It’s not your imagination. It really is getting harder for the middle class to survive — much less thrive — on Long Island, birthplace of the post-World War II suburb. So says a report released last week by the Long Island Association Research Institute based on the most recent available data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It’s a mirror with an accurate image,” LIA President Kevin Law said in an interview. And, as families struggling to hang on in Nassau and Suffolk can attest, the image is scary.
Long Island is situated better than many other parts of the nation, where, according to a report in December by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the middle already has fallen out of the middle class.
According to Pew, the 120.8 million adults in the middle class nationwide no longer are a majority because a larger number of adults — 121.3 million — now fall into the category of being rich, or being poor.
Despite the Pew figures, however, there remains reason for Long Islanders to feel the strain. If things don’t change, the region could see its middle class become the minority in another three decades.
How could this be happening? Some reasons are as obvious: High taxes, high utility costs and high costs for just about everything.
But for now, let’s isolate one nagging symptom, the region’s foreclosure rate.
On Long Island, a single-family house is the single-most coveted possession most families have. Yet, as participants at “Surviving the Real Zombie Apocalypse,” a symposium held at Newsday by the Suffolk County Landbank last week, that goal could be in danger of slipping away too.
Zombies — abandoned houses stuck in the foreclosure process — are scattered throughout every town, and in every kind of neighborhood, from the region’s wealthiest to its poorest. Many are in disrepair; some are occupied by squatters; and some are well maintained by owners who stopped paying mortgages years ago.
But there also are houses that look like every other one on the block — although they’re occupied by owners struggling to hang on to their home.
According to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, New York is No. 1 on its list of the top five states with “deeply delinquent loans” — mortgages left unpaid for up four years or more.
The numbers are declining, but eight years after the start of the housing loan crisis, the recovery remains slow. That’s true especially on Long Island, which came late to the Great Recession and lags the nation in recovering from it.
Add to that the impact of Superstorm Sandy, climate change, the region’s aging population and low paying jobs replacing higher pay ones. In the region, many households are one paycheck away from defaulting on the monthly mortgage payment. Then there’s the lack of affordable housing — for elders looking to downsize, and young professionals wanting to rent rather than buy. Can you see the image in the mirror fading?
Advocates say they’re seeing more elderly Long Islanders seeking foreclosure counseling — a we’ve yet to see the bulk of Baby Boomers with no defined pension plans.
“We know what we need to do to begin to turn this around,” said one panelist discussing “Foreclosure Prevention: Identifying Gaps in Services, Lessons Learned and New Tools.”
“We’ve got to get over ourselves,” the panelist said, by beginning to put aside the region’s tradition of fighting anything that challenges the idea of, well, post World War II suburbia.
Part of the solution, said Law, is implementing an economic development strategy tying education to high-paying jobs. “What has worked for us in the past is not going to work for us in the future,” Law said.