Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Life In the Underclass

Only days after my multimillionaire developer of a landlord slapped me with another rent increase demand (bringing the three year total to a more than 50 percent hike), my apartment flooded.  Repair work on a blocked sewer line had forced wastewater up to a corroded kitchen pipe in my own unit, bursting it and turning half my apartment into a little lake. Fortunately, the crew had a wet-dry vacuum on site and were able to suck up most of the water. Unfortunately, they were running late for their other gigs and second or third jobs, so it took another day to get another crew on site to finish repairing the line and giving me permission to turn on my kitchen faucet. It took still another day (today) for management to finally send over a cleanup crew to remove the rest of the water and shampoo the carpeting, which is more than 20 years old. Actual carpet replacement in these tough times is not an option.

True, I am luckier than many of America's renters, untold millions of whom are so underwater that will be evicted when the national moratorium expires in just a few days. I can still inhabit my apartment for at least another few months, because my state's rent laws require adequate notice on increases. I still have the luxury of writing this post in my dry little office alcove in the rear of the unit. I have managed to keep up with my already-exorbitant rent payments throughout the pandemic, thanks mainly to the three "stimulus" checks which, pundits like Paul Krugman would have us believe, are being saved rather than spent.

Meanwhile, along with more than 100,000 other New Yorkers, I am still awaiting word on my application, for a few months' worth of future rent, to the state's Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Although these federal funds for "vulnerable" tenants who pay most of their income on rent were approved in April, it took New York until June 1st to finally open its glitch-ridden internet portal. Jumping through hoops does not even begin to describe the hell of this process, which is just one more way to tax the time of the poor and working class.

 Did I mention that our still-governing Governor Andrew Cuomo awarded the multimillion-dollar, no-bid contract for running ERAP to one of his former advisers, who coincidentally left government to start his own private consulting firm right before he won the contract?

As of last week, only a tiny fraction of "test" awards out of the multibillion-dollar fund had been sent to landlords. Senator Chuck Schumer was so incensed about the delays and incompetence that he wrote a sternly worded letter to Cuomo, warning him that unless the money is disbursed, it will revert back to the US Treasury. Cuomo then promised to "streamline" the program by bringing in an army of "volunteers" to do the work his crony could not, and get the money out by August 31: the expiration of New York's own eviction moratorium. 

That's yet another cruel way of stressing out desperate people. First, you dangle a sliver of relief in front of them and praise yourself to the skies while doing so. Then, you not only make them beg for it, you make it impossible for them even to beg for it. Finally, you make them wait in suspense until the very last minute for it. To prove how much you care, you advise them to practice mindfulness if they can't sleep at night.

As for me, I am throwing all caution to the wind even as I am throwing out my entire stock of the soaked contaminated old towels I'd used as ineffectual mops to clean up my interior lake. I've mindfully made up my mind not to pay one penny more in rent for my decaying living space.  Ergo, I  may end up in eviction court myself sooner rather than later. For the first time in my long-ish life, I am facing the very real possibility of homelessness. I can't even move, because the apartment vacancy rate in my area is effectively Zero.  I can't even live in my car, mainly because I don't have a car.

Much of the local housing stock had been converted to short-term Airbnb-type rentals. And then there's gentrification, which itself has been intensified by the influx of wealthy New York City residents who began arriving up here even before the pandemic. The gentry have not only artificially inflated the rents, they've also balked at more low-income housing getting built in their own new back yards. (NIMBYism on steroids.)

It's gotten so bad up here that even the New York Times is noticing the local housing crisis... mostly from the point of view of employers who, poor things, are having so much trouble these days finding enough minimum-wage help to serve the burgeoning plutocratic refugee class clientele. "What Happens When Your Waiter Can't Afford Rent?" the Paper of Record plaintively asks in its headline.

The article showcases Tom Smiley, the hereditary owner of the Mohonk Mountain House, a palatial resort in New Paltz whose most recent claim to fame was its use as luxurious retreat by Hillary Clinton in the aftermath of her crushing 2016 loss to Donald Trump. It's a very sad story of Smiley being forced to cut his workforce from 760 to 630 since the pandemic began. His quest for federal subsidies to house his workers has, thus far, been tragically unsuccessful. 

For the first time since his family started the business in 1869, Mr. Smiley asked his marketing director to focus on staff recruitment, and not on guest promotions. He spent extra money to advertise available jobs on the radio and billboard space on Route 299 in New Paltz.

Some employees were able to secure cheap lodging at the hotel’s worker dorms, but the number of rooms was cut to 45 from about 180, since the pandemic made it necessary to provide private bathrooms instead of shared facilities.

Heaven forbid that wealthy paying guests be forced from their rooms or have to enter a waiting list simply to get on a reservation waiting list, just as poor and working class people seeking affordable housing in America have been forced to do for decades. Tellingly, the lord of this particular manor apparently hasn't lobbied local, state and federal officials to enact rent control laws for the prevention of unconscionable evictions, let alone offered to pay a living wage of at least $25 an hour to his seasonal cleaning and wait-staff to supplement a signing bonus that doesn't even cover a week's rent in this area.

Not for nothing does local legend have it that horror writer Stephen King modeled the gruesome haunted hotel in "The Shining" directly on Mohonk Mountain House, which he is said to use as a regular writing retreat (complete with one of those scarce private bathrooms, I reckon.)

What with both the local and national crisis of unsustainable neo-feudal serfdom, I just can't get the picture out of my head of millions of worker-corpses floating in private bathtubs all across this plague-ridden American landscape.

The tubs are overflowing so badly that the privacy and comfort of their wealthy clientele should be the least of these overlords' worries. The dam is already bursting, all over this plague-ridden, flood-ravaged, world of ours. The victims of extreme capitalism can no longer be hidden away or even cynically used as props in their spectacles.


Jay–Ottawa said...

Hey, gang, if you're able, let's join an effort to send Karen a packet of contributions adding up to at least a week's rent. If ever there was a time to donate to Sardonicky, it's now, today.

Marcus A. A. said...

Sadly Karen it’s ony the beginning, millions of hard working Americans feel your pain. Hang in Aloha.

mjb said...

"Victims of extreme capitalism" pretty much says it all. Scary times for sure. I'm donating today.

Carol said...

Me Hi, Karen,

How clever and brave of you to add “ The Shining” clip at the end of your blog. Jack Nickolson and Shelley Duvall show their talents as you suffer.

Everyone should have the right to a decent and safe home, and only a few people are fighting for that right in Capitalist America. I sent your blog to my daughter, who works for that right.

Erik Roth said...

"The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”
~ Willem de Kooning

"Among the very rich you will never find a really generous man, even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egoistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.

"The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all."
~ Gilbert Keith Chesterton

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
~ Plutarch