Where Would Seinfeld Live Now? New York’s Middle-Class Housing Crunch

Ms. Martin, who works as a vice president at J.P. Morgan, earns a good salary (they’re living on about $150,000 a year), but the couple is looking to conserve their resources because Mr. Martin recently retired from his job as a technical writer. They’ve been hunting for a one-bedroom in the $2,500 range for themselves and their dog, Sadie. But Ms. Martin has been shocked at the difficulty of the hunt. The market is so tight that many buildings that were once pet-friendly are now unwilling to accept dogs.

She explained that she’s always loved the freedom that renting affords. But facing a future of diminished income and rising rents, she and her husband can’t help but wonder if they should have bought.

“We always thought, do we really want to get stuck in one place?” she said.

He nodded. “I’ve always felt that with no mortgage and no car, I’m a free man.”

“But now that we’re trying to keep monthly expenses as low as possible …” Ms. Martin trailed off.

Part of the reason why so little middle-class housing gets built in New York City, according to Bruce Beal Jr., president of The Related Companies, is that it’s not profitable for developers, and unlike low-income housing, it’s not federally subsidized. National lawmakers are just not that empathetic to middle-income New Yorkers. A senator from another part of the country “looks at a family making $130,000 a year and says, ‘Those are rich people,’” Mr. Beal said. “In New York, those are teachers, fire fighters and police officers.”

That the city finds itself in this situation is not altogether unexpected. New York revels in competition, attracting people who shunned the comforts of the good life for a chance at the best life. They came here because they wanted to make it. But many of those people, having made it, find that there’s no place for them.

The East Village Apartment of Damian Panitz. Formerly $2,100, now $4,100.

Damian Panitz’s East Village one-bedroom. Now demanding $4,100 a month.

It’s something that Damian Panitz has been forced to consider. The New York native moved to Florida after high school and worked as a mechanic until he was 24. He remembers being under a car one day, thinking: “Do I really want to be doing this when I turn 40?”

Now he is nearly that age, a filmmaker and musician who teaches at NYU. His wife is a registered nurse who works at Beth Israel. They make a combined income of around $110,000 a year and live in a three-room railroad flat on East First Street with their 3-year-old son, who has cancer.

When they moved in three years ago, a friend owned the building, and they felt insulated from a harsh rental market. But their friend, facing medical expenses, sold the five-story walk-up building under duress to 9300 Realty. Shortly after the company bought the five-story walk-up, it started remodeling one-bedrooms into two-bedrooms and upping the rent. In June, their rent will leap from $2,100 to $4,100 a month.

It’s effectively an eviction; their son’s medical bills have already strained the couple’s finances. They offered to pay a 3 percent increase, which was rebuffed by the management, then a 10 percent increase, also rebuffed.

Admittedly, the confluence of a serious illness and a 95 percent rent increase is an unusually bad situation, but the promise of being middle class once meant having the wherewithal to handle bad situations.

“I work for the biggest real estate owner in this area,” said Mr. Panitz, referring to NYU. “I feel like I should get paid enough to allow me to live here.” He talked about how much he loves his neighbors, how nice it is to walk down the street with his son, and how hard it is to imagine living in any other city. His wife feels differently.

“Give me a reason to stay. The schools? That chichi restaurant down the street that’s not appealing and I can’t afford anyway? Paying $4,100 in rent?” she said.

“I’m a little too old to grow up a neighborhood. I don’t want to move to Bushwick.”

Not that they could afford it.

kvelsey@observer.com