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.

Housing Subsidies For Those Who Need Them

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted Aligning Federal Low Income Housing Programs with Housing Need. The Executive Summary goes right to the heart of the matter:

The number of renters in the United States has steadily increased since 2006 and will continue to rise as new households form in the post-recession economy. In 2012, one out of four renter households had incomes at or below 30% of the area median income (AMI) for a total of 10.3 million households categorized as extremely low income (ELI). In the same year there were just 3.2 million units affordable and available to ELI households, creating a shortage of 7.1 million rental units affordable to these households.

Despite this evidence of a substantial need for deeply affordable rental housing, the low income housing resources that are provided by the federal government are only able to reach 23% of the eligible population. (iii)
This study looks at the extent to which the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the HOME program and the Federal Home Loan Banks’ Affordable Housing Program (AHP) serve ELI households. It finds that in general, “these three programs do not serve ELI households on their own. Their ability to serve ELI households depends on the addition of one or more forms of subsidy, usually housing choice vouchers (HCV).” (iii)
The study identifies common themes from its research on this topic:
  • Developers layer multiple funding sources while adapting to rapidly changing political and fiscal environments. Many also rely on non-traditional resources, such as private donations, to fill funding gaps.
  • Reducing or eliminating mortgage debt is critical to be able to serve ELI households.
  • Cultivating strong local partnerships is a key factor affecting developers’ ability to serve ELI households. Often, local jurisdictions that have prioritized affordable housing are willing to donate land or property at a low cost.
  • Cross-subsidization is an important strategy used by many developers committed to inclusive properties that serve ELI households. This strategy incorporates units affordable to ELI households into projects containing other units occupied by households with a broader mix of incomes. The rents paid by higher income households supplement the overall operating expenses of the project, compensating for the lower rents that ELI households can afford.
  • While the case studies highlighted some very effective strategies for serving ELI households without the use of vouchers, there is not one model that can be easily replicated. (iii-iv)

None of this is particularly earth shattering, but it is useful to to look into this topic in a systematic way. The Coalition hopes that this report “will contribute to the broader conversation about simplifying the process of financing affordable housing developments, refining existing programs so that they incentivize developers to serve ELI households, and finding ways to fund the ongoing operating costs of units that do serve ELI renters.” (iv)

As an off-the-cuff response, I wonder if the nation’s affordable housing agenda is benefited from such a complex funding environment for housing for extremely low income households. Can it just be funded more comprehensively, acknowledging the reality that it requires deep subsidies from the get-go? What is the opportunity cost of requiring developers to devote so much time to creating such complicated deal structures? In the current political environment, I doubt that affordable housing advocates have the stomach to raise these questions, lest Congress decides to cut back affordable housing subsidies even further. But in the long term, these are questions worth asking.