Housing Affordability in NYC

Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement

The Citizens Budget Commission has released Whose Burden Is It Anyway? Housing Affordability in New York City by Household Characteristics. The CBC produced some interesting and counterintuitive policy briefs last year, in which it

examined housing affordability across large U.S. cities to assess New York’s situation in a broader context. Using federal data sources, CBC found that while many New Yorkers face high rents, and the share of households who are “rent burdened” (paying more than 30 percent of income toward rent) grew between 2000 and 2012, the city ranks near the middle among 22 large cities in the share of rent-burdened households. A second analysis revealed New York has the lowest transportation costs among the 22 cities studied due to the large proportion of residents who commute via mass transit. When housing and transportation costs are combined, the city rises from 13th to 3rd place in affordability. The average New York household pays 32 percent of its income towards housing and transportation costs, well within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) affordability guideline of 45 percent. CBC also examined how some “typical” households (as defined by HUD) fared in terms of housing and transportation costs in the same group of cities. In this analysis, low income households in New York also ranked relatively well despite facing serious rent burdens. (1)

The current CBC report looks at NYC rent burdens in greater detail. Key findings include,

  • Forty-two percent of New York City’s renter households are “rent burdened;” that is, adjusting for actual rent paid by each household (“out-of-pocket contract rent” plus utility costs) and food stamp benefits, they pay more than 30 percent of income in rent. „
  • Half of rent burdened households are severely rent burdened, paying more than 50 percent of income in rent. Ninety-four percent of these severely rent-burdened households are low income. „
  • Low-income severely burdened households are disproportionately comprised of singles and seniors. They are also disproportionately households with children and located in the outer boroughs. (2)

CBC adjusts rent to take into account subsidies and familial support. Some will disagree with adjustments of this type, but I think it is a pretty reasonable approach. When combined with the adjustments it made for transportation costs, CBC has produced a textured portrait of the state of housing affordability in NYC.

Facts and Myths About Rent Regulation

Polonius

Few topics are more fraught in NYC than rent regulation and stances about it are typically set by where people are financially and ideologically. It is always useful when someone tries to add some good old-fashioned facts to the debate in order to help craft good policies. That is particularly true now, given that NYC’s rent laws are supposed to expire on June 15th.

The Citizens Budget Commission has issued a report, 5 Myths About Rent Regulation in New York City. The CBC is hoping that that this report will inform the New York State legislature’s debates over the renewal of New York City’s rent laws (for those who don’t follow this carefully, NYS has jurisdiction over NYC’s rent regulation). Unfortunately, the report is ideologically skewed, which limits its usefulness for those trying to get their hands around this topic.

Here are the CBC’s five “Myths” and “Facts:”

Myth 1: A majority of tenant households in New York City are rent burdened.

Fact 1: 38 percent of tenant households in New York City are rent burdened.

Myth 2: Market-rate units in New York City are not affordable to most tenants.

Fact 2: In market-rate units, 54 percent of tenants have affordable rent.

Myth 3: A rent-regulated housing unit is an affordable unit.

Fact 3: Among tenants in rent-regulated units, 44 percent are rent-burdened.

Myth 4: Middle-income households cannot find affordable housing in New York City.

Fact 4: Outside of Manhattan, 96 percent of middle-income tenant households are not rent burdened.

Myth 5: The number of rent-regulated units is rapidly declining.

Fact 5: The number of rent-regulations is stabilizing.

The CBC claims that public officials and housing advocates are using “problematic” figures and characterizations. That is most certainly true in many cases, and par for the course for advocates. But the CBC does much the same, which should not be par for the course for a nonpartisan civic organization.

The second “Fact” is particularly laughable because CBC is doing exactly what it accuses advocates of doing — some form of rhetorical bait and switch. The second “Myth” is about tenants overall, while the second “Fact” is just about tenants who are currently in market-rate apartments. This is an apples to oranges comparison. Once you see the bait and switch, you see that CBC’s figures actually support the truth of this supposed second “Myth.” There are more problems contained in this document, but I leave it to you to find them for yourself.

I have no problem with CBC trying to make the debate over rent regulation more fact-based. But CBC should follow the wise advice of Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Picture: "Polonius" by http://www.oregonlink.com/elsinore/poveyglass/polonius.html.

Reiss on NYC Development Rules

Law 360 quoted me in Looser Rules Pave Way For NYC Affordable Housing Projects (behind a paywall). It opens,

The commissioner of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development detailed Wednesday how the agency will streamline the development process for affordable housing projects, allowing developers faced with new mandatory inclusionary zoning rules to breathe easier.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his ambitious plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city over the next 10 years, developers and their attorneys have been cautiously optimistic.

Many have seen the positive side of residential projects being allowed in places where they would not have been previously, thanks to planned zoning changes. But with those zoning changes comes a mandate to build an affordable component with any new development, and the administration has been adamant that there will be few — if any — new monetary incentives.

So when HPD Commissioner Vicki Been told attendees at a Citizens Budget Commission event Wednesday that sweeping changes are coming to the way the agency does business that will cut a lot of red tape and speed up the process, many developers and their attorneys were pleased.

“It was great to hear,” said John Kelly, an affordable housing expert and partner at Nixon Peabody LLP. “I think it’s the right first step, and it’s necessary if they’re really going to carry out the plan they want to do.”

Included in that first step will be significant changes to the two elements of the development process that experts say create the biggest bottlenecks: design review and clearance.

The design and architecture review will likely be completely overhauled, Been told the attendants at Wednesday’s meeting, and the HPD will shift to the self-certification system backed up by random audits that has seen success elsewhere in city government, including at the Department of Buildings.

These changes are expected to cut down on the waiting time that many developers often suffer through as they try to get a project off the ground, adding unnecessary costs and — perhaps most importantly for Been’s purposes — dissuading some from seeking out affordable housing opportunities.

HPD staff will still have a hand in reviewing projects, but the changes — which Been said will be explained in more detail soon — are expected to be significant.

“It’s exciting to start to see specifics of the plan, we’ve all been kind of waiting for that,” said Jennifer Dickson, senior planning and development specialist at Herrick Feinstein LLP.

But she noted that the process, even with the proposed tweaks, is extremely complex. As the city attempts to make affordable housing development more attractive and expand inclusionary zoning districts, a growing number of architects and developers with little experience in this arena will be joining the fray.

“I think they will be looking to the city agencies to continue to guide them,” Dickson said.

The specific extent to which HPD officials will remain involved in the process is one of many questions that remain unanswered. Another is exactly how the agency will ensure compliance with a new self-certification process, outside of random audits.

“The risk of self-certification is: What if people don’t certify well? There’s always a balance of government regulation between reducing red tape on one hand, and assuring people live up to the appropriate standards on the other,” said David Reiss, a real estate professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Location Affordability in NYC

Following up on two earlier posts (here and here) about Citizens Budget Commission policy briefs on housing affordability, I turn to a third one, Location Affordability in Large U.S. Cities. As a refresher, “Location affordability recognizes that the costs of housing and transportation, usually the two largest items in household budgets, are inextricably linked, and considering them together in relation to income gives a good sense of a city’s location affordability.” (1) the CBC’s key findings are that,

  • For moderate- and middle-income households, location costs in New York City are below the 45 percent affordability threshold due mostly to low commuting costs. New York City ranks well—ranging from second to sixth most affordable—among the 22 large cities.
  • For low-income households, location costs in New York City exceed the affordability threshold. A low-income family requires 47 percent of income for these costs and a single worker household requires 56 percent; for a single person earning a wage at the national poverty line, location costs in New York City are particularly burdensome at 101 percent of income. Almost all cities examined were unaffordable to low-income households. (1, citation omitted)

There are a lot of interesting implications that arise from these policy briefs.  Most important, they provide another (if it were even necessary) argument that scarce affordable housing dollars should be concentrated on low-income households. After all, NYC moderate- and middle-income households are doing better than in most other large American cities when transportation expenses are taken into account in an affordability index.

It would be most worthwhile for the de Blasio Administration to incorporate something like HUD’s Location Affordability Index into its housing plan.

Location Affordability

Following up on an earlier post on NYC’s (Affordable) Housing Crisis, I turn to the Citizen Budget Commission’s report on Housing Affordability Versus Location Affordability. The report opens,

How much more would you pay for an apartment just a short walk from your job than for an equivalent apartment that required an hour-long commute by car to work?

This question highlights two important points about the links between housing costs and transportation costs. First, transportation costs typically are a major component of household budgets, usually second only to housing. Second, a tradeoff between housing costs and transportation costs often exists, and taking both into account can provide a better measure of residential affordability in an area than only considering housing costs.

In recognition of these important points, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed a Location Affordability Index (LAI) that measures an area’s affordability based on housing and transportation costs relative to income. This policy brief uses the HUD data to compare costs for a typical household in New York City to those in 21 other cities . . .. (1, footnote omitted)

The report finds that “Low transportation costs and high incomes make New York City relatively affordable: New York City is in third place in location affordability. Housing and transportation costs for the typical household are 32 percent of income in New York City, with lower ratios only in Washington, D.C. (29 percent) and San Francisco (31 percent). This is well within HUD’s 45 percent affordability threshold for combined costs as a percent of income.” (1)

This report makes a very important point about the cost of living in different cities. It should also reframe some of the national discussion about affordable housing policy. It would be great if there were a way to account for length of commute in the Location Affordability Index to make a better apples to apples comparison among cities when it comes to the housing choices that are available to households.

NYC’s (Affordable) Housing Crisis

The Citizen’s Budget Commission is releasing a series of Policy Briefs on affordable housing in New York City. They raise interesting questions. The first policy brief, The Affordable Housing Crisis: How Bad Is It in New York City, compares the affordable housing situation in 22 large American cities and finds that NYC is not the worst, notwithstanding how many New Yorker’s feel about it. Some of the particular findings included,

  • New York City relies more heavily on rental, as opposed to owned, housing than all other large cities; more than two of every three occupied housing units are rental.
  • The increase in housing supply since 2000 was slower in New York City than in every other large city with population growth.
  • New York City does not have the highest average rents. New York City median rent ranks sixth most expensive among the 22 cities, slightly worse than 2000, when it ranked seventh.
  • New York City is not the most unaffordable: New York City ranks ninth worst in rental affordability, defined as the percent of households spending more than 30 percent of income on gross rent. This is slightly better than its eighth worst ranking in 2000, although the share of renters with burdensome rent increased from 41 percent to 51 percent.(1)

For me, the real story is the second bullet point.  New York City had the fourth slowest growth in the number of housing units out of the 22 cities, notwithstanding the fact that it has always had a limited supply and compounded by the fact that its population has been growing significantly for quite some time. It is depressing to learn that “the number of housing units in New York City increased” only 5.8 percent between 2000 and 2012. (2) This leaves New York City with a vacancy rate of 3.6 percent in 2012, which means that we are a long way off from making a serious dent in the affordability problem. The de Blasio administration has made affordable housing a centerpiece of its agenda. This report reminds us that part of the solution to the affordable housing puzzle is just building more housing overall. We have lots of pent up demand, we just don’t have the supply. That is one reason the rent is too damn high!