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.

Rapidly Rising Rents

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The Community Service Society has released its Fast Analysis of the 2014 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey which “analyzed just-released U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2014 version of its New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, a survey of 18,000 New Yorkers conducted every three years under contract with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.” The analysis

reveals that rents have risen rapidly, especially in the city’s inner-ring neighborhoods. Rents rose by 32 percent citywide since 2002, even after removing the effect of inflation. The sharpest increases occurred in neighborhoods surrounding the traditionally high-rent area of Manhattan below Harlem. Central Harlem led the way with a shocking 90 percent increase, with Bedford-Stuyvesant second at 63 percent.

The loss of rent-regulated housing to vacancy deregulation is combining with the loss of subsidized housing and with rising rents overall to dramatically shrink the city’s supply of housing affordable to low-income households. Between 2002 and 2014, the city lost nearly 440,000 units of housing affordable to households with incomes below twice the federal poverty threshold.

The study “focused on the rents being paid by tenants who have recently moved. This eliminates the tendency of lower rents paid by long-time tenants to smooth out market changes and mask the changes that affect tenants who are looking for a place to live.” (Slide 3)

This focus somewhat undercuts CSS’ claim that rents in general are rising rapidly because rents for vacancies typically rise much faster than those for existing tenancies. That being said, the study confirms the sense of many that outer-borough neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying and becoming unaffordable to the households who had historically made their homes there. As CSS indicates, their analysis will certainly be relevant to the debates raging over how to regulate NYC’s housing stock.

It is also relevant to debates over zoning. New York City’s population has grown by almost a million and a half people since 1980. That increase puts a lot of pressure on the cost of housing. Unless, the City comes up with a plan to increase the supply of housing, market pressures will just keep pushing rents higher and higher. Mayor de Blasio is well aware of this, so it will be interesting to see whether the City Council will be on board with plans to increase density throughout the City. Greater density is a necessary component of any affordable housing strategy for 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.

Real Affordability for All New Yorkers?

The Real Affordability for All campaign has issued An Affordable Housing Policy Platform for Mayor de Blasio. A stated goal of the campaign “is to ensure that Mayor de Blasio’s housing policies prioritize and deliver real affordability for the most economically vulnerable households” in the CIty. (1) As with many such studies (this one, for instance), it does a good job of identifying the problem — incomes are not sufficient to keep housing costs affordable — but its solutions do not match the identified problem.

I am not going to focus on all of the good things in the report (for instance, enhancing enforcement of housing laws to protect tenants), but on fundamental flaws in its proposal that the City implement a 50/50 model for increasing the supply of new affordable housing units. The report states that

Affordable housing developers, private sector developers and housing experts agree on two broad 50/50 scenarios that are viable and pragmatic, based on existing developments, current real-estate market assumptions, and the latest mathematical modeling:

1) For high-cost areas of the city (particularly Manhattan), depending on the level of up-zoning, new developments can ensure that 50 percent of the units are market rate and 50 percent are real affordable units targeted to low-income households: specifically, households of four earning 30-60 percent of Area Median Income.

2) For the outer boroughs, where land costs are lower, 100% of new developments can be affordable: 50 percent of the units can be for low-income households (those earning 30-60 percent of Area Median Income) and 50 percent for moderate income households (those earning up to 100 percent of Area Median Income). 100% real affordability can be achieved by increasing current per unit subsidies in the outer boroughs and applying those subsidies to real affordable housing units for low-and moderate-income households. (3)

The first fundamental flaw is an assumption that if the government requires something of developers, developers will do it. For-profit developers will only build if they can make a profit. Otherwise they will just not build.  Given the low rates of new housing construction that we have seen in NYC over long periods of time, this is just a fact of life.

This leads to a second flaw — the proposal leaves fewer market rate units to cross-subsidize more affordable units. Given that the costs of development are relatively fixed, this proposal would have to come up with some real new cost-cutting measures for new developments or new sources of revenue to add to the existing subsidies. But the recommendations put forward by the report don’t really do either of those things. Their recommendations are

  1. Use Subsidies More Wisely to Drive Real Affordability.
  2. Implement a New Low-Income Real Affordability Framework Across All Housing Programs.
  3. Enable Not-for-Profit Developers and Owners to Play a Strong and Active Role in the City’s Housing Agenda.
  4. Prioritize Permanent Affordability for All City-owned Land Dispositions.
  5. Require that Developers and Investors Receiving Any Type of City Subsidy Provide a Reserve Fund that Creates a Safety Net for Excessively Rent-Burdened Tenants.
  6. Flip Tax.
  7. Non-Occupancy Tax.
  8. Water and Sewer Tax Reform
  9. Property Tax Overhaul.
  10. Density Bonuses.(4-5)

Many of these recommendations amount to moving things around, not to reducing costs or increasing subsidies. The ones that do raise revenues, raise relatively small amounts. For instance, the flip tax proposal is estimated to generate between $100 million and $150 million per year.  Using a conservative cost estimate of $200,000 per unit of new housing, $150 million in new revenue would only produce 750 new units of real affordable housing per year, a drop in the bucket.

Many have been trying to shape the Mayor’s housing agenda in recent days (here for instance). But few have seriously faced the real market and political constraints that the City faces as it attempts to increase the supply of affordable housing. There is reason to think that the Mayor’s housing team will grapple with these issues seriously, so let’s wait patiently for their plan to be released . . ..