TCS Daily


New Pork City

By Stephen W. Stanton - March 7, 2003 12:00 AM

To the untrained nose, my apartment smells fresh and clean. But my proboscis can instantly recognize the thick scent of pork. Though I find it quite distasteful elsewhere, the aroma is quite pleasant in my home.

I am surrounded by a professional crew cleaning every inch of my Downtown Manhattan apartment. They are surprisingly thorough, vacuuming and scrubbing the top of my kitchen cabinets, behind the stove and refrigerator, and even inside the air conditioner. By the time they are finished, every surface will be guaranteed dust-free. They will clean my rugs and furniture. They will even vacuum the floor of my outdoor terrace, insisting that record snows and rain storms have not washed away the dust to their satisfaction. These hardworking folks take their job seriously.

So seriously that they will come back tomorrow to make sure they got everything. Government-trained professionals will bring sensitive monitoring equipment for five full hours to detect and identify any stray particles in the air. If there is any dust leftover, I am going to find out exactly what it is. Martha Stewart never had such high standards.

The truth is, I am not really this fastidious in my housekeeping. I did not ask the workers to dust behind the stove. It never occurred to me that anyone would vacuum an outdoor terrace. In fact, I did not even hire the cleaning crew. You did.

You may not realize it, but you are paying to have my Playstation and Tivo professionally cleaned. That is quite generous, considering so many of you don't have Playstations and Tivos of your own. By the way, thank you.

Why are you paying for my lavish domestic perk? Because it is an emergency! It must be, because the money comes through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I just signed some papers, and the government paid for the whole thing (with your taxes). It comes out of the $8.8 billion FEMA budgeted to help victims of 9-11. The EPA carved the WTC area into four quadrants, granting local monopolies to four cleaning contractors and four monitoring firms. More than four thousand area residents participate in the program.

Of course, it is not quickest emergency response in FEMA history. The WTC collapsed a year and a half ago. I signed up for this cleaning back in 2002. However, since it does not cost me anything, I can't complain. Besides, the service is great. The cleaning crew is more thorough than any French maid. After they finish, inspectors from another company will search for hidden WMD's (waste, muck & dust). I get all of this done on the taxpayers' dime. I mooch, you lose.

Surprisingly, I did not even live here during the WTC attacks. I moved into the neighborhood almost seven months later. Of course, the apartment was spotless when I moved in. The apartment does accumulate dust rather quickly with all of the construction and excavation in the area. But two air purifiers, a weekly dusting, and a thorough monthly cleaning keep the dust bunny population under control. I really did not need a professional cleaning crew.

Here's my dirty little secret: I only got the professional cleaning because it was free. Though wasteful government handouts go against my principles, the capitalist in me cannot turn down free money.

In fact, I got free money just for moving in. To protect the local real estate market, the government started giving area tenants up to $250 a month for signing a two-year lease, tax-free. People closer to the WTC got twice that amount. The program is great for those of us on the receiving end. But it should bother the hard working folks footing the bill, just like most pork passed with good intentions.

Do we really need the money? Nope. According to a November 2002 report by the Downtown Alliance, my neighborhood is doing just fine. Occupancy rates are back up to the pre-September 11th level of 95%. Rents and property values have also bounced back. According to The Real Estate Board of New York, Battery Park City condominiums actually increased in value by 7 percent per square foot from the first quarter of 2001 (pre-9/11) to the first quarter of 2002 (post-9/11).

Yet the subsidy continues. Tenants moving into the area can cash in on this program until May of this year, collecting monthly checks well into 2005.

Not only is the program obsolete, it is now counterproductive. Thanks to rent restrictions, the program now destroys property value instead of protecting it. If a landlord charges a new tenant too much more than pre-9/11 rent, the subsidy disappears. In effect, the subsidy now acts as a price cap, forcing landlords to keep rents limited by regulatory formulas. Owners of brand new apartment buildings, however, are free to gouge tenants without losing the handout.

To put it mildly, my neighbors are not typical welfare recipients. "Although downtown residents' average monthly housing costs are comparable to those throughout Manhattan," the report says, "their average household income is double that of Manhattan residents taken as a whole, providing Downtown residents with a higher level of disposable income." (I will not hint at my impact on these income statistics.) Even by Manhattan standards, my neighbors are rich.

So do the incentives help? Nope. The same report concludes, "a remarkable 80 percent of respondents, regardless of when they moved to the area, expect to be living in Lower Manhattan in three years, while 66 percent expect to be living Downtown in five years. Furthermore, more residents than ever report that Lower Manhattan was their first choice of location, not an economic compromise."

Besides, the local government has such a horrible record of keeping its promises, most tenants discount the potential for government assistance when negotiating their rent. A government promise of $250 a month is worth much less to a potential tenant. It took more than 5 months to get my first subsidy check. Even then, it was sent to the wrong address.

In a nutshell, the government is giving rich people money for nothing. The subsidy is inefficient, and has almost no impact on housing decisions. Moreover, the city's schizophrenic housing policy funnels tax dollars Downtown to keep rents artificially inflated even as rent control laws drain private sector resources to keep housing costs low.

So here is the moral of the story: In a city where public schools are failing, unemployment is two percent higher than the national average, and deficits are spiraling out of control, rich folks can still can suckle at the government's teat. If that sounds good to you, consider moving to my neighborhood.

You had better hurry. The gravy train will not go on forever. Someday, New York voters may come to their senses and bring back limited government, low taxes, and free markets. In the meantime, where's my check?
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