New York

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am

Our new City Views columns will bring you despatches from the international cities that are the home from home for so many Hongkongers.

To live in comfort in most of Manhattan these days you have to be very rich, or very lucky. If you are lucky you have one of the few rent-controlled apartments, where rent is artificially low because of state laws.

Without that luck, most New Yorkers on the lower rungs of the ladder can forget about living anywhere in Manhattan apart from Harlem. And at a time when house prices have been falling, the market has showed little sign of cooling - the average sale price for a Manhattan apartment is about US$1.3 million.

The market is even showing signs of heating up. Those on Wall Street with fat bonuses are ready to pay just about any asking price. And the incentive for landlords to harass tenants so they leave rent-controlled apartments is increasing as they know they can get much more from a newcomer.

The politicians are a little concerned. The lack of affordable housing in Manhattan is threatening the city, which likes to boast of both its wealth and its egalitarian nature.

To Christopher Kui, the executive director of Asian American For Equality, a Chinatown-based organisation that fights for housing for low- and middle-income people, a ray of hope emerged last week with reforms to a tax abatement law for real estate development.

This law, created in 1971 to spur housing development in the then crime-riddled city, has helped to generate 110,000 apartments. But less than 6,000 of those are considered affordable. 'The city is in critical need of affordable housing,' said Mr Kui. 'But taxpayers' money has been used to encourage building luxury condos that sell for a million dollars.'

The new legislation, which was signed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on December 28 but will not come into effect until the end of this year, would mean that for many more developments, at least 20 per cent must be devoted to housing for low- and middle-income people before there are critical tax benefits.

According to city projections, this should create a further 20,000 affordable homes over 10 years, and partially contribute to the mayor's promise of building or preserving 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2013.

But the developers see little changing. 'There will be less affordable housing and less market-rate housing because the entire engine has broken down,' said Frank Marino, a spokesman for the New York Real Estate Board, which represents the developers.

Either way, the new law will not be able to solve Zhou Manjian's problem. An immigrant from China's Fujian province , Mr Zhou lives with his wife, and eight other family members in a two-bedroom apartment in Chinatown that costs US$1,100 a month.

In recent months, his landlord has frequently been cutting off the electricity and hot water, and filed a lawsuit after failing to persuade them to move out. 'He could double the rent if I move out, but I have nowhere to go,' Mr Zhou said.