It wasn’t only my personal experience of living in New York City, both as a precarious visiting researcher and an irredeemable big city lover, that persuaded me to write this book. It was also the realization that what I endured wasn’t that scary when compared with some of the horror stories I heard in the streets of New York: a single mother of four from the Rockaways who commutes over two hours each day to work as a clerk at a Gap downtown, a young guy living with his elderly family in a dark basement in Astoria, or the kind African American lady that was stuck in the homeless shelter in Bed- Stuy.
It was also the realization that this tough life is becoming the daily reality for innumerable friends and acquaintances of mine, who are striving to keep themselves afloat in big cities around the world, from London to San Francisco, from Paris to Milan, from Singapore to Dublin. Ironically enough, most of them could be called members of the fabled “creative class” celebrated by urban theorist and new- economy guru Richard Florida, yet very few of them seem to enjoy the fabulous lives of some of Florida’s “creatives” who earn their living in the world of finance, banking, or real estate. They are the broke adjunct professors on short- term contracts at CUNY, the hipster writers at VICE magazine, the penniless students living on a pack of future loans, the freelance software designers, the fashion photographers, the eternal trainees at architecture studios, the apprentice editors, and the self- employed journalists and graphic designers.
Many of them are trapped in low- paying jobs with no benefits or security, some have dropped health insurance altogether, and many need a second or even a third job to carry on. And this is happening in cities where the housing market has become scandalously unaffordable, and where finding a decent rental—not to mention buying a home—has become a pipe dream for most. The biggest irony of it all is that, from New York to London, from Sidney to Amsterdam, local politicians keep repeating that they are working hard on solutions to fix these problems: they all seem to have some plan up their sleeve that will provide affordable housing for those on low incomes, yet what we witness are more luxury condos piercing the skyline, and a housing market that keeps getting tighter and tighter. As naive as our elected officials may think we are, we have all become disenchanted enough to discern, as a Metropolis Magazine reporter puts it, that “solving a housing crisis by building penthouses would be like trying to solve an automobile shortage by manufacturing Bentleys.”2
We live in citadels of unimaginable wealth, surrounded by crumbling outskirts where a growing class of under- laborers (the minimum- wage clerks, runners, janitors— the so- called service economy that makes the other half of the city function) endures its daily struggle just to hang on. Meanwhile, once- working- class districts are revolutionized by studio galleries and vegan bistros, coffee shops and music clubs, farmers’ markets and gluten- free beer gardens, bike lanes and river walks— safe environments for a brand- new class of consumers, without the pesky vestiges of actual working- class people, who in the meantime have long been kicked to the curb. And this is a global phenomenon.
Take Berlin, for instance. The city has been branding itself to the world as the European capital of creativity and “coolness,” in an age where EU austerity measures have obliterated much of the economic vitality of spectacular cities like Madrid, Paris, and Milan. Berlin’s “poor but sexy” appeal has sold well for years, as the German capital managed to attract young professionals and broke bohemians in record numbers, while innumerable international headlines and TV reports kept celebrating it as the “European Capital of Cool.”3 But behind the hype, there is a less jubilant reality of rampant unemployment (the highest rate in Germany, with 30% of social scientists and 40% of artists being out of work in 20124) and welfare dependency. And if Berlin is poor, that doesn’t make it necessarily cheap, courtesy of an unprecedented influx of foreign buyers who, attracted by the sirens of real estate bargains, have been buying massive chunks of property all across the city, inflating a speculative housing bubble in a city where holiday rentals in certain areas have been outpacing legitimate leases.5
Finding a home in Berlin today has become a hopeless task for the hundreds of thousands of young self- employed and freelance workers who can’t show any evidence of a steady income, let alone a decent salary. At a typical open- house viewing you can find lines of potential renters coming from all over Europe, queuing all the way out the door till the end of the block. And it’s not uncommon to meet people in their 40s and 50s who are still living in shared flats.
Yet Berlin is a relative bargain compared to Paris. In the City of Love, common listings for rooms and apartments include barely legal (and definitely stretched) definitions of “habitable space,” so that if your budget is tight, you may go for a 60- square- foot “studio” whose toilet is in a cupboard that can be pulled out from under the kitchen sink. If you don’t mind sharing toilets with your neighbors, for around 500 euros you will find a chambre de bonne, a single room in the former maid’s quarter in the garret of some apartment building. Or, if you are lucky, you may find yourself a more charming 180- square- foot “loft” studio with a bunk bed for 900 euros plus utilities. In Paris, where rich Middle Eastern and Chinese buyers are now ousting the French from the housing market, even the upper middle classes are being priced out.
And don’t get me started on London. In the city where a 188- square- foot apartment (not much larger than a prison cell) can sell for £275,000, a car box in Highgate for £250,000, and a Knightsbridge apartment for £65 million, real estate insanity has become the norm. Even once- unfashionable outer neighborhoods have become unaffordable to the point that “families and young workers . . . looking to buy their first home, are leaving the capital in their droves to get on to the property ladder, forced out by high house prices.”6 The rental market here is so tight that apartment seekers are aware that any open- house viewing will turn into a bloody bidding war between applicants. In London, the urban legend of the man living in a broom cupboard is no urban legend at all. I found an actual such listing, in the Paddington area, for just £40 a week, the ad calling it a “loft conversion,” but noting that “you cannot stand upright in the room. . . . Ideally it would suit someone less than 5’4 tall and with no history of claustrophobia.”7
Not to mention San Francisco, the new US capital of insane housing prices, and home to the highest concentration of the global super- rich (those making over $30 million) of any city in the United States.8 Here, venture capitalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and tech- sector employees have been buying up the most desirable areas in a bidding frenzy for years, driving average rents near $3,500 a month for a one- bedroom apartment, and creating a housing market where most new construction consists of super- upscale condos, and where the median home price today is above $1.2 million.9 The deranged San Francisco housing market has unleashed viral BuzzFeed stories like “9 Private Islands That Cost Less Than an Apartment in San Francisco”10 or “5 Castles That Are Cheaper Than an Apartment in San Francisco”— if you are smart, you’ll sell that dull $985,000 one- bedroom condo in Nob Hill and buy yourself a 13- bedroom 20th- century palace with a pool in Spain for the same price.11 But if you are not a billionaire and really can’t stay away from the City by the Bay, you may be lucky enough to find a “contractor special” decrepit shack in the Outer Mission District selling for just $350,000.12 And if San Francisco prices are crazy, then prices in cities like Tokyo or Melbourne have long been in the asylum. And the list could go on.
Space is getting tight, courtesy of a new global population of super- rich consumers “whose real estate spending power has changed the game entirely,”13 and of local governments that are all too eager to oblige. This is what urban life is becoming for many of us, in a world where big cities are slowly becoming citadels of overpriced offshore properties where the absurdly rich love to park their cash, leaving very little space at hand for anyone else. And in this book I will show how this is not some unexplainable god-given plague like a heat wave or a locust invasion to punish us for our sins, but a man- made disaster— the result of very concrete urban policies that for years have been favoring the influx of a new, extra- national, super- wealthy class of citizens, for which governments and developers have devised brand- new glittering cities that are pushing the lower- , middle- , and sometimes even upper- middle- income classes out.
“If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend,” argued former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in an interview with New York Magazine.14 He sure isn’t the only one who thinks this way: the rapid, ruthless, corporate- style creative destruction I will describe in New York is happening in similar ways in all major cities around the globe, from London to Tokyo, from Hong Kong to Melbourne. Is the elite city to become the final destination of booming cities around the world? And are our neighborhoods destined to be trampled by multimillion- dollar safe- deposit boxes in the sky for the wealthiest global players?