Coronavirus Diary (48): Reflections On Lockdown in Washington Heights

I got in the car the other day for what I think is the third time in the last four weeks. I had “essential business” to conduct in New York, so I drove from Readington, New Jersey, where I live, to Washington Heights in Manhattan. I spent a tedious afternoon in Washington Heights engaged in “essential business,” then headed back home, a round trip of about 110 miles.

Despite the dramatic photos you may have seen of deserted stretches of roadway across the country, I have yet to see a genuinely abandoned road anywhere that I’ve driven in north Jersey, to say nothing of Manhattan. Traffic’s been light, but there’s been a constant stream of traffic on every road I’ve traveled. Precisely because traffic’s been light, people seem to be driving worse than they usually do–speeding, cutting one another off, etc. etc. Unsurprisingly, I saw two traffic accidents on the way home from the city, both on I-80 in New Jersey, somewhere between Paterson and Parsippany. Both involved several cars and several participants, all of whom seemed to be milling about on the shoulder, totally indifferent to considerations of social distancing. Unclear whether there were any injuries, but a rescue squad was dutifully parked at one of the accident scenes, useless for any other purpose.

I live in a semi-rural part of New Jersey where social distancing is easy enough to practice, except in the grocery store, where, once you get to the check-out counter, it can become difficult. Perhaps that explains why grocery stores in the area have so many job openings. Don’t confuse the unemployment rate with the availability of jobs, by the way: not the same thing. Technically, the current unemployment rate is low; obviously, that’s about to change fairly soon. That said, it doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that even with an imminently sky-high unemployment rate, there are no jobs out there to be had. There are; it’s just that the basic requirement common to all of them is the willingness to spend the day potentially exposed to asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. I guess that shouldn’t be so difficult if you’re otherwise willing to downplay the hazards involved, as some are.

Though not quite impossible, social distancing is very difficult to practice in Washington Heights. It was a nice day when I went, so people were out and about. Because they were, the sidewalks were crowded. Because the sidewalks are rather narrow, social distancing was difficult. To pull it off, you had to be ready to jump into the street to avoid someone walking your way. But the streets themselves are narrow, and traffic flow in them is constant, so that wasn’t easy, either. It’s no accident that Washington Heights has been a major casualty of the pandemic.

I can see why, cooped up in an urban apartment, people would want the freedom to get out into the streets and the parks. I could also see how, if the pandemic had gotten bad enough to threaten the existence or integrity of the city’s health care system worse than it did, it might have made sense to do as the Italians did, and force most people to remain inside most of the time (which is not the case in New York City).

Mercifully, we seem (for now) to be past the peak of the first outbreak in New York City, so there’s no need for such drastic measures. But time spent in a neighborhood like Washington Heights will convince you of the very real possibility, under different circumstances, of the need for a fuller lockdown. If you haven’t lived there, or in a neighborhood like it, it may be hard to imagine why that would be so. But if you have lived there, or spent any appreciable amount of time there, it’s patently obvious.


Cabrini Boulevard, Washington Heights, Manhattan; photo: Irfan Khawaja

Suffice it to say that I went to the city to play a bit part in a landlord-tenant-roommate  dispute over social distancing, a lease violation, and the would-be tenancy of a convicted felon newly-released from correctional supervision (long story). Few people in New York City can afford to live there without roommates, but roommates bear an odd relationship to one another–not quite friends, and not quite business partners, but something sui generisAs many people have noted, such circumstances are fertile ground for ethical conundrums.

The primary question is how roommates are to relate to one another under conditions like, well, a pandemic. Whose conception of social distancing and decontamination prevails in shared space that neither roommate owns? Ex hypothesi, the owner doesn’t want to get involved in setting the rules or resolving disputes, so forget about getting help from him. Contrary to all of the rhetoric you may have heard, Coase’s Theorem is not exactly helpful either; efficiency considerations aside, “following” the theorem  (whatever that really means) doesn’t necessarily yield a morally optimal outcome, not that it was supposed to. Assiduous study of Garrett Hardin on the tragedy of the commons may tell you how things could have been worse, but doesn’t tell you how to make them any better. No, you’re not in a “tragedy of the commons”; you’re in the tragic-comedy of the dysfunctional roommate situation. But labeling a problem doesn’t solve it.

Coase got one thing right: when property disputes arise, yes, some arrangement ends up prevailing. Hardin got one thing right, too: yes, things are easier under conditions of private ownership than a commons. But it remains difficult, even as a neutral third party, to adjudicate a dispute between disputing tenants who have different and apparently incommensurable conceptions of COVID-19 fairness. Try it sometime if you don’t believe me. Don’t forget your mask. You’ll need it to sweat in, and talk through  while people ignore you. (Granted, the only practical suggestion I offered was to rename the Wifi password “Tulsi,” which was derided by some and flatly ignored by others.)

One last point. It’s easy to understand why, under prevailing circumstances, there’s been widespread support for a rent freeze, for a rent bailout, and for a ban on eviction proceedings. In principle, I support such measures myself.* But it’s also morally lazy to assume a priori that in any dispute between renters and landlords, renters are always right and landlords always wrong. I don’t say this because I am a landlord; I’m not (never have been, and inshallah, never will be). I say it because I’ve seen both sides of the equation at close proximity, having rented for decades, having dealt with my fair share of Satanic fellow renters, but also knowing at least a handful of “petty landlords” (to use neo-Marxist argot I learned from Jacobin) who’ve had to deal with tenants-from-hell. To paraphrase an apocryphal saying of Winston Churchill’s, when you get tenants from hell, keep them going.

Anyone who thinks it obvious that tenants are always right and landlords always wrong should ask themselves what they’d do with a tenant months in arrears on the rent who decided to take advantage of the prevailing chaos, decided to squat indefinitely in an apartment, and then decided to move a furloughed or just-recently-paroled felon into the apartment in defiance of the terms of the lease. Obvious that an eviction freeze is such a wonderful thing in these circumstances? Obvious that all tenants support it?

Not to me. It seems to have escaped attention that there are times when tenants want evictions more ardently than landlords, and that one problem with a lot of landlords is their professed (or tacit) indifference to that desire. There are landlords who are eviction-happy, but then there are landlords who won’t initiate eviction proceedings against criminal or semi-criminal tenants. And then there are criminal tenants.

These facts, obvious to anyone who’s spent extended time renting an apartment, don’t seem to be obvious to ideologues (mostly on the left) who perpetually seem to insist that rental housing be run like a charity, or perpetually assume that landlords everywhere are fat-cats swimming in cash. I have no dog in the class war between tenants and landlords generally: I’ve seen the best and worst of both. All I can say is that I spent (or wasted) an afternoon as observer to such a dispute the other day, and the cliche scenario of Dickensian landlord versus Victor Hugo-esque tenant was a far cry from what I saw.

So there you have it, for whatever it’s worth: random reflections under lockdown from Washington Heights. Make of them what you will.

*In New Jersey, at least, there’s one for residential mortgages, as well. And the SALT deduction is a major political issue here for homeowners. So, yeah, shed a few tears for homeowners, but don’t overdo it.

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