No afford in this future

Russell Baker

September 25, 1992|By Russell Baker

NEW YORK PTC — New York -- SUSAN T. of Amsterdam Avenue is interested in "affordable housing." Her curiosity was piqued by Donald Trump a few months back when he was talking about one of those grandiose many-thousand-unit housing projects that engage the world's Trumps.

At that time The Donald said that, if the public would subsidize it, he would include "affordable housing" in his Babylon planned for Manhattan's West Side. Just a moment, my good Trump, said Susan T. (Here I paraphrase her letter to me.) What's this with the "affordable housing"?

Was the master builder telling us that those thousands of other apartments to be built, the unsubsidized ones, would be unaffordable? If so, what is the point of building apartments people can't afford?

Ms. T. says these are probably designed for the same people who can't afford health insurance and medical care either. Here, regrettably, she betrays a cynical spirit, resulting perhaps from an impecunious condition which denies her the benefits of the most advanced medical science.

Is my suspicion correct, Susan T.? If so, stop giving in to this sour envy simply because some of your fellow creatures are young enough, healthy enough, employed enough and rich enough to afford health insurance.

President Bush has suggested that if Congress would only cut the capital gains tax, the impecunious would soon be back at work fully capable of feeding the health-insurance octopus and the liver bile of all would once again flow at the rate of four pints a day, and so forth.

Admittedly, the president is sometimes wrong, but optimism, no matter how foolish, does more to brighten the day than an embittered spirit, Ms. T. Read your Voltaire: "Candide." All is for the best in this best of all possible health-care and unaffordable-housing situations.

As for "affordable housing," let's all hope The Donald does not build any in Manhattan, for few things are more galling to New Yorkers than the suspicion that someone they know has an affordable apartment.

Everyone in Manhattan -- well, almost everyone -- lives in space so ridiculously unaffordable that he is ashamed to tell visitors from out of town how unaffordable it is.

He hears tales of affordable housing in Manhattan and sometimes meets someone who is rumored to live in it, but he cannot afford to believe it. Believing it would be emotionally unbearable.

What sustains the New Yorker's civility is the conviction that there is no affordable housing. He clings to this conviction despite documentary evidence that here and there rent control still preserves a two-bedroom apartment renting for less than $2,000 per month.

In my New York career, I occasionally heard stories of such people and hated them, not just sprouting tusks but frothing noisily.

It was maddening to think of people who had not only settled in New York to enjoy the theater and the opera and the ballet and the fine restaurants, but also had enough money left after paying the rent to go to the theater, the opera, the ballet and fine restaurants.

What made New York life tolerable was the certainty that such people and such housing existed only in malicious rumor and that all those people at the theaters, opera, ballet and restaurants were from New Jersey.

If the existence of New Yorkers with affordable apartments were confirmed, the rage of injustice created by evidence of such unjust privilege might provoke levels of violence that would repel even the National Rifle Association.

In short, Susan T., The Donald's offer to build some affordable housing if the public will only subsidize him is the ultimate in developer chutzpah. Not only does he threaten to create a privileged class that will put New Yorkers into raging flights of envy -- no, not content with that threat -- he also says New Yorkers will have to pay for it.

Incidentally, isn't Donald Trump bankrupt? I distinctly recall reading in the papers just a year or two or three ago that he'd

gone bust and was so destitute that a court was allowing him to spend only a million or two per day, maybe even less.

Only in America, as Shakespeare said, can a man go so swiftly from durance-free debtor's penury to mastery of unaffordable housing. Read your Bard, Ms. T.: "O brave new world that has such people in't!" -- "The Tempest."

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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