Addressing NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

photo by Hromoslav

The NYC Rent Guidelines Board (of which I am a member) held a public hearing as part of its final vote on rent adjustments for the approximately one million dwelling units subject to the Rent Stabilization Law in New York City. My fellow board member, Hilary Botein, and I submitted the following joint statement at the hearing (also available on SSRN and BePress):

The Rent Guidelines Board determines rent increases for New York City’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments. We must weigh the economic conditions of the residential real estate industry; current and projected cost of living; and other data made available to us. To make our decision, we reviewed reams of data and multiple analyses of those data. We also held five public hearings at which we heard hundreds of tenants speak, sing, chant, cry, and demonstrate. These hearings are among the only opportunities that tenants have to speak publicly about their housing situations, and they made clear the extremity of the housing crisis in the City, and that it will get worse without significant intervention.

Tenants who came to the RGB hearings are not a representative sample of rent-stabilized tenants in New York City. But they told us a lot about the state of housing in the City.  We felt that it was incumbent on us to respond to what we heard, even where it did not relate directly to the jurisdiction of the Board.

New York City cannot expect any meaningful housing assistance from the federal government in the near term. Our observations therefore focus on state and municipal actions that could address some of the issues that regularly cropped up at our hearings.

There is a desperate need for affordable housing that is pegged to residents’ incomes. Housing is deemed “affordable” when housing costs are 30 percent of a household’s income. There is no guarantee that rent stabilized housing remain affordable to a particular household, and there is no income eligibility for rent stabilized housing.  This aspect of rent regulation explains its durable political appeal, but makes it an imperfect vehicle for meeting the needs of low-income tenants.

Mayor de Blasio is protecting and developing hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing through the Housing New York plan announced at the beginning of his term. More recently, his Administration announced a program to create 10,000 deeply affordable apartments and a new Elder Rent Assistance program.  But more can be done to help low-income tenants.

The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs have proven their effectiveness in “freezing” the rents of more than 60,000 low and moderate income rent-stabilized households. The state should create and fund a similar program for low-income rent stabilized tenants who pay more than 30 percent of their incomes towards housing costs.

State laws governing rent stabilization must be amended. Three elements of the law particularly penalize low-income tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods, and were behind the most distressing tenant testimonies that we heard. They are not within the RGB’s purview, but change is critical if the law is to operate as it was intended to do. The state legislature has considered bills that would make the necessary changes. First, owners can charge tenants a “preferential” rent, which is lower than the legal registered rent for the apartment. Preferential rents are granted most often in neighborhoods where the rent that the market can bear is less than the legal rent. This sounds like a good option for both tenants and owners, and perhaps that was its original intention. But now, as neighborhoods gentrify and market rates increase, the prospect of increasing a preferential rent with little notice has become a threat to tenants’ abilities to stay in their apartments. Preferential rents should be restricted to the tenancy of a particular tenant, as was the law before a 2003 amendment. Owners would then be able to increase rents for those tenants no more than the percentages approved by the Board.

Second, owners can tack on a 20 percent “vacancy increase” every time an apartment turns over. This increase incentivizes harassment, and should be limited to situations of very long tenancies, to keep owners from actively seeking to keep tenancies short.

Third, owners making what is termed a Major Capital Improvement (MCI) – a new roof, windows, or a boiler, for example – can pass this expense on to tenants via a rent increase that continues in perpetuity, after the owner has recouped her or his expenses. We also heard allegations of sketchy capital improvement applications that were intended to increase rents without improving the conditions in the building. The state legislature should review how MCIs work in order to ensure that they are properly incentivizing landlords to invest in their buildings to the benefit of both owners and tenants.

New York City needs a repair program for broken gas lines. We heard from tenants who had not had gas in their apartments for more than a year. We understand that fixing gas lines is particularly complicated and expensive, and that gas leaks raise serious safety concerns, but it is unacceptable for families to go for more than a year without gas, and we are concerned about fire safety issues resulting from people using hot plates. The city needs to step in and make the repairs.

We have a housing crisis. Low income tenants, who live disproportionately in communities of color, experience this crisis most acutely. We will not find systemic solutions within the housing market. All solutions require a lot of money, and we cannot count on anything from the federal government. But it is imperative that our state and local governments act, or New York City’s already burgeoning shelter system will be forced to take in even more people. Since the 1970s, New York City has been a leader in committing public resources to housing its low income residents, and that legacy must continue.  The Rent Guidelines Board cannot solve the housing crisis, but other arms of the New York State and City government can work together to reduce its impacts on low-income households.

Two Cheers for Obama’s Housing Development Toolkit

photo by Daniel Schwen

As the Obama Administration nears the end, the White House released a Housing Development Toolkit. It opens,

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

Locally-constructed barriers to new housing development include beneficial environmental protections, but also laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing. Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

Accumulated barriers to housing development can result in significant costs to households, local economies, and the environment. (2, emphasis in original)

Glaeser & Gyourko identified the tension between local land use policies and federal affordable housing policies a long time ago, but the federal government has never really done much about it. To its credit, the Obama Administration had touched on it recently, but never in this much depth. So one cheer for the toolkit’s focus on local land use policy as an issue of national concern.

And a second cheer for highlighting actions that states and local governments can take to promote more dynamic housing markets. They include,

  • Establishing by-right development
  • Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  • Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  • Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  • Allowing accessory dwelling units
  • Establishing density bonuses
  • Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  • Employing inclusionary zoning
  • Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  • Using property tax abatements (3)

I withhold the last cheer because the toolkit spends no time discussing how the federal government could use its immense set of incentives to encourage state and local governments to take steps to increase the housing supply in high-growth areas. The federal government used such incentives to raise the drinking age and it did it to lower the speed limit. Isn’t the nation’s affordable housing crisis important enough that we should use incentives (such as preferred access to HUD funds) to spur development that is good for Americans collectively as well as for so many Americans individually?

Comparing Rental Housing Across the Atlantic

photo by Tiago Fioreze

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has released a working paper, Rental Housing: An International Comparison. The abstract reads,

This report compares rental housing in 12 countries in Europe and North America, using individual records from household surveys. Differences in housing characteristics, conditions, and costs across countries reflect a number of factors, including demographics, geography, culture, and government policies. A lack of comparable data can make international comparisons difficult to execute, but such analysis is valuable for understanding and contextualizing differences in affordability and other characteristics of renter households and housing.

The analysis revealed the US, along with Spain, as notably unaffordable for renter households, based on a number of measures. The greater apparent cost burdens reflected a variety of factors, including differences in characteristics of the housing stock and differences in tax burdens, as well as measurement problems.

However, two major influences – differences in the size and availability of housing allowances and the degree of income inequality – emerged as the main drivers of differences in housing affordability. The effects of supply-side factors such as the extent of social housing supply, supply subsidies, and rent controls were unclear, due to problems with the identification and description of below-market rentals in the household survey data. (1)

The housing stock and political context is so different among countries, but this type of analysis is still very useful and can offer valuable lessons to the United States:

One factor that appears to contribute to the pervasive affordability problems in the US is the degree of income inequality. That is not a feature of the housing market per se, but there may be opportunities to address the consequences of income inequality through appropriate housing policies.

Other countries have devoted more resources to ameliorating the problems of unaffordable housing. The US provides fairly generous housing benefits to only a small share of needy households. In the UK, a broadly available system of housing allowances offsets what would otherwise be a much more severe affordability problem than exists in the US. In other countries, affordable rental housing supplied by governments or nonprofits helps to address affordability issues, although the efficiency of that practice, relative to the provision of housing allowances, has been questioned, as it has been in the US. The EU-SILC data used in this analysis did not adequately identify or describe below-market-rate housing, making it impossible to adequately assess the effects of such housing.

The somewhat larger size and perhaps higher quality of units in the US rental stock also affects relative affordability, although relative quality and its effect on cost differences are difficult to assess using the available data. The large share of single-family detached rentals in the US reflects preferences, the demographic mix among renters, land availability, etc., but it could also reflect zoning and other regulations limiting the supply of less expensive multifamily rentals. It is hard to imagine that regulations are more stringent in the US than in some of the more dirigiste nations of Europe, but regulations elsewhere may dictate, rather than constrain, density and cost reductions. The size and quality of the housing occupied by low-income renters in the US reflect the fact that most of those units were originally built for owner occupancy or for higher-income renters. That’s probably true in other countries as well. Whether the extent of such filtering is greater or less in various countries is perhaps worth exploring in the future. (37-38)

Income inequality, housing subsidies and land use reform — the report hits on a trifecta of key issues that housing policy should be dealing with. While I do not see much of an appetite for major reform of the first two items in today’s political climate, there might be support for some loosening of land use restrictions on housing construction. I wonder if there is some room for movement on that third front. Can local jurisdictions be incentivized by the federal government to build more housing?

New Housing and Displacement


The Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley has issued a research brief, Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships. It opens,

Debate over the relative importance of subsidized and market-rate housing production in alleviating the current housing crisis continues to preoccupy policymakers, developers, and advocates. This research brief adds to the discussion by providing a nuanced analysis of the relationship between housing production, affordability, and displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area, finding that:

• At the regional level, both market-rate and subsidized housing reduce displacement pressures, but subsidized housing has over double the impact of market-rate units.

• Market-rate production is associated with higher housing cost burden for low-income households, but lower median rents in subsequent decades.

• At the local, block group level in San Francisco, neither market-rate nor subsidized housing production has the protective power they do at the regional scale, likely due to the extreme mismatch between demand and supply.

Although more detailed analysis is needed to clarify the complex relationship between development, affordability, and displacement at the local scale, this research implies the importance of not only increasing production of subsidized and market-rate housing in California’s coastal communities, but also investing in the preservation of housing affordability and stabilizing vulnerable communities. (1)

This brief takes on an important subject — the relationship between new housing and displacement — and concludes,

There is no denying the desperate need for housing in California’s coastal communities and similar housing markets around the U.S. Yet, while places like the Bay Area are suffering from ballooning housing prices that are affecting people at all income levels, the development of market-rate housing may not be the most effective tool to prevent the displacement of low-income residents from their neighborhoods, nor to increase affordability at the neighborhood scale.

Through our analysis, we found that both market-rate and subsidized housing development can reduce displacement pressures, but subsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate development at the regional level. It is unclear, however, if subsidized housing production can have a protective effect on the neighborhood even for those not fortunate enough to live in the subsidized units themselves.

By looking at data from the region and drilling down to local case studies, we also see that the housing market dynamics and their impact on displacement operate differently at these different scales. Further research and more detailed data would be needed to better understand the mechanisms via which housing production affects neighborhood affordability and displacement pressures. We know that other neighborhood amenities such as parks, schools, and transit have a significant impact on housing demand and neighborhood change and it will take additional research to better untangle the various processes at the local level.

In overheated markets like San Francisco, addressing the displacement crisis will require aggressive preservation strategies in addition to the development of subsidized and market-rate housing, as building alone won’t protect specific vulnerable neighborhoods and households. This does not mean that we should not continue and even accelerate building. However, to help stabilize existing communities we need to look beyond housing development alone to strategies that protect tenants and help them stay in their homes. (10-11, footnote omitted)

The brief struggles with a paradox of housing — how come rents keep going up in neighborhoods with lots of new construction? The answer appears to be that the broad regional demand for housing in a market like the Bay Area or New York City overwhelms the local increase in housing supply. The new housing, then, just acts like a signal of gentrification in the neighborhoods in which it is located.

If I were to criticize this brief, I would say that it muddies the waters a bit as to what we need in hot markets like SF and NYC: first and foremost, far more housing units. In the absence of a major increase in supply, there will be intense market pressure to increase rents or convert units to condominiums. Local governments will have a really hard time overcoming that pressure and may just watch as area median income rises along with rents. New housing may not resolve the problem of large-scale displacement, but it will be hard to address displacement without it. Preservation policies should be pursued as well, but the only long-term solution is a lot more housing.

I would also say that the brief elides over the cost of building subsidized housing when it argues that subsidized housing has twice the impact of market-rate units on displacement. The question remains — at what cost? Subsidized housing is extremely expensive, often costing six figures per unit for new housing construction. The brief does not tackle the question of how many government dollars are needed to stop the displacement of one low-income household.

My bottom line: this brief begins to untangle the relationship between housing production and displacement, but there is more work to be done on this topic.

Homeowner Nation or Renter Nation?

Andreas Praefcke

Arthur Acolin, Laurie Goodman and Susan Wachter have posted a forthcoming Cityscape article to SSRN, A Renter or Homeowner Nation? The abstract reads,

This article performs an exercise in which we identify the potential impact of key drivers of home ownership rates on home ownership outcomes by 2050. We take no position on whether these key determinants in fact will come about. Rather we perform an exercise in which we test for their impact. We demonstrate the result of shifts in three key drivers for home ownership forecasts: demographics (projected from the census), credit conditions (reflected in the fast and slow scenarios), and rents and housing cost increases (based on California). Our base case average scenario forecasts a decrease in home ownership to 57.9 percent by 2050, but alternate simulations show that it is possible for the home ownership rate to decline from current levels of around 64 percent to around 50 percent by 2050, 20 percentage points less than at its peak in 2004. Projected declines in home ownership are about equally due to demographic shifts, continuation of recent credit conditions, and potential rent and house price increases over the long term. The current and post WW II normal of two out of three households owning may also be in our future: if credit conditions improve, if (as we move to a majority-minority nation) minorities’ economic endowments move toward replicating those of majority households, and if recent rent growth relative to income stabilizes.

This article performs a very helpful exercise to help understand the importance of the homeownership rate.  This article continues some of the earlier work of the authors (here, for instance). I had thought that that earlier paper should have given give more consideration to how we should think about the socially optimal homeownership rate. Clearly, a higher rate, like the all-time high of 69% that we had right before the financial crisis, is not always better. But just as clearly, the projected low of 50% seems way too low, given long term trends. But that leaves a lot of room in between.

This article presents a model which can help us think about the socially optimal rate instead of just bemoaning a drop from the all-time high. It states that

Equilibrium in the housing market is reached when the marginal household is indifferent between owning and renting, requiring the cost of obtaining housing services through either tenure to be equal. In addition, for households, the decision to own or rent is affected by household characteristics and, importantly, expected mobility, because moving and transaction costs are higher for owners than for renters.  Borrowing constraints also affect tenure outcomes if they delay or prevent access to homeownership. (4-5)

This short article does not answer all of the questions we have about the homeownership rate, but it does answer some of them. For those of us trying to understand how federal homeownership policy should be designed, it undertakes a very useful exercise indeed.

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.

Mortgage Market, Hiding in Plain Sight

David Jackmanson

I blogged about the Center for Responsible Lending’s take on the 2014 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data yesterday.  The mere act of aggregating this data reveals so much about the state of the mortgage market. Today I am digging into it a bit on my own.

There is a lot of good stuff in the analysis of the HMDA data released by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC). I found the discussion of the effects of the Qualified Mortgage and Ability to Repay rules most interesting:

The HMDA data provide little indication that the new ATR and QM rules significantly curtailed mortgage credit availability in 2014 relative to 2013. For example, despite the QM rule that caps borrowers’ DTI ratio for many loans, the fraction of high-DTI loans does not appear to have declined in 2014 from 2013. However, as discussed in more detail later, there are significant challenges in determining the extent to which the new rules have influenced the mortgage market, and the results here do not necessarily rule out significant effects or the possibility that effects may arise in the future. (4)

This analysis is apparently reacting to those who have claimed that the new regulatory environment is restricting lending too much. The mortgage market is generally too complicated for simple assertions like “new regulations have restricted credit too heavily” or “not enough” There are so many relevant factors, such as changes in the interest rate environment, the unemployment rate and the change in the cost of housing, to be confident about the effect of the change in regulations, particularly over a short time span. But the FFIEC analysis seems to have it right that the new regs did not have such a great impact when they went into effect on January 1, 2014, given the similarities in the 2013 and 2014 data. This reflects well on the rule-writing process for the QM and ATR rules. Time will tell whether and how they will need to be tweaked.

While the discussion of the new rules was comforting, I found the discussion of FHA mortgages disturbing: “The higher-priced fraction of FHA home-purchase loans spiked from about 5 percent in early 2013 to about 40 percent after May 2013 and continued at monthly rates between 35 and 52 percent through 2014, for an annual average incidence of about 44 percent in 2014.” (15) Higher-priced first-lien loans are those with an APR that is at least one and a half percentage points higher than the average prime offer rate for loans of a similar type.

The FHA often provides the only route to homeownership for first-time, minority and lower-income homebuyers, but it must be monitored to make sure that it is insuring mortgages that homeowners can pay month in and month out. If FHA mortgages are not sustainable for the long run, they are likely to do homebuyers more harm than good.