Twenty bucks a month.

That’s how much my grandmother paid circa 1944 to rent a garden-level four-bedroom apartment on what was then-bucolic Fulton Avenue in the Bronx.

It’s a story my grandmother, who celebrates her 93rd birthday today, loves to tell. She was a World War II bride with a serviceman for a husband who needed to find them a home. Rents in Harlem, where she had grown up, were on the rise so she hopped aboard the Third Avenue El and rode the elevated subway line into the Bronx.

The $20 rent was so cheap that between my grandmother’s social worker income and my grandfather’s serviceman pay, rent accounted for about a quarter of their combined take-home pay.

My grandmother’s family feared it was some kind of joke. But the deal was legit.

“My sister Gloria thought it must be a scam and insisted on going back with me to the apartment that evening to see for herself,” my grandmother recalls with a laugh.

We are in her apartment watching the news when Occupy Wall Street becomes the topic of discussion. My grandmother disparages what she deems its anti-wealth message.

“Look at the type of clothes those people are wearing. Those people aren’t poor,” she says. “And we need rich people. Without the rich, we’d all be a lot poorer.”

The longtime Democrat and union member makes an argument often shared by many in the GOP: the rich must be taxed less to encourage them to build businesses and create jobs.

And innovators and business owners like the late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc., she says, deserve to be paid more than others and gain wealth.

“Should Jobs and the office clerk be paid the same?” she scoffs.

Of course not. While I am skeptical of the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy create jobs, I don’t disagree about rewarding innovation or greater risk taking with financial gain. The inventor/entrepreneur and the office clerk will more likely than not have vastly different levels of skill and education, with the entrepreneur undertaking far more financial and personal risk than the clerk.

But should the clerk be paid so little, or housing cost so much, that the clerk must shell out upward of 50 percent of her pay to have a place to live?

While I have great concerns about the viability of a “leaderless” movement that has yet to make a cogent demand, I find myself rooting for it at the same time.

Something just feels wrong about an economic system in which working people today are paying three times more for housing than in the 1940s, with wages that have basically stagnated.

The Bronx still has some of the best deals in housing. Today, median rent for a three-bedroom apartment in the borough is $1,250 a month. But in Bronx Community District 3, of which Fulton Avenue is part, median household income is $20,596 a year, or about $1,716 a month. The average family will have to pay out almost three quarters of its income to pay rent on an apartment not quite as spacious as the one my grandmother found. It is a stark contrast to the one-quarter of income my grandparents shelled out for rent in the same neighborhood.

The times may have changed, but the human need remains the same.

Perhaps that is the true message of Occupy Wall Street.

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