tv Moyers Company PBS December 14, 2014 12:30am-1:01am PST
this week on "moyers & company" -- the long, dark shadows of plutocracy. >> these buildings are a whole new level of super, super luxury condo. >> blotting out the sunshine in the premier park. where was the outcry? >> housing is a right! >> if we don't get together and do something, we'll be left with a city that's only accessible to millionaires and billionaires. >> announcer: funding is provided by -- anne gumowitz, encouraging the renewal of democracy. carnegie corporation of new york, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement and the advancement of international peace and security at carnegie.org. the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.
the herb alpert foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society. the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information at macfound.org. park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the kohlberg foundation. barbara g. fleischman. and by our sole corporate sponsor, mutual of america, designing customized individual and group retirement products. that's why we're your retirement company. welcome. let's talk one more time about why inequality matters. some people say it doesn't, but they're living in an ideological fairyland on the far side of the looking glass. in the real world, inequality is a deep and divisive force. we see that politically all the time, as the rich buy elections and then shape the laws to their advantage.
but in this episode, let's look at just one of the basic needs of life affected by inequality -- a place to live. across our country, millions of people of ordinary means can't afford decent housing. in new jersey, just on the other side of the hudson river from where i'm sitting, three out of five renters can't afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rates. and across the continent in san francisco, residents, including many from an anguished middle class, have taken to the streets to protest the narcissistic capitalism of silicon valley that provides an elite few with what they want instead of the many with what they need. we could continue city by city, state by state, because among our largest, richest 20 metro areas, less than 50 percent of the homes are affordable. less than 50 percent. here where i live in new york city, inequality in housing has reached dickensian dimensions.
the middle class is being squeezed to the edge as the rich drive up real estate values and the working poor are shoved farther into squalor. as you will see in this report, the skyline of new york is a physical reminder of how wealth and power get their way without regard for the impact on the lives and neighborhoods of everyday people. so this is a story about how inequality matters, but it's also a reflection of radical change in america, as the dark shadow of plutocracy falls across all things public. >> i'm a park user. i come to central park several times a week and ride my bike around the loop. in the fall of 2012, i was at the heckscher playground on the southern end of central park with my daughter, and suddenly
it got sort of dark and cool, and people started packing up and heading home. and it seemed sort of odd because it was a clear day. and i looked up and realized that the sun had gone behind that big tower i'd seen a few months before, going up. >> this is what warren st. john saw, a skyscraper, climbing high above the park in the heart of manhattan. >> didn't think much about it until the following spring when i was at a playground on 72nd street and fifth avenue, nearly a mile north, and the same thing happened. and i looked up, and it was a shadow from the same building. and it had stretched three-quarters of a mile north across the park. and i thought to myself, how'd that happen? >> new yorkers aren't easy to startle, but, like st. john, many of us have been stunned to learn that the tower casting those shadows across the children's playground is the vanguard of more to come. a line of gated castles is forming along the southern rim
of central park, staking a privileged claim to the space, sky and sun long shared by all. this building is the first, marketed as one57, ninety stories tall on west 57th street. the noted architectural critic paul goldberger could hardly believe his eyes. >> the very top floor is the most unbelievable view you've ever seen, but it's a view from an airplane really. you're completely disconnected from the sidewalk. >> a private city in the sky for the rich, the very, very rich. as goldberger wrote, "if you seek a symbol of income inequality, look no farther than 57th street." >> they're mostly the international super rich. it's a whole category of people. most people are living there part time and have other residences either in this
region or elsewhere in the u.s. or elsewhere in the world or all of the above. and they're people who can afford to spend $10 million, between million, $20 million, $30 million on an apartment. >> extell has become new york's premier developer. >> the penthouse apartment is under contract for a reported $90 million. the hedge fund tycoon behind the deal told "the new york times" he thought it would be fun to own the mona lisa of apartments, although he has no intention of living there. >> a company with integrity, roots, and destiny. >> there's a prominent real estate appraiser in new york who referred to these buildings as safe deposit boxes in the sky, places where people put cash and they rarely visit themselves. >> so think of them as plush swiss banks with maid service for people who, as one critic wrote, "see the city as their private snow globe."
when this building, 432 park avenue, is finished next year, it will surpass even one57, climbing 150 feet taller than the empire state building before its spire. no pharaoh ever dreamed on so grand a scale. each tower is a feat of technological, economic and political engineering, promoted to the very rich as the very best. >> this is not an abstract thing like an office tower, but this is dwellings. >> their famous architects do the pitching. >> glass its own color. >> designers tout the costly interiors. >> one of my favorite moments in the kitchen is the very long counter of solid marble framed against the window. >> as you move up in the building -- >> and they welcome media coverage of every opulent detail. >> so higher in the building you have this statuary white marble. it's important to note that it's in very large slabs.
this really communicates a level of luxury. >> there's an unwritten rule in new york city -- don't get between a grasping developer and the sky. you could wind up cantilevered. like the historic art students league on west 57th. built in the 1890s, it was landmarked to prevent its destruction. but extell bought the air rights above for $23 million and will build its nordstrom tower there, raising the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere. >> people have never lived that high, certainly not in new york and pretty much anywhere really. a whole new kind of skyscraper, a whole new kind of way of living for new york in this super tall, super thin building. >> from way up there, central park will appear to the super rich as a sparkling little jewel of nature sewn into a tapestry created for their eyes only.
but, as the towers intercept the light from the sun, their shadows fall further and further across the park, like alien intruders stalking their prey. >> it was quite chilling to see how far north into the park these shadows would go. well over a mile in some cases. they stretch at an angle to the east across the park elongating, of course, as the sun sets. and they truly alter the feeling of some of the premier spaces in the park. >> if new york city has a commons, it is here, central park, eight hundred acres designed in the 19th century by calvert vaux and frederick law olmsted. >> i think central park is the thing that frederick law olmsted
hoped it would be. it is a great democratic meeting place where people from every walk of life are welcome, where they mingle together, where people relax, where people get exercise, where people play sports together, where people read books and paint and wander and think and unwind. >> going about the small pleasures of life, unaware that billionaires' row is about to further slice up the light from above. >> any one building, okay. it's a changing city. that's great. but a sort of picket fence of super towers along the southern end of the park in aggregate really changes the way the park feels for many months of the year. why didn't people make a stink out of this? this is blotting out the sunshine in the premier park certainly in new york city,
maybe the world. where was the outcry? >> there was an outcry in the 1980s when the park was also threatened by overbearing developers. warren st. john had just arrived in the city as a college student. >> one of the first big civic actions that i heard about was an umbrella protest in central park organized by jacqueline onassis and others. and they were protesting a building that was going up on columbus circle that was going to throw a big shadow across central park. a thousand people showed up with umbrellas to form the line that the shadow would form. >> my wife judith and i raised our umbrellas and joined the line of neighbors from all around the park. jackie o.'s stature, combined with people power, caused the developer to back off and scale down the height of his new building. still big but casting less of a monstrous shadow across the park. now, with the park again under siege, a new spirit of protest is growing. earlier this year, more than
400 people turned out for this community board meeting. they called for new zoning and for limiting the height of luxury buildings around central park. warren st. john was there. >> but in the short term what we need is a moratorium of buildings over a specific height in the park to protect the park. >> the president of extell, gary barnett, was also there. he dismissed people's complaints and scoffed at their numbers. >> so let's keep it in context. the actual shadows here are not a threat to the park. it's a tiny amount of any new yorkers, for sure, that are going to grumble about it. >> perhaps from billionaires' row other human beings down below are hardly worth noting. but taking the light from 40 million people, the number who visited the park last year, seems more than a tiny offense. >> this is a park used by millions upon millions of people, and to have it impacted by a developer for a relative
handful of units and to make a great profit for himself, seems to me that we probably should have had a discussion about that. >> in defending his claim on the sky and light around the park for luxury towers, the developer accused dissenters of demonizing the rich. "if we drive away a pool of ready buyers at luxury prices," he wrote, "some of these buildings will not get built at all. we need a balanced approach if we don't want to injure or kill the goose that lays the golden egg." he had on his side outgoing mayor michael bloomberg, himself a billionaire 34 times over. bloomberg had spent three terms rolling out the red carpet for the richest of the rich. >> that's our tax base. if we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend because that's where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else. >> but the mayor left something out.
the super rich who buy those opulent apartments and live in new york city less than half the year will pay no city income tax at all. >> and while those people still contribute in other ways to the city's economy, i'm sure they go out to expensive restaurants and buy theatre tickets and shop in fancy stores and do all those things, you only pay income tax if you're a resident. and they're not. >> which means the fabulously rich, high above the city, will be contributing no income taxes to support the public servants who make it work far below, transit workers and teachers or the firemen and police who rushed to one57 when hurricane sandy tipped its construction crane and set it dangling dangerously over midtown, shutting down one of the busiest streets in the city for a week. the owners of one57's apartments will not be paying their full share of property taxes either, thanks to a dodgy deal slipped into a housing bill by state senator martin golden and other legislators in albany.
>> it's the normal bill that we do every several years to give our condos and co-ops the tax abatements that they get and that they require. >> normal? what senator golden is really doing is carving out a tax break for five luxury properties, including extell's one57. state senator liz krueger called him out on it. >> this bill, as i said, has some important things in it, but it's also a perfect example of what goes wrong in the wheeling dealing of the backrooms of albany. >> in exchange for the developer putting $5.9 million into affordable housing in the bronx, pocket change given the prices on billionaires' row, those wealthy pied-à-terre buyers could get as much as $35 million in tax breaks. >> an example in a recent news story was a $90 million
13,554 square foot penthouse, and, with 421a exemption allowed in this bill, their taxes per year would be $20,000. if they were not rolled into this legislation, their taxes would be $230,000. >> let's hear that again. >> their taxes per year would be $20,000. if they were not rolled into this legislation, their taxes would be $230,000. >> a tax break of $210,000 a year for living there, four times the median income in new york city. >> i don't think that's what any of us were talking about when we endorsed the expansion and extension of property tax exemptions that the city of new york gives out. >> yet the senate approves it. >> the bill is passed. >> and the assembly follows suit.
>> the bill is passed. >> but the story doesn't end there. >> we started doing a little bit of digging. >> jaron benjamin led the nonprofit metropolitan council on housing, an advocate for low-income tenants. >> and we noticed that the same five developers that got this very unusual carve-out to receive tax abatements for a program that was defunct also contributed mightily to the governor and other state elected officials. >> the group's report tax breaks for billionaires prompted reporters for "the new york daily news" to hit the money trail. they found corporations llcs affiliated with extell development had donated $100,000 to governor andrew cuomo's campaign two days before he signed the bill. other real estate investors sweetened the pot. and when a commission appointed by the governor to investigate corruption got too close to the real estate industry, he blocked it. then he pulled the plug. a feat of wondrous political engineering.
>> the real estate industry here in new york city is like the oil industry in texas. they outspend everybody. they often have a much better relationship with elected officials than everyday new yorkers do. while there was affordable housing built in the last 12 years under mayor bloomberg, that affordable housing was not built for certain people. for example, if you were a family of four that earned between $26,000 a year and $42,000 a year. so think of a single mom with three kids who works as an administrative assistant. there were basically no affordable apartments constructed over the last 12 years for that family. that really sent a message as to who this city wanted. you know, this city did not want regular working people, which is a real shame because that's who makes new york city great. >> as billionaires' row keeps rising, so does the cost of living, driving more and more people elsewhere. >> we're going to use every tool
of this city government in ways more aggressive than ever attempted in the past to protect the interests of our people and make sure that every kind of person can live in new york city. >> but as mayor bill de blasio promises at least 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next ten years, affordable housing advocates protest it's not enough. >> fight, fight, fight! housing is a right! >> we're asking that any new development, any new skyscrapers that are built with tax abatements that come out of our pockets, have at least 50% affordable housing in them. >> the developers know how to play every angle of this game, and we as a city and state have been less than aggressive in forcing them to do more. it can't be, we give you the store, and then you give us like a few cans in the aisle. it has to be, if we're going to
give you opportunities to make millions and zillions of dollars, in return, you have to give us a good number of affordable housing. the march here was for 50% affordable, and i think in many cases i think that's quite reasonable. >> affordable housing should be something that a person who's making $40,000 or less can afford to pay their rent without a subsidy and without forgoing dinner. >> what do we want? >> affordable housing! >> that's affordable housing. and we have a lot of people who work hard, day in, day out, 40 hours a week, and they still can't afford a apartment here in new york city. >> fight, fight, fight! housing is a right! >> if we don't get together and do something, we'll be left with a city that's only accessible to millionaires and billionaires, which would be quite a shame. forget about the statue of liberty. forget about ellis island. forget about the idea of everybody being welcome here in new york city. this will be a city only for rich people. >> at its root, this is about
some luxury dwelling places for a relative handful of people, many of whom don't even live in this country, and they're impacting a park used by 40 million people from around the world every year. that seems to me out of whack so we're going to make noise until we get somewhere. >> the internationalization of new york once meant something actually kind of exotic and exciting and enhanced our diversity. today, internationalization at least on west 57th street and east 57th street and all around midtown manhattan seems to symbolize not diversity but a kind of exclusivity and an end to the sense that we're all in it together, which is the key urban idea. we all meet each other on the sidewalk. we all meet each other in public places. and the urban environment is the common ground that we all share.
>> tell us if you've seen some of these forces eroding the common ground where you live. perhaps like some of the people in our story, you're making your own voice heard. share these experiences at our website, billmoyers.com. coming up on "moyers & company," historian steve fraser. >> how are you going to get collective resistance if everybody dreams instead of their own individual ascent into the imperial realm of wealth and power? so it's kind of like a fable of democratic capitalism. that is, capitalism as a democracy of the audacious who will make it on their own. while, in fact, most of the people are headed in the opposite direction.
>> i'm bill moyers. i'll see you here next time. -- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com >> don't wait a week to get more moyers. visit billmoyers.com for exclusive blogs, essays and video features. >> funding i >> announcer: funding is provided by -- anne gumowitz, encouraging the renewal of democracy. carnegie corporation of new york, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement and the advancement of international peace and security at carnegie.org. the ford foundation, working
with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide. the herb alpert foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society. the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information at macfound.org. park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the kohlberg foundation. barbara g. fleischman. and by our sole corporate sponsor, mutual of america, designing customized individual and group retirement products. that's why we're your retirement company.
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