Gay Marriage: A Manhattan Real Estate Blessing in Disguise?

Rainbow over Manhattan skylineIn June of this year, the New York State Legislature legalized gay marriage, ending a decades-long fight over marriage equality and making New York the sixth state to have gender-neutral marriage (we’ll avoid dealing with the California situation for now). In terms of real estate, this is actually an interesting and promising development, especially when considering the long history that this small, yet powerful, demographic has had in terms of development, gentrification, and neighborhood revitalization. Further, the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in America’s largest city means that many couples will move to New York, in most cases Manhattan, bringing with them significant disposable income and a need for luxury housing on this already heavily-populated island.

The importance of gay people, particularly gay men, in 20th century real estate cannot be underestimated. In the 1970s and 1980s, a time during which homosexuality became more publicly visible, gay men, like arists, flocked to neighborhoods in search of a grittier, more organic New York, in part seeking low-rent buildings but also as a means of starting anew, away from a society in which their lifestyle would not be fully accepted. Many of the neighborhoods that gay men helped revitalize -- SoHo, the Meatpacking District, and Chelsea -- are now some of the most sought-after in Manhattan. Other factors, including the lack of legal recognition and protection in the areas of employment and marriage, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of households with same-sex couples being childless and thereby not necessitating the need for good public schools, made these prime targets for urban pioneering.

Interestingly, the media was keenly aware of the role that gays played in gentrification. A 1997 New York Magazine article about the rapid influx of young professionals, artists, and gay men in the Meatpacking District noted that the presence of latter created a burgeoning nightlife scene as well as a relatively bold statement: “Greenwich Village is creeping from the east. Chelsea is coming south. They’d love this to turn into a new SoHo.” An allusion to neighborhoods that have and in many ways still are centers of the gay community in Manhattan, their popularity has made them incredibly desirable and some of the most vibrant in the city. The lofts, brownstones, corner stores, and cobblestone streets of these neighborhoods conceal a great deal of history relating to bohemian migration and gentrification in Manhattan, standing as the archetypes of rapid increases in real estate prices, historic preservation, and overall good urbanism, all of which are attributable in many ways to the efforts of their gay residents.

From these neighborhoods, we can see a clear pattern: where the gays and artists go, property values are almost certain to go up, businesses will move in, and another new place will be considered “trendy,” and the number of condos for sale and overall housing units is sure to rapidly increase. Using Census data, a map of same-sex households shows that Chelsea and the West Village still contain the highest percentage of these couples by census tract, with a growing number in Clinton and Midtown West, pushing neighborhood development northward. The only truly trendy area of Manhattan without a significant gay population is the Lower East Side, in part due to the area’s housing stock and characterization as an immigrant area with a smattering of boutiques and bars along narrow streets.

With the gay population of New York City set to increase dramatically as gay marriages are now performed, it seems only inevitable that the processes that have led to so many Manhattan neighborhoods becoming hot spots in a city experiencing a renaissance on a scale never seen before. As the search for affordable luxury continues, these is little doubt in our minds that soon enough somewhere else on Manhattan will become the next “it” neighborhood, in part due to the simplification of tax and home ownership structure for same-sex couples who, like their artist counterparts, always seem to be in on what’s hot earlier than everyone else, perhaps because they’re the ones setting the trends.