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‘We’re at War’: New York City Faces a Financial Abyss

The unemployment rate in New York City is 16 percent, twice as high as the rest of the country. Personal income tax revenue is expected to drop by $2 billion this fiscal year. Only a third of hotel rooms are occupied, and apartment vacancies in Manhattan have hit a peak.

New York, more than any large city in the world, has been forced to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak’s dual paths of devastation: The virus has killed 24,000 people in the city and has sapped it of hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue.

And even as the city has contained the spread of the virus, it has been unable to exert control over its threat to the economy.

Numerous economic indicators suggest that New York City will face an extended financial crisis, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1970s.

The city has already slashed spending to make up for billions of dollars in lost tax revenue, but it may lose billions more.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have repeatedly asked the Trump administration for help, but the president, a native New Yorker who openly scorns his city of birth, has instead threatened to cut its federal funding. Should he win re-election in November, it seems likely that the city will be forced to implement drastic layoffs and service cuts.

New York City may even be compelled to borrow just to keep everyday services running; the mayor has asked state leaders to grant the city the authority to do so. So far, the state has resisted.

Shootings are on the rise, some New Yorkers are fleeing for the suburbs, businesses are reconsidering their need for office space — structural changes reminiscent of those that preceded the city’s 1975 fiscal collapse, some budget hawks say.

“We’re on the verge of a tragedy,” said Richard Ravitch, the former state official who helped engineer the rescue of New York City’s finances in the 1970s and thinks this crisis is worse. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the city.”

The city has taken steps to address its existing $9 billion, two-year revenue shortfall, though Mr. Ravitch questions whether leaders are underestimating the problem. He advocates significant cuts and the establishment of a financial control board in the 1970s model.

The state, facing its own $14.5 billion revenue shortfall, is in no position to help. Governor Cuomo warned that without federal assistance, he would consider all options: “Taxes, cuts, borrowing, early retirement, all of the above,” he said earlier this month.

“And all of the above will not fill that hole,” he added.

The pandemic has forced New Yorkers to make fundamental changes in how and where they live and work and has deterred tourists from visiting the city, where many cultural and entertainment attractions remain closed. In the last year, the New York metropolitan region’s leisure and hospitality sector has lost 44 percent of its jobs, with a devastating effect on the city’s tax revenue.

“It’s clear there are going to be hits for years to come, you can’t deny that,” said Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s press secretary. “We’ve been calling for a stimulus, and Washington has done what they do, which is nothing.”

The three pillars of New York City’s revenue stream are sales, personal income and property taxes, and sales tax revenue was the first to show a concrete impact from the pandemic, dropping 35 percent in the second quarter and 15 percent year to date.

Along Manhattan’s major retail corridors, which once thrived on business from tourists and office workers, storefronts sit empty, as national chains abandon ship. Some New York retail institutions, like Brooks Brothers and Lord & Taylor, have declared bankruptcy; Century 21 was the latest to do so.

At the Flatiron Building, the landlord was so eager to keep a retail tenant in place that he offered the company free rent through the end of the year. The retailer, Estee Lauder’s MAC, declined, and the space is now empty.

Just 37 percent of hotel rooms were occupied in the second week of September compared with 90 percent in the same period of 2019, according to STR, a hospitality analytics firm.

In Manhattan, the apartment vacancy rate in August rose above 5 percent for the first time, the highest it has been in at least 14 years, according to a monthly market report from the brokerage Douglas Elliman. Reliable vacancy numbers for the other boroughs were not available.

With so many people unemployed or working remotely outside the city, many expect the city’s personal income tax to continue to wither in the coming months — a lagging indicator tied to quarterly tax filings.

Personal income tax withholding revenues have already taken a hit, dropping nearly 11 percent in August compared to the year prior — the fifth straight month of declines.

No one knows when a coronavirus vaccine will arrive, or how quickly it can be distributed. “The problem that all the public sector has is a very substantial cash problem, this year and next year. After that year, the world may be back together again, assuming there’s a vaccine in half a year,” said Robert W. Linn, the city’s former labor commissioner.

If the M.T.A.’s calamitous finances prompt it to cut subway and bus service by 40 percent, workers will either have to endure painfully long waits for uncomfortably crowded subways and buses or, if they have the means, drive cars on the city’s already congested roads.

And it seems likely that the governor will inevitably start sending cuts down to the city. “Ultimately, the state’s fiscal problems are our fiscal problems, whether as individuals in the form of higher taxes, or municipalities in the form of smaller aid,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, the director of New York City’s Independent Budget Office.

Deficit spending remains verboten among fiscal watchdogs traumatized by its starring role in New York City’s financial collapse of the 1970s. The city is also still paying down the more than $2 billion in deficit spending the state authorized after Sept. 11, to the tune of $150 million a year, according to the office of the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer.

“Think of it as a narcotic,” said Stephen Berger, who served as executive director of the New York State Emergency Financial Control Board in the 1970s. “It makes you feel good for a long while before you crash.”

Nonetheless, Mr. de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, gathered five state senators at Gracie Mansion on Aug. 20, and over Sicilian meatballs and polenta, the mayor urged them to help win state authorization for up to $5 billion in borrowing, to be repaid over 30 years.

For the first time, he told the senators, he was anticipating a united city front in the face of Albany intransigence: Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City Council, and Mr. Stringer would signal support.

The next week, Mr. Johnson co-signed a Daily News op-ed arguing for Albany to authorize deficit spending.

In a recent interview, Mr. Stringer said he supported deficit spending too, as long as it is part of a broad-based financial plan that includes efficiencies. He said that as comptroller, he would only give the borrowing his formal approval if those conditions were met.

“I think there’s a lot that we can do to manage those savings, draw down on reserves, and use borrowing as a bridge to a stimulus package that will get here hopefully sooner rather than later,” said Mr. Stringer, a candidate for mayor next year.

Supporters of Mr. de Blasio’s plan noted that New York State has already granted deficit spending authority to itself and to the M.T.A., which it controls, suggesting that the state’s reluctance to give the city the same authority was hypocritical. Moreover, the deficit spending that culminated in the 1970s fiscal crisis took place over the course of years, at a time when City Hall didn’t abide by modern accounting practices.

But it’s unclear whether deficit spending will actually solve any of the city’s problems, or merely delay the inevitable — 22,000 potential layoffs — while burdening future generations with onerous debt service payments.

Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, said that the mayor should have released far more detailed plans to address the looming budget nightmare by now.

“We’re not getting real about facing this crisis,” he said.

Of the three revenue stream pillars, the property tax is the most stable, with changes to property assessments phased in over several years. The soonest the city is likely to see any sort of impact to those levies is next year, though property tax delinquencies are already up and landlords are laying the groundwork to reduce payments by challenging their assessments.

What happens next is bound up in unanswered questions: Will New York City get federal aid? How many wealthy people will permanently leave New York City, taking their personal income tax revenue with them?

What does the now-proven success of telecommuting portend for New York City’s office space and, by extension, its property tax revenue?

The return to office work still seems far away: Only a quarter of major employers expect to bring their people back by the end of the year, and slightly more than half intend to return by next July, according to a new survey.

The Empire State Building has become a potent symbol of how the coronavirus pandemic has derailed the city’s economy.

From its brand-new observatory on the 102nd floor, breathtaking views of New York City abound, but visitors are few: On a recent weekday afternoon, the aerie was strangely abandoned, save for a lone, masked building worker.

The value of the company that owns the iconic skyscraper has fallen some 50 percent since the start of the year. On a recent earnings call, the chief executive of Empire State Realty Trust, Anthony E. Malkin, summed up the company’s challenge ahead.

“We’re at war,” he said.

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