The Crisis of the Upper-Middle Class: Big Pay Is Piddling in New York

Pity upper-middle-class Manhattanites. The average sales price of apartments here has spiked so extremely—tripling in the last decade to a

Pity upper-middle-class Manhattanites. The average sales price of apartments here has spiked so extremely—tripling in the last decade to a record $1,295,445, according to a recent Prudential Douglas Elliman report—that only the most excessively well-heeled can become local owners.

Dottie Herman is the president and C.E.O. of that massive Elliman brokerage, yet her betrothed niece can’t find a Manhattan apartment. “Her fiancé said to me, ‘Gee, I don’t think it’s fair: We’re both professionals, we both went to college, and we’re not going to be able to find something in Long Island,’” Ms. Herman said, “‘and we’re not going to be able to find something in the city.’”

For the first time, even six-figure professionals—and six figures puts you in the top 10th of national income rankings—are being pushed off Manhattan Island.

“Five years ago, the price point wouldn’t be $600,000, it would’ve been $300,000,” said Pam Liebman, the president and C.E.O. of the Corcoran Group, referring to the rough cost of a basic apartment here.

The relatively rich suffer; the filthy rich prevail. “There has to be a middle ground between affordable housing for the low end of the demographic spectrum and the ultra-luxury at the top,” said appraiser Jonathan Miller, who authored the Elliman report. “You want to attract talented people to maintain your viability, and you can’t do that if they can’t afford to live here.”

It’s uncouth to fret over rich people who can’t afford to buy a leafy Manhattan pad when there are over 30,000 New Yorkers living in shelters, and when the top-10th earners have the highest share of national income since pre-Depression America.

And yet: Back in 1997, when the average annual wage here was about $59,200, the median co-op cost a wonderfully appropriate $196,000. According to the state Department of Labor, that wage stat only rose to $84,200 in 2005, when the median co-op cost $635,000.

Last year, that median price blossomed by another $40,000.

Of course, there are still bargains, especially for tiny studios. Yet price per square foot in a supposed bargain treasure chest like Harlem has jumped 340 percent over the past decade.

WHERE WILL THE NON-TYCOON HOUSE-HUNTERS GO? “They could live in Astoria! Astoria is wonderful, and underappreciated,” former New York Governor Mario Cuomo told The Observer. (He also recommended Brooklyn Heights, especially on account of the single women there.)

But the Queens-born former Governor—who gave a keynote speech on Monday at the Drum Major Institute’s conference on the New York middle class—later agreed that Manhattanites have been appreciating the outer boroughs for decades. “But in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for $50,000 you might live very well! But fugetaboutit if you live in Manhattan!”

According to Ms. Herman, $150,000 per year is enough income to become an island homeowner. “It’s not going to be on Central Park South, but I’m sure you can find something in Murray Hill. You can find things—a one-bedroom, 700, 800 square feet.”

Indeed, Upper West Side mortgage-broker Susan Gersh calculated that $130,000 is about the minimum income for a $600,000 apartment buyer with a 30-year mortgage—and 20 percent readily available up front for the down payment.

Therefore, a prospective Manhattan homeowner not only needs to be among the top 10 percent of Americans in income, but also must have gobs of saved money, too.

“If you have about $250 to $300 [thousand] in the bank, and you’re buying something that costs $600,000, you’re just there if you’re making a buck-fifty,” said associate Elliman broker Matt Gulker.

Speaking last week, when the third-year broker had five local listings priced over $1 million, he said: “Right now, I can’t afford to buy. But I will in two years.”

Ms. Herman, his boss, would disagree with that word choice. She said the complaint from her niece’s fiancé (“we’re not going to be able to find something”) is imprecise. “Now, what he was saying is, ‘We’re not going to be able to find something we want to live in.’”

She doesn’t pity him: “The baby boomers stretched so that most of their kids grew up in nice places, so they’re used to the space and everything. They want to have it. It’s not that they can’t afford to buy—it’s [that they don’t like] what they end up getting for the money.”

Mr. Cuomo agreed. “You’ve defined the problem by saying you should get whatever it takes to make you happy,” he said about Manhattan aspirers. “That’s not true in life. Not everybody gets the mate they wanted, not everybody gets the job they want, not everybody gets the apartment they want.”

But having generous boomer patrons can solve everything. “Out of the 10 sales I had last year, four of them needed parental assistance in the unit purchase,” said Elliman veteran Bruce Wayne Solomon, who specializes in the artsy, iconic London Terrace apartments in Chelsea.

And these weren’t the typical twentysomething recent college grads you’d think would be getting Mom-and-Dad discounts: Mr. Solomon said his clients were in their early 30’s.

RAYMOND CHO, 23, AND HIS WIFE, WHO BOTH went to New York University’s College of Dentistry, have recently been making around $200,000 a year together.

“Originally, we thought we could swing $650,000,” said Dr. Cho, who grew up in Chinatown, about their recent house search. “But we started to realize that the mortgage payments were going to be too high. The other problem was the taxes—that was actually a big, big incentive for us to not look in Manhattan.”

Such a migration follows the pattern established by earlier Manhattan home-seekers, when the borough wasn’t as gentrified. “Anecdotally, you hear many stories around the private-school lobbies about people who move out to the suburbs,” said Vicki Been, the director of N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “Fifteen years ago, they wanted to move because the city wasn’t a desirable place to raise a kid. Now they want to stay in the city, but they can’t afford it.”

The couple is waiting to close on a $495,000 780-square-foot condo in the new Beacon Tower in Brooklyn’s fast-gentrifying Dumbo neighborhood.

Mr. Cuomo, despite his fondness for the outer boroughs, said that Manhattan would benefit by helping such six-digit earners buy locally. After all, doesn’t the island suffer when it loses its young professionals and successful creative types? Shouldn’t the borough fight to keep itself affordable to those viable upper-class homeowners?

A spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development would only say: “We are seeking to make the cost of housing more affordable for every New Yorker by closing the gap between our growing population’s housing needs and current housing supply.”

He also pointed out that more residential units have been created during the Bloomberg administration than since the mid-60’s. But those 127,452 fresh units might not be helping, especially when the new developments in Manhattan are mostly luxury condos—which, in the first quarter of 2007, had an average sales price of $1.45 million.

“It’s a fine line,” explained Mr. Miller, the real-estate appraiser, “because if you flood the market with supply, you undercut the equity that people have at the moment.

“It’s hard to feel sorry for people making that kind of money,” he said later about six-figure professionals, “but you have to look at a city, in many ways, as an employer. The city and the administration that run the city, their focus is to grow the city, upgrade living standards, provide opportunities for its citizens.”

A spokesman said Mayor Bloomberg would not comment for this story.

“As far as the long term goes,” said Mr. Miller, “something has to be done.” The Crisis of the Upper-Middle Class:  Big Pay Is Piddling in New York