Paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth, month to month. All of these phrases evoke an uncertain living, but “month to month” elicits a special kind of anxiety for renters. Living month to month suggests you have no lease, no official document to protect you from the threat of eviction or a rent hike you can’t afford. Which gets at the heart of Jen Dalton and Bill Powhida’s latest project, MONTH2MONTH, a series of events that combine real estate, art and activism in eight New York City apartments.
“The name was chosen because the project events take place over the course of a month,” explained Dalton, “and also we were hoping to evoke the tenuous nature of most people’s economic situations.”
Beginning May 7 with a “housewarming party,” MONTH2MONTH will continue the ongoing dialogue of inequality and wealth disparity in New York City by inviting the public to discuss the city’s housing crisis—whether they’re affected by it or feel distanced from the issue—in luxury and affordable housing units that will be temporarily open to total strangers. The eight apartments hosting MONTH2MONTH range from a townhouse in Chelsea to an architect’s loft with an indoor pond to a tiny East Village apartment.
“It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination,” said Powhida, who has made his own affordable home one of the project sites. “It’s been a really delicate negotiation to get anyone to open up their home and share their space with the public.”
But with the help of project sponsor More Art, a nonprofit dedicated to funding public art projects with an eye toward social justice, Powhida and Dalton were able to secure the sites needed for MONTH2MONTH and hope to generate interest and involvement on two fronts: Through opening the available apartments to members of the public and through a month-long series of events and talks.
For the former, Powhida and Dalton recruited a small group of people through a housing lottery held last winter with the promise that those chosen would get a chance to spend four fully paid nights in any one of the apartments. Throughout their stay, these temporary residents will enjoy the high life, including free meals and a “curated lifestyle experience,” as well as participation in the many events centered around the project. All interested parties had to do was apply.
“It was patterned after the actual applications for affordable housing units in New York,” said Dalton.
About 60 people applied to be residents and eight were chosen in the lotteries,four4 residents for stays in “affordable” apartments andfour4 for stays in “luxury” apartments. Applicants who claimed to make more than $150,000 per year were directed to a second, optional page prompting them to upload private financial documents, an invasive process that the hundreds of thousands of people who apply for affordable housing each year are more than familiar with.
“It got really in the weeds,” said Dalton of the second application page. “In really small type at the bottom it says that you didn’t actually have to do this, but we hoped that it would spark a feeling.”
While the residents explore their new lives, non-residents are invited to take part in free events and talks that will be hosted in each of the residences throughout May.
The list of activities, held at 6pm every Saturday through Tuesday, is diverse and varied and includes such events as “A Dinner with Doormen,” “A Dinner with Housing Policy Experts and A Dinner with Developers & Real Estate Professionals,” where attendees are invited to wine and dine with the people closest to the city’s luxury housing stock. Or there’s “Gentrifiers Anonymous,” a live confessional where participants will discuss the ways in which they’ve contributed to the city’s gentrification epidemic, and “The Rent is Too Damn High So We Took Away Its Weed,” an experimental improv comedy show focused on questions of fictional housing (like Monica and Rachel’s apartment on Friends). Overall, there will 16 events to attend, all free with RSVP.
“I hope we’re able to bring together people who may not ever have a chance to meet in a social space where they can talk,” says Powhida. “And to keep it all in a social space that’s relaxed and honest and off-kilter and disarming, so it’s not just business as usual.”
And there’s no discounting the element of voyeurism involved in this project. After all, it is quintessentially New York to dwell on how the other half is living, whether it be in a luxury high-rise on Park Avenue or a covetable affordable housing unit.
“When you walk by the big windows and the townhouses in Chelsea or the brownstone blocks, we are all peering into them,” says Dalton. “We have this very prurient relationship and curiosity with how other people live.”
But more than giving curious onlookers a glimpse into homes they may never be able to afford, Dalton and Powhida want to explore how the art world, which is populated by struggling creatives dependent on well-to-do patrons, may have ultimately contributed to the current housing crisis. After all, it’s artists who are thought of as the harbingers of gentrification in formerly low-income neighborhoods like Bushwick and East Williamsburg.
“In general, artists are implicated in every gentrification story in this kind of awful colonial language,” Powhida continues. “And I hate to say it, but the goal is to continue to raise awareness about the issue and maybe to use art to push back against the way art is too often used: To sell real estate.”
MONTH2MONTH will kick off with a “housewarming party” on Sunday, May 7 at 6pm with more events scheduled throughout the month. For those unable to attend (the RSVPs for each event are limited to about 15-20 people), the events will be livestreamed on Youtube and on the project website. To learn more, visit month2month.nyc.