When I applied for my 80/20 apartment in Battery Park City, I was 19 years old, working part-time, and living with my parents in Lower Manhattan, where I grew up. Now I'm all grown up, and still living as a "20 percenter" among the 80 percenters. And now that I'm a mom, the difference between us and them is even more palpable.
Fifteen years ago I was lucky enough to snag one of the lower income apartments in a high-end Battery Park building. Now, that same 500-square-foot apartment is home to me, my husband and our baby.
I felt the sting of income inequality before but it was more superficial and fleeting. I could afford nice things and extravagant vacations—maybe not as often or as wild as my neighbors, but pretty close. I certainly didn't hesitate to treat myself.
But the more time I spend with the affluent moms all around me, the more I worry about giving my daughter the same luxuries as her little friends—not to mention basics like her own room which she doesn't have yet—like music and language classes. It isn't just about looking like I fit in with the "80's" by wearing expensive shoes or taking exotic vacations. It's about giving my child what she needs to thrive.
Since having my daughter I've found Battery Park City ideal for parents. We have generous parks and landscaped outdoor spaces, amazing views of the Hudson River, and close proximity to most train lines. But those perks do not come cheap. The average rental is nearly $6,000 a month and the average condo or co-op is over $1.7 million.
My 80/20 apartment, on the other hand, is still way under market rate, which allows us to stay here. When I moved in the rent was around $500 per month; now we pay around $800. And because of it, I've been able to take a year off of work and we've lived on my husband's salary alone.
At first, my year off sounded like a fantasy and I was excited to join the ranks of the stroller brigade. I could spend time with my daughter, get to know other moms, and watch our kids grow together.
Several of my friends have had to rush right back to work after having kids, often because their rents were so high they had no choice. Nearly all wished they could spend more time at home. And the reality was that after childcare costs, I wouldn't be bringing that much more money home even if I went back to work full time.
But being home all day means interacting with the other moms a lot. It has made me hyper-aware of my own finances (or lack thereof). This feeling isn’t unique of course—I'm sure everyone who struggles to make rent feels left out and at times a bit envious of the few who can afford to live in palatial lofts and dine at the best restaurants. But here it's in my face all the time, both because I'm around during the day more and have so much face-time with affluent mothers, and because Battery Park City just keeps getting more upscale.
When I stroll my child past massive yachts docked at the marina in the financial center or see boxes of grape tomatoes at Le District in Brookfield Place for $8.99 (!), I realize just how far I am from my neighbors. I joke that it should be called BROKEfield Place because lunch for two at the luxury food-court costs more than my utility bill.
Down here kids all seem have the newest, coolest, most expensive everything. The neighborhood Shake Shack is filled with pre-teens balancing on $600 futuristic scooters. The "80 percent" moms roll up in their $2,000 strollers, and include me on email chains about Montessori schools, nursery decor, and $600 music classes for our infants.( At this age, my daughter would sooner chew on the guitar than strum it, and her
“nursery” is my bedroom.)
And practically all of my fellow stay-at-home moms have nannies. Nannies even solicit me in the park, in my lobby and in the Brookfield Place asking if I need childcare. If only they knew I am an "20" not an "80."
Another huge reminder of our 20-percenter status is laundry. When you have kids your laundry seems to double and it seems like I'm the only one dragging laundry bags back and forth from the machines to my apartment rather than to the concierge for professional laundry service pick-up and delivery. I might as well be wearing a sign.
Signing for packages feels a little awkward, too. We order our wipes and diapers from big box stores because they're the cheapest. I'm signing for Target boxes but the 80-percenter mom waiting behind me gets the wildly expensive Honest Company baby supplies delivered regularly.
We do make a decent income—once you are approved for the 80/20 program the income parameters are more flexible. A couple can make $100,000 per year and still qualify for their apartment. But our decent income is certainly not close to the income levels of most Battery Park City residents around us.
And when you take into account weekly shopping trips at the local Whole Foods, occasional lunches at Hudson Eats, and date nights at Tiny’s, places we used to frequent without thinking much about it pre-baby, we’ve maxed out our budget.
Sure, the solution for us might be to shop at a cheaper grocery store (maybe in another borough?), not to eat at places like Brookfield Place, and to forget date night altogether. But it's a shame to live in a neighborhood and not be able to take advantage of any of its services and conveniences. (It's an experience, yes, that many others in this city can speak to, unfortunately.)
This summer, I met a few moms in the park and instantly felt like I was living a lie since I didn't disclose the details of my apartment. They all live in LEED-certified luxury buildings. Some of them work and some stay at home, but they are definitely all "80s."
At first they all think I, too, am an "80" because I can afford to stay-at-home. The confusion usually sets in when they find out my husband is a freelancer, not a financier. And if they delve deeper they really don’t understand how an artist can afford to live in Battery Park City with a wife and baby at home.
I try to avoid personal questions but wonder how can we connect and watch our kids grow together if we’re not honest and open? Does being a "20" in an "80" neighborhood mean forever living a lie (at least for the extent of the 80/20 program)?
Of course there are moms of modest means in the neighborhood—I even know a couple (but we were friends before we all moved to Battery Park City). Two friends of mine have multiple children and live in one-bedroom apartments converted into two-bedrooms.They may not be in my 20-percenter boat but they have the same worries about the neighborhood and sky-rocketing prices that I do.
All of the other moms I've met since moving to Battery Park City live in new upscale buildings and are not the types I'd share my little secret with. I frequent the local public library branch for baby story time in the hopes that I'll find more like-minded moms but it is mostly filled with nannies.
The "80" moms talk about local downtown pediatricians and indoor play spaces. I mention that our pediatrician is all the way uptown because we love them (not because they are the only ones who take our Marketplace health insurance), and I don’t belong to an indoor play club because I think they’re rife with bacteria and germs (not because I don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on classes).
The "80" moms offer to host playdates, but the problem is I can’t imagine having any one of them over to my place. Aside from the fact that our Ikea furniture is more dorm room than showroom, it would be hard to physically fit in our space since it quadruples as a home-office/dining-room/play-room/living-room. The "80" moms live in two and three-bedroom apartments with ample space for play since they don't have to make room to work from home.
And it feels like it's all just getting started. What will it be like once my kid starts elementary school, and my interactions with these moms increase even more?
I often wonder whether all this "20 percent" shame is an insecurity I should just get over, but my biggest fear is that these same people will treat me—or, worse, my child—differently. I know we should try and see exclusion from expensive activities as an opportunity to teach our daughter about values and enrich her in other ways. And of course we can take advantage of the incredible public libraries and free museums in New York.
The problem is something of perception. People often don't really understand the 80/20 program and assume we're "living off the dole." And, of course, those same people might resent the "hand out."
And even if I'm underestimating these women, and they really don't care how much money I do or don't have, it's not clear whether I'll ever feel comfortable knowing how vastly different our lifestyles are.
Giving your children everything they need to set them up for success is much harder for those of us with less money. We can't just rent a bigger apartment or buy all organic foods because our finances are limited. But rich or poor, parenting is hard work.
Despite the fact that Battery Park City is increasingly feeling like an 80-percenter's paradise, it is still home to this 20-percenter (and others, too, obviously). And aside from the hang-ups I have about income inequality, I am grateful for the 80/20 program because this first year with my child has been invaluable. It has given me time to process the world around me and helped me and my daughter grow.
But for now I'm off to Dry Bar for a blow-out to maintain my cover (just kidding).