Micro Apartments and The Housing Crisis

photo by BalazsGlodi

The NYU Furman Center has posted 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? The policy brief opens,

Throughout much of the last century, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing was a commonly available type of low-rent housing in New York City, providing housing to people newly arrived in the city, low-income single New Yorkers, and people needing somewhere to live during life transitions. SRO units typically consisted of a private room with access to full bathroom and kitchen facilities that a renter shared with other building occupants. As the city fell onto hard times, so did SRO housing. During the second half of the last century, many SROs came to serve as housing of last resort, and policymakers enacted laws limiting their construction and discouraging the operation of SRO units. Many SROs were converted to other forms of housing, resulting in the loss of thousands of low-rent units in the city.

New research and analysis from the NYU Furman Center addresses the question of whether small housing units (self-contained micro units and efficiency units with shared facilities) can and should help meet the housing need previously served by SROs. In this policy brief, we present a summary of the paper, 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? We provide an overview of the potential demand for smaller, cheaper units, discuss the economics of building small units, analyze the main barriers to the creation of small units that exist in New York City, and suggest possible reforms that New York City can make to address these barriers. (1)

The policy brief makes a series of recommendations, including

  • reducing density limitations for micro units near transit hubs
  • permitting mixed-income and market-rate efficiency units
  • creating a government small unit program to promote the construction of micro apartments

There is no doubt that the lack of supply is a key driver of the affordable housing crisis across the country. Small units should be part of the response to that crisis, not just in New York City but in all high-cost cities.

Loan Mods Amidst Rising Interest Rates

photo by Chris Butterworth

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have posted Government Loan Modifications: What Happens When Interest Rates Rise?. This brief is another product of the newly formed Mortgage Servicing Collaborative. This brief

examines the current loan modification product suite for government loans insured or guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). When a delinquent borrower with a government loan obtains a modification, the mortgage rate is typically reset to the prevailing market rate, which can be higher or lower than the original note rate. When the market rate is below the original rate, providing payment reduction becomes inherently easier and less expensive for the investor. Conversely, when market rates are above the note rate, providing payment reduction becomes more expensive and challenging, making it more difficult to cure the delinquency. This can result in more redefaults and foreclosures, larger losses for government insurers, and greater distress for borrowers, communities, and neighborhoods. In addition, most government mortgage borrowers are first-time homebuyers and minorities, who tend to have limited incomes and savings, making loan modifications all the more important. (1)

Given the recent upward trend in interest rates, this is more than a theoretical exercise. And indeed, the brief “explains why FHA, VA, and USDA borrowers who fall behind on their payments are unlikely to receive adequate payment relief when the market interest rate is higher than the original note rate. ” (3)

The brief outlines some options that could increase payment relief for those borrowers, including deploying a 40-year extended term and principal forbearance to reduce the monthly mortgage payment. The brief acknowledges that there are barriers to implementing the options it has identified but it also proposes ways to overcome those barriers.

As I had stated previously, the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative is providing sorely needed guidance through some of the darker corners of the mortgage market. This brief sheds some welcome light on an obscured problem that may cause trouble in the years to come.

Inclusionary Housing: Fact and Fiction

photo by Bart Everson

The Center for Housing Policy has issued a policy brief, Separating Fact from Fiction to Design Effective Inclusionary Housing Programs. I am not sure fact was fully separated from fiction when I finished reading it.  It opens,

Inclusionary housing programs generally refer to city and county planning ordinances that require or incentivize developers to build below-market-rate homes (affordable homes) as part of the process of developing market-rate housing developments. More than 500 local jurisdictions in the United States have implemented inclusionary housing policies, and inclusionary requirements have been adopted in a wide variety of places—big cities, suburban communities and small towns.

Despite the proliferation of inclusionary housing programs, the approach continues to draw criticism. There have been legal challenges around inclusionary housing requirements in California, Illinois, Idaho, Colorado and Wisconsin, among others. In addition to legal questions, critics have claimed inclusionary housing policies are not effective at producing affordable housing and have negative impacts on local housing markets.

While there have been numerous studies on inclusionary housing, they unfortunately do not provide conclusive evidence about the overall effectiveness of inclusionary housing programs. These studies vary substantially in terms of their research approaches and quality. In addition, it is difficult to generalize the findings from the existing research because researchers have examined policies in only a handful of places and at particular points in time when economic and housing market conditions might have been quite different. Given these limitations, however, the most highly regarded empirical evidence suggests that inclusionary housing programs can produce affordable housing and do not lead to significant declines in overall housing production or to increases in market-rate prices. However, the effectiveness of an inclusionary housing program depends critically on local economic and housing market characteristics, as well as specific elements of the program’s design and implementation. (1, endnotes omitted and emphasis in the original)

The brief concludes that, in general, ” mandatory programs in strong housing markets that have predictable rules, well-designed cost offsets, and flexible compliance alternatives tend to be the most effective types of inclusionary housing programs.” (11, emphasis removed)

I have to say that this research brief does not give me a great deal of confidence that mandatory inclusionary zoning programs are going to be all that effective.  Indeed, the conclusion suggests that many ducks need to line up before we can count on them to make a real dent in affordable housing production. While this by no means should imply that they should be curtailed, we should continue to evaluate them carefully to see if they live up to their promise.

Property Tax Exemptions in Wonderland

 

Cea

NYU’s Furman Center has released a policy brief, The Latest Legislative Reform of the 421-a Tax Exemption: A Look at Possible Outcomes. This brief is part of a series on affordable housing strategies for a high-cost city. It opens,

Since the early 1970s, New York City has provided a state-authorized, partial property tax exemption for the construction of new residential buildings. In the 1980s, the New York City Council amended the program to require that participating residential buildings in certain portions of Manhattan also provide affordable housing. Most recently, New York State extended the existing program through the end of 2015 and created a new 421-a framework for 2016 onward. However, for the program to continue beyond December, the legislation requires that representatives of residential real estate developers and construction labor unions reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wages of construction workers building 421-a program developments that contain more than 15 units.

This brief explores the possible impacts of the new 421-a legislation on residential development across a range of different neighborhoods in New York City, including neighborhoods where rents and sale prices are far lower than in the Manhattan Core and where the tax exemption or other subsidy may be necessary to spur new residential construction under current market conditions. We assess what could happen to new market rate and affordable housing production if the 421-a program were allowed to expire or if it were to continue past 2015 in the form contemplated by recently passed legislation. Our analysis shows that changes to the 421-a program could significantly affect the development of both market rate and affordable housing in the city (1, footnote omitted)

The 421-a program operates against the backdrop of a crazy quilt real property tax regime where similar buildings are taxed at wildly different rates because of various historical oddities and thinly-sliced legal distinctions. Like the Queen of Hearts, the rationale given by the Department of Finance for this unequal treatment amounts to no more than — And the reason is…because I say so, that’s why!

The brief concludes,

Our financial analysis of the possible outcomes from the 421-a legislation offers some insights into its potential impact on new construction. First, if the 421-a benefit expires in 2016, residential developers would lower the amount they would be willing to pay for land in many parts of the city. The result could be a pause in new residential developments in areas outside of the Manhattan Core as both buyers and sellers of land adjust to the new market.

*     *     *

Second, if the newly revised 421-a program with its higher affordability requirements and longer exemption period goes into effect in 2016 without any increase in construction costs, the city is likely to have more affordable rental units developed in many parts of the city compared to what the existing 421-a program would have created. Condominium development without the 421-a program may still continue to dominate in certain portions of Manhattan, though the program appears to make rentals more attractive. (12)

The first outcome — lower land prices if 421-a expires — is not that bad for anyone, except current landowners. And it is hard to feel bad for them, given that they should not have expected that 421-a would remain in effect forever (and not to mention the rapid increases in NYC land prices). The second outcome — the new 421-a framework — sounds like better public policy than the existing program.

But one wonders — what would it take for NYC to develop a rational real property tax regime to replace our notoriously inequitable one, one that treats like properties so differently from each other. Can we escape from Wonderland?

Inclusionary Housing and Equitable Communities

Lincoln_Institute_of_Land_Policy_-_Cambridge,_MA_-_DSC00178

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has released a policy focus report, Inclusionary Housing: Creating and Maintaining Equitable Communities. The Executive Summary opens,

After decades of disinvestment, American cities are rebounding, but new development is often driving housing costs higher and displacing lower-income residents. For cities struggling to maintain economic integration, inclusionary housing is one of the most promising strategies available to ensure that the benefits of development are shared widely. More than 500 communities have developed inclusionary housing policies, which require developers of new market-rate real estate to provide affordable units as well. Economically diverse communities not only benefit low-income households; they enhance the lives of neighbors in market-rate housing as well. To realize the full benefit of this approach, however, policies must be designed with care. (3)

The report uses the term inclusionary zoning to refer to

a range of local policies that tap the economic gains from rising real estate values to create affordable housing—tying the creation of homes for low- or moderate-income households to the construction of market-rate residential or commercial development. In its simplest form, an inclusionary housing program might require developers to sell or rent 10 to 30 percent of new residential units to lower-income residents. Inclusionary housing policies are sometimes referred to as “inclusionary zoning” because this type of requirement might be implemented through an area’s zoning code; however, many programs impose similar requirements outside the zoning code. (7)

The report notes that

Policy makers are understandably concerned that affordable housing requirements will stand in the way of development. But a review of the literature on the economics of inclusionary housing suggests that well-designed programs can generate significant affordable housing resources without overburdening developers or landowners or negatively impacting the pace of development. (4)

The report is obviously addressing two of the most important issues facing us today — the housing affordability challenge that many households face as well as the increasing stratification of communities by income and wealth.

There is a lot of value in the survey of the academic literature on inclusionary housing policies that is provided by this report. At the same time, there is some fuzzy thinking in it too. For instance, the report states that, “As the basic notion of supply and demand suggests, the addition of new units in a given market will inevitably put some downward pressure on the cost of existing units. But the larger effect tends to be upward pressure on housing costs because new homes are primarily built for higher-income residents.” (12)

This analysis ignores the well-accepted concept of filtering in urban economics. Filtering describes the process by which occupants of housing units go from higher-income to lower-income as the unit ages, becomes outdated and is subject to wear and tear. If higher-income households move to the newest housing, then other another household, typically of lower-income, can move into the vacant unit. If the number of households remains constant, then housing prices should decrease as housing development increases.

Because the real world does not look like an economic model, many people think that new housing causes increased housing prices. But the cause of the increased housing prices is often the same thing that is causing new housing construction:  increased demand.

Take NYC for instance. In recent years, it issues permits for 10,000-20,000 or so new units of housing a year, but its population has grown by about 60,000 people a year. Combine this with the fact that new housing construction is both a sign and result of gentrification in a particular neighborhood, it is no wonder people think that housing construction pushes prices higher. While this is an understandable line of thought for the man or woman in the street, it is less so for the Lincoln Institute.

My bottom line: this is worth a read, but read with care.

 

NYC’s 421-Abyss

Andrew_Cuomo_by_Pat_Arnow_cropped

New York City’s 421-a tax exemption has lapsed as of yesterday because of disagreements at the state level (NYS has a lot of control over NYC’s laws and policies, for those of you who don’t follow the topic closely). 421-a subsidizes a range of residential development from affordable to luxury. In the main, though, it subsidizes market-rate units.

This subsidy for residential development is heavily supported by the real estate industry. Many others think that the program provides an inefficient tax subsidy for residential development, particularly affordable housing development.

I fall into the latter camp. I would note, however, that NYC’s dysfunctional property tax system is highly inequitable because it taxes different types of housing units (single family, coop and condo, rental) so very differently.

With that in mind, let me turn to a policy brief from the Community Service Society, Why We Need to End New York City’s Most Expensive Housing Program. The reports key conclusions are,

At $1.07 billion a year, 421-a is the largest single housing expenditure that the city undertakes, larger than the city’s annual contribution of funds for Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York plan.

The annual cost of 421-a to the city exploded during the recent housing boom as a result of market changes, not because of any intentional policy decision to increase the amount of tax incentives for housing construction.

Half of the total 421-a expenditure is devoted to Manhattan.

The 421-a tax exemption is a general investment subsidy that has been only superficially modified to contribute to affordability goals.

The 421-a tax exemption is extremely inefficient as an affordable housing program, costing the city well over a million dollars per affordable housing unit created.

The reforms made to 421-a in 2006 and 2007 have not resulted in a significant improvement of 421-a’s efficiency as an affordable housing program.

A large share of buildings that receive 421-a and include affordable housing also receive other subsidies, such as tax-exempt bond financing. Affordable units in these buildings cannot be credited entirely to the 421-a program.

The great majority of the tax revenue forgone through 421-a is subsidizing buildings that would have been developed without the tax exemption. (3-4)

The brief argues that 421-a should be allowed to expire and be replaced “with a targeted tax credit or other new incentive that is structured to provide benefits only in proportion with a building’s contribution to the affordable housing supply.” (4)

I don’t have any real disagreement with the thrust of this brief. I would just add that the fight over 421-should be expanded to include an overhaul of the City’s property tax regime. It is unclear, of course, whether Governor Cuomo and NYS legislators have the stomach for a battle so large.

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.