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City of empty suites

New York considers a big tax on expensive, unoccupied condos

City of empty suites

A 10,000-square-foot penthouse on Fifth Avenue in New York. (Robert Wright/The New York Times/Redux)

A New York moment:

A friend of mine works in the construction industry here and has taken me to top penthouse apartments during construction, the ones with price tags north of $50 million. Any price tag over my monthly rent invoice makes my eyes glaze over, and sometimes even the rent bill does that. 

Unfinished, these apartments are still gorgeous, with spectacular views that make you feel like an emperor. Often the people who end up buying them—bogglingly—don’t live in New York full time, and merely add this piece of real estate to their wealth portfolio. Some don’t live in New York at all. 

Wealthy sections of Tribeca, for example, can feel like ghost towns on the weekends, when most New York neighborhoods are hives of locals out running errands. Many of the apartments there are just investments, places for the incomprehensibly wealthy from China and Russia to park their money. Sometimes those foreign buyers use shell companies to hide illicit wealth. 

Now New York is considering a “pied-à-terre” property tax on those super expensive condos where owners aren’t residents of New York—essentially, an “empty house” tax. The Wall Street Journal did an analysis and concluded the tax could cut the value of these high-end apartments by as much as half. Pardon me if I don’t shed too many tears for the nonresident wealthy who leave neighborhoods empty in a place where housing is the hardest to find, especially as I gird my loins to pay New York City taxes. 

Worth your time:  

In light of the sad news about the suicides of two survivors of the Parkland school shooting as well as of the father of a Sandy Hook victim, there is this 2015 piece by Eli Saslow about a teenager who was shot but survived a mass shooting and struggled with, essentially, post-traumatic stress. It’s a tough, intimate story (and there are curse words), but it’s one of the better pieces of reporting and writing I’ve come across. 

I covered the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, when a gunman murdered 20 first-graders and six of their teachers and administrators. I have no idea how parents have lived with the weight of grief after all the cameras and support ebbed away. Even people a degree removed from the tragedy, like one pastor of Walnut Hill Community Church where five families lost children in the shooting, couldn’t sleep afterward. I remember President Barack Obama speaking to the families, reading 2 Corinthians 5:1: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” 

This week I learned: 

Museums are starting to turn down millions of dollars in donations from the Sackler family, whose Purdue Pharma is now facing lawsuits for allegedly spurring the opioid crisis. 

A court case you might not know about: 

The Journal offers a good overview of four major criminal justice cases the U.S. Supreme Court just agreed to review in its next term, considering questions about issues such as the insanity defense. I didn’t know until reading this article that there is still a state in the union—Oregon—that allows criminal conviction on a 10-2 jury vote. Every other state requires unanimous juries to convict. 

Culture I am consuming: 

A series of 2-3 minute animated videos from a French-Iraqi journalist depicts life in Iraq when he was a boy—eating apricot ice cream in Baghdad and asking his father about his imprisonment by the Saddam Hussein regime. The animation is beautiful.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org