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‘Frankenstein’ Apartments and Weak Libraries: Is This New York’s Future?

After surviving the worst of the pandemic, the city now faces budget cuts that seem to promise even more disruption. The average rent of a Manhattan apartment is now reaching $5,249 a month, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the previous year.

A new study says that housing costs are driving the financial woes of New Yorkers., Credit: José A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

On Thursday afternoon, a number of local politicians and tenants’ groups came together in the East Village to draw attention to a practice known as “Frankensteining,” which, in the context of New York City’s housing crisis, has emerged as a newly born grotesquerie. The term refers to a loophole in an otherwise tenant-friendly 2019 law that allows landlords to circumvent rent regulations by reconfiguring an apartment — chopping it up or combining it with a second one or simply expanding it through the addition of hallway or other appropriated common space.

Its floor plan remade, the unit then typically falls out of government purview, leaving the landlord to charge more or less whatever he wants. In one building on East 26th Street, this creative approach to profit building contributed to the loss of 39 rent-stabilized units between 2020 and 2022. Against so many initial projections, Covid did not result in a great exodus from New York City, and a price slash; in November, the average rent for a Manhattan apartment reached $5,249, an increase of nearly 20 percent over the previous year.

Frankensteining is merely one of the more novel ways that low- and middle-income New Yorkers are under assault as the pandemic recedes and the economy reshapes itself. An emergency rental assistance program has since ended even as housing costs have gone up; so too has the additional federal aid that was given to recipients of food assistance at a moment when inflation has caused grocery prices to soar. And now, budget proposals being negotiated at the city, state and federal levels seem to carry the promise of only more disruption.

In the current fiscal plans, for example, the Adams administration and the City Council have called for what amounts to a $36 million cut to libraries, where so many New Yorkers go for internet access and literacy services. Among other potential negative outcomes, this would threaten the existence of a popular new program for teenagers; in one branch, a media lab and recording studio draws students from all over the city after school. This would come, however paradoxically, when the mayor has announced a broad mental-health initiative focused on the well-being of children and adolescents whose afflictions grew exponentially during the pandemic.

The austerity extends to children farther down the age chart, specifically to a proposed $568 million reduction to spending on preschool for 3-year-olds, essentially ending the expansions planned during the de Blasio administration. This is to say nothing of the fact that the city has spent the past year struggling to pay preschool providers to whom it outsources so much early education and day care, leaving at least one major operator to close.

Some of these cuts might not be necessary if there were more enthusiasm at the state level to make modest adjustments to the corporate tax code. While Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $227 billion state budget calls for extending a tax increase on large corporations set to expire at the end of this year, it does not call for increasing them. In a recent brief, the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, pointed out that a rise of 1.25 percent would generate another $1.7 billion annually. That new rate, of 8.5 percent, would not be unprecedented; in fact, it would go back to what it was two decades ago. Right now, New York’s top corporate tax rate is lower than the comparable figure in 19 other states including Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey.

Beyond that, the Fiscal Policy Institute has suggested that the state could piggyback on federal laws that extract taxes from multinationals that otherwise try to avoid them in this country by shifting around their profits on paper. That, the group’s research shows, could generate approximately another billion dollars in revenue.

While the governor’s budget allocates significant funds to deal with the migrant crisis, most of which is unfolding in New York City, it also proposes a 3 percent tuition increase at public colleges and universities, where reserves are low and the enrollment of financially struggling students is high. A letter sent last month to deans and presidents of the City University of New York system from its chief operating officer ordered them each to devise “a savings plan” achieved through cutbacks and, vaguely, “the generation of additional revenues.”

The budget is one that as Nathan Gusdorf, the executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute and a former tax lawyer put it, “really does increase the ordinary cost of living for ordinary New Yorkers.” Data released from the institute earlier this week showed that, contrary to popular belief, the number of millionaires in New York State increased during the pandemic, going from close to 70,000 in 2020 to more than 84,000 the following year. If anything is propelling migration out of the city, it is housing prices, not taxes on the very wealthy. The prospect of Frankensteining is more likely to convince people that it is time to abandon Brooklyn for Tampa.

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[Ginia Bellafante writes the Big City column, a weekly commentary on the politics, culture and life of New York City. She has served as a reporter, critic and, since 2011, as the Big City columnist. She began her career at The Times as a fashion critic, and has also been a television critic. She previously worked at Time magazine. @GiniaNYT ]