Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

September 10, 2014

Is NYC Rent Too Damn High?!?

By David Reiss

Husock and Armlovich of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research have posted an Issue Brief, New York’s Rent Burdened Households: Recalculating the Total, Finding a Better Solution. The brief makes some important points, but they are almost lost because of its histrionic tone.

First, the good points. The authors write this brief in reaction to the de Blasio administration’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. They believe, however, that the administration has exaggerated the need. They write: “the housing needs of low-income New Yorkers must be acknowledged and addressed. Still, they should not be exaggerated by numbers that fail to reflect the income and in-kind assistance that benefit poor households.” (6)

They argue that the administration’s claim that more than 600,000 households are “severely rent-burdened” is flawed, resulting in an overestimate of the need for affordable housing. While I am not in a position to evaluate the underlying work, they make a reasonable case that the administration did not properly account for the impact of Section 8 housing subsidies and a variety of other programs that offer financial assistance to low-income households in arriving at their number.

They also argue that the administration’s proposed solution, permanent affordability, is flawed because some households that may be income-eligible at the commencement of their tenure in an affordable unit may end up with a significantly higher income down the line. Indeed, this has been a long-time issue with the Mitchell-Lama program.

These are some serious issues for the de Blasio administration to chew over. Clearly, we should be working from the best data we can about the extent to which households are severely burdened by housing costs. (Indeed, another recent study also indicates that the administration is working from too high of an number.) And just as clearly, the solution chosen by the administration should work as effectively as possible to reduce the rent burden for low- and moderate-income households.

But the brief’s tone, unfortunately, masks these insights. First, the brief opens by questioning the basis for the mayor’s affordable housing plan — that many New Yorker’s are severely rent burdened. But the authors acknowledge that at least 300,000 households are severely burdened, even after they make their adjustments to the administration’s numbers. That hardly undercuts the policy rationale for the Mayor’s affordable housing initiative.

Moreover, some of the adjustments made by the authors are themselves suspect. For instance, the authors exclude households “that report severe rent burdens while paying more than the 90th percentile citywide of per-capita” out-of-pocket rent. (5) They state that “Logic dictates that such households have significant existing savings or assets themselves, or they receive assistance from family or other sources.” (5) That seems like an extraordinary “logical” leap to me. While it may describe some households at the 90th percentile, I would think that it is also logical that it includes some people who barely have enough money to buy food.

As to the solution of permanent affordability, the authors write,

a household member could win the lottery, or sign a multimillion-dollar major league baseball contract, and an affordable unit’s rent would remain unchanged. Affordable units would be “permanently” affordable, creating what economists term a “lock-in effect,” limiting the likelihood that such units will be vacated. This is problematic for a city housing policy that seeks to decrease the overall number of severely rent-burdened households. (6)

This is just silly. Very few people have such windfalls. And very few of those who do have such windfalls live in small apartments afterwards. The more common problem is that young, educated people get affordable units when their earnings are low and then become middle-class or upper-middle class over the years. This is a serious program design issue and it means that the administration should think through what permanent affordability should mean over the lifetime of a typical household.

As I noted, this brief raises some serious issues amongst all of its heated rhetoric. One hopes that the administration can get through the hot air to the parts that are informed by cool reason.


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