent from March on, that can never be collected until the pandemic ends? And I think they want 90 days after the pandemic is over. What would be the impact of something like this? Then people would have all this extra money.

Nicole Gelinas: Well, you're talking about the residential side. I think it's very different from the commercial side. On the commercial side for small restaurant or retailer, by law they basically were not allowed to use their retail property the way it was supposed to be used, starting from the end of March. And in some capacity with not being able to have as many people in store or restaurant up until now, still not able to use the property for the purpose it was intended. So I think there's a real case and we'll start to see the commercial side go through the courts that, if the business was shut down by the state through no fault of your own, you should receive some rent relief. The risk of that happening has to be shared with the property owner.

And practically speaking, the property owner, they're not going to get another tenant in there. I mean, it is not in their best interest to kick out your restaurant and wait another two years to get another restaurant. But I think with the residential side, it's very different because people are still using their apartments in the manner that the apartments are meant to be used in. I mean, you're still living in your apartment. So there's kind of three categories of people. People who willingly broke their lease because they don't want to be in the city anymore. Some of them because they lost jobs, some of them because they can work at home, some of them because they don't feel that it's a good public health situation. The other is people who are still living in their apartment, but can't pay the rent because maybe they're undocumented immigrants, so they weren't eligible for this extraordinary pandemic aid. And then the third category is people still living in their apartment and paying the rent.

So I think with people who broke their lease and left, at least they're gone. The landlord, they may have to go after them in court, probably get some kind of partial settlement, but it's not an ongoing situation where the property owner has a tenant in place who's not paying. I think with people who aren't paying the rent, but are still living in the apartment, we're going to need some kind of consistent, predictable mediation process outside of the court system where the first question is, if you were paying the rent before because you had a job, why didn't you benefit from this extraordinary unemployment aid that Congress may or may not extend, but was certainly in place until last week? If you were eligible for that aid, you should be using that aid to pay the rent. That's the whole purpose of the social safety net so that people can remain current on their rent, on their food and sustenance needs.

So that's a big unanswered question is, with all of this extraordinary federal aid that was enacted in April, why are so many people not paying their rents? And I don't know the answer to that, but that's the first thing. But no, you can't... It is not a longterm solution to say, "We're just going to cancel the rents." Property owners do have these monthly operating costs. They do have monthly capital and maintenance costs. That's not to say that the market hasn't changed and that, as leases expire, people are going to renegotiate better deals with their landlords. But the reality is, you cannot move this burden from the tenants, from the federal government onto small residential property owners.

Seth Barron: Well, it seems like they're trying. Difficult times ahead, it appears Nicole. If you enjoyed listening to our podcast, please leave ratings on iTunes and you can always follow us on Twitter, #10Blocks, @CityJournal. Thanks so much for joining us. And thank you, Nicole, for being on the show.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Seth.

Photo by dzalcman/iStock

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