New York is the biggest city in the US. Tens of millions of tourists flock here every year, and the Big Apple is the nation’s capital of culture, shopping, dining, and diversity. Nearly 8.6 million call the city home. Despite its size, the city is experiencing growing pains, and the Jewish community is among those feeling them.
In a sense, New York is like two very different cities – one inhabited by the very rich and the other by the rest of us. Many of the truly affluent are moving into the skyscrapers lining 57th Street in an area called “Billionaire’s Row.” A small studio apartment there can cost $10 million, and a full-sized apartment $90 million.
Countering the influx of these fabulously rich are people in a very different situation in life: They try to scrape together money for rent but are having an increasingly difficult time doing so.
There are not many options for people who can’t afford to pay rent, and, unfortunately, living on the streets is one of them. Harper’s reports that homelessness in New York is now at or near record levels. On a related matter, approximately half of all New Yorkers are living in or close to the poverty level – alarmingly close to not being able to pay rent.
The Blame Game
So who is responsible for the increase in homelessness, financial distress, and poverty here? Many people blame landlords. Whether fair or not, the idea that rents in the city are too high is one that’s shared by numerous New Yorkers.
There is a rule of thumb that rent should not exceed one paycheck a month. However, according to the latest New York Housing and Vacancy Survey, three in ten New York households are allocating two checks a month – half their income – for rent. This number is virtually unsustainable. Nevertheless, rents are set to go even higher.
In a sense, New York is like two very different cities – one inhabited by the very rich and the other by the rest of us
New York’s frum population understands this problem very well, and for nearly 30 years they’ve been leaving the city in droves. This includes young people who simply can’t afford the very high mortgage payments they would have to pay to live here, and older people anxious to be relieved of those pressures.
As a result, Monsey and the areas surrounding it have become home to thousands of transplanted city dwellers. The same is true of Lakewood, and more recently Jackson and Toms River – all of these communities located in New Jersey. Bloomingburg, in the Catskills, is set to be transformed from a small town with a population of just 420 in 2016 into a Satmar village that will have 5,000 homes in the next 10-15 years. Many frum people have moved to the Five Towns.
Everything Is Relative
As thousands of Jews leave New York, other groups are moving in, and the flavor of neighborhoods is starting to change. For example, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been a chasidic neighborhood for many years and it still is, but not to the degree it once was.
As high as rents are in Brooklyn, they are lower than in Manhattan. Many young people have discovered that living in Williamsburg allows them to be close to the urban lifestyle of Manhattan they prize while also enjoying more affordable rent. The contrast between the culture of the chasidim who still live there and the people moving in is stark. Meanwhile, similar scenarios – although to a lesser degree – appear to be taking place in the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Boro Park and Flatbush.
The changing demographics are starting to create challenges. For example, it’s rumored that at least one famous and prestigious Brooklyn yeshivah is having trouble keeping its doors open because they don’t have enough bachurim to fill the classrooms. If this is true – and the rumor comes from a reliable source – other yeshivos may be experiencing similar difficulties. Some shuls also may be impacted by the many Jews leaving the city, and stores that have served Orthodox communities for years may be coming under pressure too.
Big Town, Little Town
With a court battle now resolved, the first Satmar chasidim have started moving into Bloomingburg, the small town in the Catskills. Frum people are also moving to other faraway communities, including Springfield, Kansas City, Dallas, and Detroit, among others.
To be sure, the major Jewish communities in New York City are still strong now, but they are experiencing some significant changes. One can’t help but wonder if there are any parallels to be drawn between the exodus of people from these communities and what occurred in the once-thriving and bustling Jewish community of the Lower East Side years ago, today only a shadow of its former self.
Gerald Harris is a financial and feature writer. Gerald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org