This Sunday’s New York Times features a full-page article on my neighborhood in Brooklyn, entitled Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Is ‘On The Map’. This is great news for my wife and me in many respects, but it is unquestionably a sign that our neighborhood is gentrifying — it has been for a long time, but this is a sort of watershed moment, and not just in my neighborhood: Spike Lee got some attention when he weighed in on the changes in Fort Greene and Harlem, and you can hardly open your browser without some asshole spouting off about what’s happening in San Francisco.
Nobody wants to see middle-class people get pushed out of their homes, and the majority of online commentary about gentrification seems to center on the evils being done by greedy landlords. But as it happens, only a couple of years after we had to leave San Francisco because we couldn’t afford the rent, my wife and found ourselves interviewing potential tenants to live in the spare apartment in our 2-story limestone rowhouse in Brooklyn, and we don’t see things quite as simplistically as they tend to get portrayed in the current blizzard of anti-gentrification thinkpieces.
My wife and I met, dated, and got married in the heady days of the dot-com boom of late-’90s San Francisco. It was a great few years: we were getting paid nice (for a couple of 27-year-olds) salaries, working in an exciting field, living in one of the world’s greatest cities. But then the bottom fell out, the bubble burst, and we both found ourselves unemployed and paying unaffordable rent with no prospects on the horizon.
So we left. We spent a little less than a year in Cincinnati, where my family lives, working in the restaurant business, saving money, and almost never going out. Then after a few visits to some friends in Brooklyn, we were offered a bedroom in their 1-family brownstone at absurdly low rent — less even than we were paying in Cincinnati. So we moved to Brooklyn, I got a couple of bartending jobs, and my wife decided to try and make a go as a professional dog trainer.
When our generous hosts announced they were expecting and that we and the other housemates would all have to move out to clear the way for the baby, we all agreed with a hearty congratulations. But my wife was clear: she did not want to rent. We were both almost 30, we’d been married for a couple of years, and she felt strongly that it was time to start “building equity” (she used this phrase a lot and to this day I do not understand what it means) and generally getting set up for the long haul.
I was a little skeptical, because we’d left San Francisco largely because we knew we’d never, ever be able to buy property there, and New York didn’t seem to me to be a whole lot more affordable. But my wife took the lead, scouring the classifieds and Craigslist for apartments we might be able to afford.
She found one she liked and called the broker, who insisted on taking us to see two other apartments before he’d show us the one we were interested in. They were both in Prospect Heights, they both had really cheesy renovations, and they were both a little out of our price range. (We had $12,000 in the bank, saved up from all that cash-money restaurant work.)
Finally he took us to the apartment we wanted to see, and we were immediately ready to sign papers. It was run down, it needed work, and it was in a pretty shady neighborhood (if people selling drugs without a trace of shame on the sidewalk is your idea of shady). But it was a second-floor apartment in a cool old postwar deco building. It would cost us nearly every dime we had to make the down payment, and we still had to get a mortgage.
And this is where we thought we might have some trouble, because though I was making decent money as a bartender, the lion’s share of it was, shall we say, off book? And I don’t think my wife will mind terribly if I reveal that her dog training business was not quite a runaway success. We had very little in the way of collateral or documented income is what I’m saying.
It will come as little surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I did not vote for George W. Bush. I did not approve of his policies, I did not agree with his worldview, I thought he was tempermentally unsuited to the presidency, and I didn’t much care for what I knew of him personally. He was reckless, arrogant, incurious, inflexible, glib, too trusting of the wrong people and not trusting enough of the right ones. His administration was a disaster on nearly every level: he started a war in the wrong country, treated the war in the right country like an afterthought, created a massive new entitlement (Medicare D) without any effort to pay for it, loosened banking regulations to the point of causing (or at least, not preventing) a global financial crisis, compromised the U.S.’ moral authority by ordering (or looking the other way while subordinates ordered) torture, and stood by for three days while a major American city went underwater. The dude was a seriously shitty chief executive, and I hope we never see his like again.
Despite all that, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that the George W. Bush Administration may have been the best thing that ever happened to me and my family.
Because our friends with the brownstone and the pregnant belly sent us to their real estate attorney, who set us up with a mortgage broker, who assured us that everything would be fine, and it was. Our mortgage application was rubber-stamped (did anyone even look at it?) and we were the proud owners of a 1-bedroom co-op overlooking the open-air drug market, and just past that, the Parade Ground section of Prospect Park.
It wasn’t but a few weeks later that a sign went up on the fence across the street: NYC PARKS AND MAYOR BLOOMBERG ANNOUNCE PARADE GROUND RENOVATION, with mockups of brand-new baseball and soccer fields, plus basketball courts and a kids’ playground, replacing 40 acres of weeds and wild dogs.
We fixed up the kitchen, repainted and replastered everything, put in new baseboards, and generally spruced that little apartment up real nice. Pretty soon the park renovation was finished, and we had softball games happening outside our front windows. The crack traffic even subsided a little (a little). Somewhere during this time my wife bailed on the dog training and got her real estate agent’s license, and partnered with the controlling stockholder in our building to start selling other units. It was because of this that we learned that our little 1-BR had appreciated nearly three times over in the time since we’d bought it, just about two years. My wife’s coworkers at the real estate office urged her to sell it and use the money to buy a 2-family house. This seemed unfathomable to us, it was an idea we would never have thought of ourselves, but we couldn’t deny it made a lot of sense, so we did it. We sold the apartment for almost triple what we’d paid and bought a 2-family limestone about a mile away, very close to our friends’ brownstone we’d originally landed in.
It was, to put it lightly, a fixer-upper: the owner sold it because the sewer had backed up repeatedly and he didn’t have the money to fix it. All three floors needed serious renovation, but the illegal, squalid basement apartment had been flooded with sewage. It was a dark, depressing space anyway, with ceilings low enough that I had to stoop to walk around, no windows, and cinderblock stalls designated “bathroom” and “kitchen.” Judging by the personal effects left behind when we took possession, a single mom and a 3- or 4-year-old girl had been living down there, and the child’s father was an unsavory character whose activities had him on trial for a murder charge (as newspaper clippings tacked to the wall indicated) and had brought the cops to the door (as the battering ram-shaped hole in the front basement door indicated).
The upstairs apartment was occupied by a single mother, who like the majority of our neighbors was from Trinidad & Tobago, and her three sons, aged 17, 15, and 11. We made no effort to evict them or raise their rent, but they left on their own anyway after a few months. The ground floor apartment was delivered vacant, and when we moved in we redid the kitchen and bathroom and gutted the basement back to the studs.
One of the first things we had to do when we bought it was tear down the big ugly brick fence in the front yard, because our block is part of a landmarked district and these fences, which every house on our block had, were not approved by the Landmarks Commission, so for them to sign off on the sale (as they had to for it to go through) we had to agree to remove the fence, which we gladly did (as I said, it was hideous).
All of that was nine years ago. Since then we have continued to improve the property. When the lady and her three boys moved out, I spent four or five months renovating the upstairs apartment myself, between overnight bar shifts: putting in a whole new kitchen and bathroom, rewiring the entire apartment, refinishing the floors, repainting everything. Since then we’ve had four sets of tenants up there, only one of whom we kicked out, because he wouldn’t stop smoking cigarettes in the house and tossing the butts in both the front and back yards (this was forbidden in the lease and verbally agreed to several times).
In that time, the neighborhood has definitely changed around us. After we took our huge ugly fence down, the neighbors on either side followed suit and a few across the street did too, so the block looks considerably more inviting. There used to be five gas stations within three blocks of us, but three of them have closed and been replaced by a bank, a 7-Eleven, and a hamburger place. The dingy deli with the weird smell and the sinking floorboards got turned into an organic market. There’s a neighborhood bar next to the subway stop now, and it’s grown into a cool, diverse little scene, I was just in there last night. The city came and replaced the ugly utilitarian 1960s streetlights with some nicer, more ’20s-retro-deco models, and planted new trees in the spots that were missing them, including right in front of our house.
Renters have come and gone from the houses around us, but I honestly don’t know what they’re paying or why they’re leaving, and there’s no obvious class or racial trend that I can see. When we arrived in the neighborhood there was a scene of people that hung out and played dominoes and bullshitted on the stoop outside one of the apartment buildings, and all those people are still around. There is still litter blowing around the sidewalks, but maybe a little less than there used to be. Gunshots can still be heard on occasion, but not as often as they used to be. It’s been a while since any helicopters hovered overhead, and the whole block hasn’t been taped off as a crime scene since 2007.
A lot of the other houses on the block have been renovated and sold (not necessarily in that order), and the prices are getting higher. A house across the street from us, with an identical floor plan, was recently converted into a 1-family and sold for three times what we paid for ours. I admit all of this is nothing but good news to us — it looks at this point like if we were to sell now we’d gross about double what we paid nine years ago. After paying off the mortgage, we’d probably cash out with about 60 times our initial down payment on that apartment.
But we don’t have any plans to do that anytime soon. We like where we live, and in yet another stroke of insanely good luck we had nothing to do with, we were able to get our son into a great elementary school that just opened a mile away. We have consistently charged slightly less than market rate rent since we started renting the upstairs apartment, and only raise it nominally every couple of years — we only bring it up to market rate when we get new tenants. If we kicked our current tenants out we could raise it by at least $500, probably more, but they’re nice guys and they pay on time, so we don’t see any need to do that.
We could have never paid the down payment for this house without the windfall from selling our apartment, and we could never keep up with the mortgage on this house without the rental income. I’m not getting rich here — I think of it more like super kick-ass rent control. As market rent has increased over the last nine years, at this point it covers about 60% of our monthly mortgage payment. When these guys move out — and let me stress, that’s when they choose to move out — thanks in no small part to The New York Times announcing that our neighborhood is on the map, we can probably kick that up to 70% or so; I expect in 10 years or so it’ll be close to 100%. By then we’ll be in our 50s and our son will be college age, so we’ll probably be putting the money we used to put toward “rent” (the part of the mortgage not covered by rental income) toward his education; ten years after that, the house will be paid off and hopefully so will the boy’s college bills, and we’ll be retirement age, living off the rental income.
All of this comes in particularly handy because, at age 40, it’s becoming clear that I am not going to be getting rich as a writer, or as a musician, or as a filmmaker, or as a comedian, or as any of the other things I’ve spent my entire adult life doing well enough to enjoy myself but not well enough to make any money. My wife has also struggled to settle on a career — she is now in her second year, God help her, as a high-school science teacher in the NYC public school system. We are exactly the so-called middle-class “creative types” that, had it not been for a little bit of good luck, good advice, good timing, and good sense, would have eventually been priced out of New York the same as we got priced out of San Francisco.
So am I an evil, greedy landlord, gouging the livelihood out of my neighborhood, forcing people out of their homes? Because while there are certainly developers out there building high-rise luxury condos and actively scheming to price people out — read that Times article for details on the 23-story monstrosity that just broke ground next to the neighborhood bar and the organic market — there are quite a few of them out there that are just trying to get by, trying to work the system to their benefit. I didn’t displace anyone; the place was abandoned, the basement was flooded with shit and the doors had been battered in. I spent the first five years we lived here working on the house all day and bartending all night. When I started I had no skills, I couldn’t drill a hole in a board without splitting it. Now I know how to do wiring, framing, sheetrock, I can frame and hang a door (interior or exterior), put in a dishwasher, tile the floor. It took a long time, but it only cost materials.
If my current tenants stay for ten more years, and this neighborhood explodes like The New York Times is saying it will and market rent doubles, am I a bad person if I charge the next tenants double what I charge now? Why shouldn’t I get as much return on an investment like that as possible? Would anyone really not do that? If Bruce Ratner calls me tomorrow and offers me $5 million for this house, is it my responsibility to ask what’s going to happen to the property after I’m gone before I sell? Or am I just reaping the benefits of good planning? I don’t have this house because I’m a rich capitalist fuckbag, out to screw people over. I have it because my wife was smart enough to make me save some money, think about the future, and listen to good advice. (And because George W. Bush relaxed lending standards to the point of wrecking the global economy. Much obliged, Mr. President.)