Bill Moyers: The Long, Dark Shadow That Plutocracy Casts on American Society
Some people say inequality doesn’t matter. They are wrong. All we have to do to see its effects is to realize that all across America millions of people of ordinary means can’t afford decent housing.
As wealthy investors and buyers drive up real estate values, the middle class is being squeezed further and the working poor are being shoved deeper into squalor — in places as disparate as Silicon Valley and New York City.
This week Bill points to the changing skyline of Manhattan as the physical embodiment of how money and power impact the lives and neighborhoods of every day people. Soaring towers being built at the south end of Central Park, climbing higher than ever with apartments selling from $30 million to $90 million, are beginning to block the light on the park below. Many of the apartments are being sold at those sky high prices to the international super rich, many of whom will only live in Manhattan part-time – if at all — and often pay little or no city income or property taxes, thanks to the political clout of real estate developers.
Watch the full episode (and full transcript of the segment below):
BILL MOYERS: Let’s talk one more time about why inequality matters. Some people say it doesn’t, but they’re living in an ideological fairyland on the far side of the looking glass. In the real world, inequality is a deep and divisive force. We see that politically all the time, as the rich buy elections and then shape the laws to their advantage.
But in this episode let’s look at just one of the basic needs of life affected by inequality – a place to live. Across our country, millions of people of ordinary means can’t afford decent housing. In New Jersey, just on the other side of the Hudson River from where I’m sitting, three out of five renters can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rates. And across the continent, in San Francisco, residents – including many from an anguished middle class -- have taken to the streets to protest the narcissistic capitalism of Silicon Valley that provides an elite few with what they want instead of the many with what they need. We could continue city by city, state by state: because among our largest, richest 20 metro areas, less than 50 percent of the homes are affordable. Less than 50 percent.
Here where I live, in New York City, inequality in housing has reached Dickensian dimensions. The middle class is being squeezed to the edge as the rich drive up real estate values and the working poor are shoved farther into squalor. As you will see in this report, the skyline of New York is a physical reminder of how wealth and power get their way without regard for the impact on the lives and neighborhoods of everyday people. So this is a story about how inequality matters, but it’s also a reflection of radical change in America, as the dark shadow of plutocracy falls across all things public.
WARREN ST. JOHN: I'm a park user. I come to Central Park several times a week and ride my bike around the loop. In the fall of 2012 I was at the Heckscher Playground in the southern end of Central Park with my daughter. And suddenly it got sort of dark and cool and people started packing up and heading home. And it seemed sort of odd because it was a clear day. And I looked up and realized that the sun had gone behind that big tower I'd seen a few months before, going up.
BILL MOYERS: This is what Warren St. John saw – a skyscraper, climbing high above the park in the heart of Manhattan.
WARREN ST. JOHN: Didn't think much about it until the following spring when I was at a playground on 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, nearly a mile north. And same thing happened. And I looked up and it was a shadow from the same building. And it had stretched three-quarters of a mile north across the park. And I thought to myself, how'd that happen?
BILL MOYERS: New Yorkers aren’t easy to startle, but like St. John, many of us have been stunned to learn that the tower casting those shadows across the children’s playground is the vanguard of more to come. A line of gated castles is forming along the southern rim of Central Park, staking a privileged claim to the space, sky, and sun long shared by all.
This building is the first, marketed as One57, ninety stories tall on West 57th Street. The noted architectural critic Paul Goldberger could hardly believe his eyes.
PAUL GOLDBERGER: The very top floor is the most unbelievable view you’ve ever seen, but it’s a view from an airplane, really. You’re completely disconnected from the sidewalk.
BILL MOYERS: A private city in the sky for the rich -- the very, very rich. As Goldberger wrote: “if you seek a symbol of income inequality, look no farther than 57th Street.”
PAUL GOLDBERGER: They’re mostly the international super-rich. It’s a whole category of people. Most people are living there part time and have other residences either in this region, or elsewhere in the US or elsewhere in the world, or all of the above. And they’re people who can afford to spend l0, 15, 20, 30 million dollars on an apartment.
ONE57 PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: Extell has become New York’s premier developer
BILL MOYERS: The penthouse apartment is under contract for a reported $90 million. The hedge fund tycoon behind the deal told The New York Times he thought “it would be fun” to own “the Mona Lisa of apartments,” although he has no intention of living there.
ONE57 PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: A company with integrity, roots, and destiny.
PAUL GOLDBERGER: There’s a prominent real estate appraiser in New York who referred to these buildings as safe deposit boxes in the sky. Places where people put cash and they rarely visit themselves.
BILL MOYERS: So think of them as plush Swiss banks, with maid service, for people who, as one critic wrote, “see the city as their private snow globe.” When this building, 432 Park Avenue, is finished next year, it will surpass even One57, climbing 150 feet taller than the Empire State Building before its spire. No pharaoh ever dreamed on so grand a scale. Each tower is a feat of technological, economic and political engineering. Promoted to the very rich as the very best.
CHRISTIAN DE PORTZAMPARC: This is not an abstract thing like an office tower. But this is dwellings.
BILL MOYERS: Their famous architects do the pitching.
CHRISTIAN DE PORTZAMPARC: Glass its own color.
BILL MOYERS: Designers tout the costly interiors.
DEBORAH BERKE: One of my favorite moments in the kitchen is the very long counter of solid marble framed against the window.
MAN in The Billionaire Building: As you move up in the building…
BILL MOYERS: And they welcome media coverage of every opulent detail.
MAN in The Billionaire Building: So, higher in the building you have this statuary white marble. It’s important to note that it’s in very large slabs. This really communicates a level of luxury.
BILL MOYERS: There’s an unwritten rule in New York City: don’t get between a grasping developer and the sky, you could wind up cantilevered. Like the historic Art Students League on West 57th, built in the 1890s, it was landmarked to prevent its destruction. But Extell bought the air rights above for $23 million and will build its Nordstrom Tower there, raising the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere.
PAUL GOLDBERGER: People have never lived that high, certainly not in New York, and pretty much anywhere really. A whole new kind of skyscraper, a whole new kind of way of living for New York in this super tall, super thin building,
BILL MOYERS: From way up there Central Park will appear to the super-rich as a sparkling little jewel of nature sewn into a tapestry created for their eyes only. But as the towers intercept the light from the sun, their shadows fall further and further across the park, like alien intruders stalking their prey.
WARREN ST. JOHN: It was quite chilling to see how far north into the park those shadows would go. Well over a mile, in some cases. They stretch at an angle to the east across the park elongating of course as the sun sets. And they truly alter the feeling of some of the premier spaces in the park.
BILL MOYERS: If New York City has a commons, it is here – Central Park – eight hundred acres designed in the 19th century by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted.
WARREN ST. JOHN: I think Central Park is the thing that Frederick Law Olmsted hoped it would be. It is a great democratic meeting place, where people from every walk of life are welcome, where they mingle together, where people relax, where people get exercise, where people play sports together, where people read books and paint and wander and think and unwind.
BILL MOYERS: Going about the small pleasures of life, unaware that Billionaires’ Row is about to further slice up the light from above.
WARREN ST. JOHN: Any one building, okay. It's a changing city, that's great. But a sort of picket fence of super towers along the southern end of the park, in aggregate, really changes the way the park feels for many months of the year. Why didn’t people make a stink out of this? This is blotting out the sunshine in the premier park certainly in New York City, maybe the world. Where was the outcry?
BILL MOYERS: There was an outcry in the 1980s when the park was also threatened by overbearing developers. Warren St. John had just arrived in the city as a college student.
WARREN ST. JOHN: One of the first big civic actions that I heard about was an umbrella protest in Central Park organized by Jacqueline Onassis and others. And they were protesting a building that was going up on Columbus Circle that was going to throw a big shadow across Central Park. Thousand people showed up with umbrellas to form the line that the shadow would form.
BILL MOYERS: My wife Judith and I raised our umbrellas and joined the line of neighbors from all around the park. Jackie O.’s stature, combined with people power, caused the developer to back off and scale down the height of his new building. Still big, but casting less of a monstrous shadow across the park.
Now, with the park again under siege, a new spirit of protest is growing. Earlier this year more than 400 people turned out for this community board meeting. They called for new zoning and for limiting the height of luxury buildings around Central Park. Warren St. John was there.
WARREN ST. JOHN: In the short term we need a moratorium of buildings over a specific height in the park to protect the park.
BILL MOYERS: The president of Extell, Gary Barnett, was also there. He dismissed people’s complaints and scoffed at their numbers.
GARY BARNETT: Let’s keep it in context. The actual shadows here are not a threat to the park. It’s a tiny amount of any New Yorkers, for sure, that are going to grumble about it.
BILL MOYERS: Perhaps from Billionaires’ Row other human beings down below are hardly worth noting. But taking the light from 40 million people, the number who visited the park last year, seems more than a tiny offense.
WARREN ST. JOHN: This is a park used by millions upon millions of people. And to have it impacted by a developer for a relative handful of units, and to make a great profit for himself, seems to me that we probably should have had a discussion about that.
BILL MOYERS: In defending his claim on the sky and light around the park for luxury towers, the developer accused dissenters of demonizing the rich: “If we drive away a pool of ready buyers at luxury prices,” he wrote, “some of these buildings will not get built at all. We need a balanced approach if we don’t want to injure – or kill – the goose that lays the golden egg.” He had on his side outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a billionaire 34 times over. Bloomberg had spent three terms rolling out the red carpet for the richest of the rich.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: That’s our tax base. If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.
BILL MOYERS: But the mayor left something out. The super-rich who buy those opulent apartments and live in New York City less than half the year will pay no city income tax at all.
PAUL GOLDBERGER: And while those people still contribute in other ways to the city's economy, I'm sure they go out to expensive restaurants and buy theatre tickets and shop in fancy stores and do all those things, you only pay income tax if you're a resident, and they're not.
BILL MOYERS: Which means the fabulously rich, high above the city, will be contributing no income taxes to support the public servants who make it work far below: transit workers and teachers, or the firemen and police who rushed to One57 when Hurricane Sandy tipped its construction crane and set it dangling dangerously over Midtown – shutting down one of the busiest streets in the city for a week.
The owners of One57’s apartments will not be paying their full share of property taxes, either – thanks to a dodgy deal slipped into a housing bill by State Senator Martin Golden and other legislators in Albany.
NEW YORK STATE SENATOR MARTIN J. GOLDEN: It’s the normal bill that we do every several years to give our condos and co-ops the tax abatements that they get and that they require.
BILL MOYERS: Normal? What Senator Golden is really doing is carving out a tax break for five luxury properties – including Extell’s One57. State Senator Liz Krueger called him out on it.
NEW YORK STATE SENATOR LIZ KRUEGER: This bill as I said has some important things in it, but it’s also a perfect example of what goes wrong in the wheeling dealing of the backrooms of Albany.
BILL MOYERS: In exchange for the developer putting $5.9 million into affordable housing in the Bronx – pocket change, given the prices on Billionaires’ Row, those wealthy pied-Ã -terre buyers could get as much as $35 million in tax breaks.
NEW YORK STATE SENATOR LIZ KRUEGER: An example in a recent news story was a $90 million, 13,554 square foot penthouse and with 421a exemption allowed in this bill, their taxes per year would be $20,000. If they were not rolled into this legislation their taxes would be $230,000.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s hear that again.
NEW YORK STATE SENATOR LIZ KRUEGER: Their taxes per year would be $20,000. If they were not rolled into this legislation their taxes would be $230,000.
BILL MOYERS: A tax break of $210,000 a year for living there, four times the median income in New York City.
NEW YORK STATE SENATOR LIZ KRUEGER: I don’t think that’s what any of us were talking about when we endorsed the expansion and extension of property tax exemptions that the city of New York gives out.
BILL MOYERS: Yet the Senate approves it.
NEW YORK STATE SENATOR: The bill is passed.
BILL MOYERS: And the Assembly follows suit.
NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLYMAN: The bill is passed.
BILL MOYERS: But the story doesn’t end there.
JARON BENJAMIN: We started doing a little bit of digging.
BILL MOYERS: Jaron Benjamin led the non-profit Metropolitan Council on Housing, an advocate for low-income tenants.
JARON BENJAMIN: And we noticed that the same five developers that got this very unusual carve out to receive tax abatements for a program that was defunct also contributed mightily to the governor and other state elected officials.
BILL MOYERS: The group’s report, “Tax Breaks for Billionaires,” prompted reporters for the New York Daily News to hit the money trail. They found corporations – LLCs – affiliated with Extell Development had donated $100,000 to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign two days before he signed the bill. Other real estate investors sweetened the pot. And when a commission appointed by the governor to investigate corruption got too close to the real estate industry, he blocked it. Then he pulled the plug. A feat of wondrous political engineering.
JARON BENJAMIN: The real estate industry here in New York City is like the oil industry in Texas. They outspend everybody. They often have a much better relationship with elected officials than everyday New Yorkers do. While there was affordable housing built in the last 12 years under Mayor Bloomberg, that affordable housing was not built for certain people.
For example, if you were a family of four that earned between $26,000 a year and $42,000 a year. So think of a single mom with three kids who works as an administrative assistant. There were basically no affordable apartments constructed over the last 12 years for that family. That really sent a message as to who this city wanted. You know, this city did not want regular working people, which is a real shame because that's who makes New York City great.
BILL MOYERS: As Billionaires’ Row keeps rising – so does the cost of living, driving more and more people elsewhere.
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We’re going to use every tool of this city government in ways more aggressive than ever attempted in the past to protect the interests of our people and make sure that every kind of person can live in New York City.
BILL MOYERS: But as Mayor Bill de Blasio promises at least 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years, affordable housing advocates protest it’s not enough.
PROTESTERS: Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right!
JARON BENJAMIN: We’re asking that any new development, any new skyscrapers that are built with tax abatements that come out of our pockets have at least 50 percent affordable housing in them.
LINDA ROSENTHAL: The developers know how to play every angle of this game. And we as a city and state have been less than aggressive in forcing them to do more. It can’t be, we give you the store, and then you give us, like a few cans in the aisle. It has to be, if we’re going to give you opportunities to make millions and zillions of dollars, in return you have to give us a good number of affordable housing. The march here was for 50 percent affordable and I think in many cases I think that’s quite reasonable.
RUSSELL CHEEK: Affordable housing should be something that a person who's making $40,000 or less can afford to pay their rent without a subsidy and without forgoing dinner. That's affordable housing. And we have a lot of people who work hard, day in, day out, 40 hours a week, and they still can't afford a apartment here in New York City.
PROTESTORS: Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right!
JARON BENJAMIN: If we don’t get together and do something, we’ll be left with a city that’s only accessible to millionaires and billionaires, which would be quite a shame. Forget about the Statue of Liberty. Forget about Ellis Island. Forget about the idea of everybody being welcome here in New York City. This will be a city only for rich people.
WARREN ST. JOHN: At its root, this is about some luxury dwelling places for a relative handful of people, many of whom don’t even live in this country. And they’re impacting a park used by 40 million people from around the world every year. That seems to me out of whack. So we’re going to make noise until we get somewhere.
PAUL GOLDBERGER: The internationalization of New York once meant something actually kind of exotic and exciting and enhanced our diversity. Today, internationalization at least on West 57th Street and East 57th Street, and all around Midtown Manhattan seems to symbolize not diversity but a kind of exclusivity.
And an end to the sense that we’re all in it together, which is the key urban idea. We all meet each other on the sidewalk, we all meet each other in public places, and the urban environment is the common ground that we all share.
BILL MOYERS: Tell us if you’ve seen some of these forces eroding the common ground where you live. Perhaps, like some of the people in our story, you’re making your own voice heard. Share these experiences at our website, BillMoyers.com.