Even Homeowners Don’t Have It So Good Anymore

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Lately, it seems that every time I’m around a critical mass of people in their mid-to-late twenties (this is most of the time), talk inevitably turns to how the hell anyone’s supposed to keep living in New York ten, twenty years down the road. The assumption, generally, is that you can’t, and I find myself thinking that if I could just get my hands on some property, even something small, I’d have my foot in the door and the ball would start rolling on all my other hypothetical investment opportunities. But the 2014 economy being what it is, even owning a house in one of the most lucrative real estate markets in the world is no guarantee you’ll be able to cover the basics. Things like your own heat.

In a thoughtful piece by the always-excellent Ginia Bellafante, the Times highlights a growing subset of New Yorkers who own coveted homes here but still struggle to make ends meet. As a result, they’re turning to the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) for help paying heating bills that have been particularly astronomical this winter (the Polar Vortex has been kind to no one). Thanks to a particularly harsh winter, the federal government just released an additional $454 million to the program, which has otherwise seen major funding cuts over the past several years (from $524 million in 2010 to $350 million in 2013, for instance). Nearly 750,000 HEAP payments have been issued this winter alone.

Most of the people interviewed declined to give their names “out of an overwhelming feeling of shame” but their stories are all bear the kind of heartbreaking details that pass as predictable these days—freelance work dried up after the 2008 crash, extra expenses for the care of a special needs child, a widow in her 70s who can no longer find work as an office administrator. Bellafante puts it best:

“Even if you don’t tend toward an Ayn Randian view of things, it seems legitimate to ask why, under these sorts of circumstances, someone might not choose to cash out and move to Miami. At the same time, you cannot forge public policy on the deranged notion that the struggling simply evacuate.”

Of course, that “deranged notion” defined much of Bloomberg-era policy, and perhaps shouldn’t be seen as anything so surprising for a market in which homeowners need community advocates just to avoid getting muscled out of their own properties. It’s encouraging to see that the program’s been given extra funding in response to special circumstances—this is what public servants are supposed to be doing for us—but also, a jarring reminder of the economic instability now faced by all but the very wealthiest New Yorkers.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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