On April 11 last year, the United States surpassed Italy in terms of COVID-19 fatalities, with New York City accounting for the bulk of the country’s deaths. In the course of twenty-four hours, nearly four hundred New Yorkers died of the virus. What passed for good news was a front page New York Times headline that read, “Braced for Apocalyptic Surge, New York Avoids Worst, So Far.” We were saving scarce masks and swabs for health care workers while the governor and the mayor dickered over who had the authority to keep schools closed.
The story of New York City’s pandemic spring has been told many times over. The word “epicenter” was used in compound constructions, describing neighborhoods like Corona, Queens, as “the epicenter of the epicenter of the epicenter.” There were constant sirens. There were cooler trucks parked on the streets to hold the dead until burial. The city’s potter’s field on Hart Island was filling with the bodies of people whose families could not afford or arrange any other means of interment.
It has become a truism to say that the pandemic has exposed and expanded deep inequalities, in New York, the United States, and beyond. Low-wage workers and people of color overwhelming had to continue working in person, with far too little protective equipment or social distancing, while living in overcrowded or multigenerational homes in which the virus could spread. Women were overwhelmingly burdened with the impossible task of managing the unpaid work of social reproduction on top of waged work, both of which were often being conducted simultaneously from home.
It has become another truism to say that the pandemic changed our experience of time. This was true on the personal level, as quarantined conditions caused daily life to feel somehow simultaneously protracted and fleeting, but it was also true on a world-historic scale. The aphorism commonly attributed to Lenin conjures the latter: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Indeed, in the year from March 2020 to March 2021, New York City experienced a decade’s worth of change. While these ruptures produced feelings of bewilderment and unfamiliarity, most of the processes we lived through this past year were, in fact, already in motion, albeit slowly and tentatively. It is therefore less the case that the pandemic spontaneously transformed the city than that endogenous trends which were already well underway were accelerated by the exogenous shock of a global health crisis.
The Great Accelerant
New York City has seen a tremendous loss of life since the pandemic hit. In a typical recent year, fifty thousand people in New York City die; in the last year, over thirty thousand New Yorkers died from COVID alone, and an unknown number died from causes exasperated by the pandemic — people delaying medical care, suffering increased hunger and stress, and more. Hospitals were overwhelmed, with the city’s public hospitals in particular experiencing war-like conditions. Governor Cuomo is now facing calls for impeachment or resignation, not only over sexual harassment and intimidation allegations but also for mismanaging the pandemic and, in particular, sending sick elders back into nursing homes, then hiding and undercounting the resulting deaths.
New York’s death toll was so high not only because Covid can be so deadly but because our health care system had been overstretched for some time. Since 2003, forty-one hospitals in New York State have been shuttered, leading to a 20 percent reduction in hospital beds. Eighteen of those hospitals were in New York City, where several were converted into luxury housing developments. Health care workers’ unions had long decried the dangerous staff-to-patient ratios that had become the norm in many hospitals and nursing homes. Meanwhile, for-profit nursing homes — which were granted legal immunity by the Cuomo administration while they were allowed to become super-spreader sites — proliferated, with unsafe staffing levels becoming the norm.
As the pandemic spread and the shutdowns extended without adequate relief or protections, New Yorkers suffered unemployment and lost wages at alarming rates. Between March and July, more than 1.5 million New York City residents filed for unemployment — more than the number of claims in most states during that time. By June, New York City’s official unemployment rate had hit 20.4 percent, with layoffs and reductions in hours concentrated in low-wage sectors. Over the summer, 41 percent of residents in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, had filed for unemployment. New Yorkers of color faced unemployment rates seven to eight points above the national average. Meanwhile, higher-salaried workers overwhelmingly kept their jobs and even increased their savings.
This “K-shaped” economic trendline was not entirely new to New York City. While the overall average income went up in the city over the past few years, the unequal recovery from the 2008 financial crisis saw some neighborhoods’ median incomes stagnating or even falling. In 2019, the official unemployment rate in the Bronx was 47 percent higher in the Bronx than in Manhattan, and in 2018, the black unemployment rate was 128 percent higher than that for white New Yorkers. Before the pandemic, women were earning 89 cents on the dollar compared to men, with Latina women paid just 56 cents on the dollar. If not quite a K, the city’s economic trajectory was far from equitable, let alone a steady increase for all.
As the rich got richer during the pandemic, many of them packed up and moved. Over the summer, the New York Times placed the number of mail forwarding requests at 81,000, or twice the number from the previous year. In some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, 40 percent of the population had departed by May 1. Many — probably most — of those travelers would eventually return to the city, but the surge in demand for suburban homes suggests that plenty had left for good. This caused deep unease for those banking on ever-rising population as the key to the city’s long-term economic viability.
Often left out of this narrative, however, is the fact that the city’s population was already declining before COVID. For the past three years, surveys showed the city’s overall population dropping by over 100,000. (New York City experienced a similar spell from 2002 to 2006, when we lost 137,615 residents.) This decline is undoubtedly, though not exclusively, tied to two other factors: the federal government’s increasingly exclusionary immigration policies, which explicitly barred migration from several countries and made immigration from most others extremely difficult, and the growing unaffordability of housing in New York City for working-class people. Between 2008 and 2011, housing prices became unaffordable to a majority of New Yorkers and remained so through the last official housing survey in 2017. In 2019, 30 percent of low-income renters reported falling behind on rent and 15 percent said they had been threatened with eviction. New York City was already becoming a much harder place to live if you didn’t have a lot of money.
Real Estate Shakeups
During the past year, the city’s housing market has both expanded and contracted, with rents and sales prices dropping to historic lows in some places while rising in others. Median asking rents for vacant apartments moved most substantially in Manhattan, where they plunged by $1,000 on average between April and December 2020. Most of this change, however, occurred in the high-end market and in studio apartments, and now Manhattan landlords have increasingly warehoused vacant apartments in anticipation of future rising rents.
By contrast, however, rents did not suddenly become affordable for the people we came to call “essential workers”; in fact, in many of the neighborhoods with the highest rates of infection in New York City, listed rents stayed flat or even slightly increased in 2020. As work disappeared, tenants were unable to make the rent and landlords’ balance sheets took a hit, with estimates of unpaid rent surpassing $1 billion.
Tenants were somewhat protected by multiple patchwork eviction protections, the result of strong and persistent organizing, but a public system for repaying missed rents was only established in April 2021, and it remains unclear how effective it will be. Meanwhile, even as high-end Manhattan prices fell overall, the city set a national record for the most expensive condo sale at over a quarter billion dollars.
This conflation of trends matches much of what was happening in New York City real estate before the pandemic. A glut of high-end condominiums, combined with changes to the tax code, increased capital controls in China, and other forces, was already causing New York City’s super-prime housing market to sag. Building sales in the rent-stabilized housing stock had begun to taper after tenants won a historic expansion of rent laws in 2019, which limited the opportunities for speculation in this relatively affordable half of the private housing market. Landlords may now be crying poverty, but even this apparent hardship must be seen in historical context. For decades, New York City landlords had been playing games with their mortgages to draw equity out of their buildings, leaving them extremely vulnerable to the kind of shock this year dealt them — particularly on top of the one they felt when the legislature strengthened the rent laws just one year prior.
New York City’s office and retail real estate markets went through even more extreme convulsions. With office workers staying home, travel down to a bare minimum, and indoor congregating understood as a public health threat, the office vacancy rate in Manhattan soared to 15 percent. Around 20 percent of the city’s hotels closed, nearly all theater, music, and dance performances were cancelled, and countless neighborhood institutions disappeared.
As many businesses shuttered, the most conspicuous consumers of vacant space were technology firms. Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and Google all went on leasing and construction sprees, renting scores of office spaces in Manhattan as well as building new distribution hubs in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. In this sense, big tech is bailing out big real estate, with some of the most extreme losses in commercial real estate buffered by this expanded footprint for tech companies — a somewhat surprising dynamic, given that tech companies are also prominently pivoting toward permanently remote workplaces.
This too was a trend already underway. Retail businesses were already facing extreme pressures. High rents and fierce online competition had caused a spate of closures before the pandemic. Vacant storefronts — particularly, but not exclusively, in Manhattan — were becoming increasingly common, a reminder to long-term New Yorkers of previous recessions, albeit in the dissonant context of a booming property market. Critics began referring to this phenomenon as “high-rent blight,” appropriating a term often used to deride working-class communities and turning it instead on commercial property owners.
Tech firms had been stepping into the void long before the pandemic, having been drawn to the city through a combined effort of state fiscal incentives, (mostly private) university expansions, and corporate boosterism; it was exactly such a cocktail that had helped to lure Amazon into announcing plans to build a headquarters in Queens in 2018/19. While that effort was defeated by popular struggle, the groundwork was well laid for Amazon’s current dispersed but accelerated New York City expansion, including their $1 billion Lord & Taylor building purchase in March 2020 and their construction of two delivery stations in Red Hook.
The Dead City Lives
The combination of disasters described above — the death of tens of thousands of New Yorkers, the unemployment, out-migration, real estate shakeups, and business closures — brought a mix of panic, resignation, defensiveness, and glee to many New Yorkers and outside observers. Much of this debate was the stuff of inane online banter, sometimes seeping into the mainstream, but it found its way into the presidential campaign and debates, with ex–New Yorker and prominent real estate schmuck Donald Trump painting the city as a hellhole. After the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of summer 2020, Trump’s Department of Justice even went so far as to designate New York City one of three “anarchist jurisdictions,” a move that needled the city’s actual anarchists and threatened to deny the city of federal funds.
Many of these feelings and memes were already percolating well before the pandemic. In 2019, someone was stenciling “THE RICH KILLED NYC” all over the city, a sentiment of class-based rage that many could relate to while also bristling at the notion that the city was actually dead.
Gentrification is often theorized and experienced as a kind of “urbicide,” or murder of city life, and such a process could be seen in the ongoing displacements of working-class people, communities, and cultures from many neighborhoods and, to some extent, from the city itself. The state has been an active participant in this process, both through the local machinations of the real estate state as well as the active federal disinvestment from cities like New York that has been ongoing for almost fifty years. Trump’s threats were, therefore, all too familiar to New Yorkers: the federal government had been starving New York City of capital for public housing, mass transit, and other social goods for decades.
Perhaps the best proof that New York is far from dead came over the summer, when the city — like many places all over the country and in many parts of the world — exploded in protest over yet another string of police murders, connecting their demands to others around housing, wages, the environment, and more. We saw days of protest and nights of rage, the scale of which our city had not summoned in decades, and an occupation of the space surrounding City Hall that showed some of the work put into Occupy Wall Street could be reimagined and reengaged.
At the same time, tens of thousands of tenants enacted the largest mass rent strike in decades, borne out of both necessity and solidarity. Those same impulses also animated a return to the level of formalized mutual aid not seen in this city for generations, prefiguring a kinder and more solidaristic city. When workers at an Amazon distribution center in Staten Island went on strike over unsafe conditions early in the pandemic, they inspired dozens of similar actions elsewhere. The life of the city was indeed on display.
Like many other mass mobilizations, these efforts relied on both spontaneous impulses and deep organizing. Black Lives Matter actions had shut down the city at several points over the past seven years, including, most notably, after the failure to indict Eric Garner’s killers. The debate over prison abolition was well established, particularly through the struggle to both close the jails on Rikers Island and prevent the construction of four new jails to replace them. The tenant movement has always been a major part of New York City politics, but it ramped up and expanded over the last year to fight for universal rent control. The neighborhood-based mutual aid organizations that developed throughout the city in the spring and summer built on the networks established through the city’s growing ecosystem of worker-owned cooperatives, limited-equity housing developments, credit unions, and more. And, of course, the workplace actions at Amazon distribution centers, schools, and hospitals built on almost two centuries of union organizing in New York City and beyond, as well as the more recent organization of radical caucuses and workers’ centers to push these struggles into a higher gear.
Accelerating Toward What?
COVID proved to be the great accelerator for a number of processes that were already in motion, ready to be hyperactivated by the spark that the pandemic and recession provided. New York City is thus in a process of rapid change, but its outcome remains unknown.
If commercial and residential real estate markets continue to fall, there may be an opening for public acquisition and conversions to social housing and other public uses. But it is also entirely possible that the business cycle will rebound more quickly, or that the vulture capitalists and private equity titans will further consolidate their hold over the city’s land and housing market, as we saw play out after the 2008 financial crisis.
One year out, the answers to these questions remain elusive. Will the next year bring another decade worth of change? And if so, in what direction? At this point, all we know is that this is the terrain we will be fighting over for the year to come, and likely much longer.