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.

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?

Does Historic Preservation Destroy Affordable Housing?

Spencer Means

The Real Estate Board of New York released a report about Rent Regulated Units in Landmark Districts. The report opens,

This analysis was conducted to examine the frequent assertion that landmarking helps preserve existing affordable housing. It is based on data that recently became publicly available that provides a snapshot of the number of rent-stabilized units in 2007 and again in 2014.

Contrary to statements made by advocates, affordable housing is not preserved at higher levels in NYC’s historic districts. The data shows that properties located within New York City’s historic districts showed a greater net loss of rent regulated apartments than those located in non-landmarked parts of the City.

FINDINGS

An analysis of the data found that, from 2007 to 2014, the decline in the number of rent regulated apartments located within New York City’s landmarked properties was four times higher than in non-landmarked parts of the City.

Citywide, landmarked properties showed a much greater decrease in the number of rent stabilized units (-22.5%) than non-landmarked properties (-5.1%). At the end of this seven year period, there was a net loss of nearly 10,000 rent-stabilized units in landmarked districts in the City.

The Manhattan and Brooklyn numbers are particularly startling. Manhattan landmarked properties lost 24.5% of their rent-stabilized units compared to a loss of 11.5% in nonlandmarked properties. And Brooklyn landmarked properties lost 27.1% of their rent-stabilized units compared to 3.4% in non-landmarked properties.

The historic districts that had the highest net loss of rent stabilized units were Greenwich Village (-1432 units) and the Upper West Side/Central Park West (-2730 units). Combined, these two historic districts showed a decrease of 30% in rent stabilized units during this seven-year period. (1, footnotes and references omitted)

This study has been criticized for conflating causation with correlation. I think the criticism is warranted. The relevant question appears to be whether landmarking causes an increase or decrease in the number of rent stabilized units. The REBNY study does nothing to demonstrate causation.

Intuitively, it would seem that residents of hot neighborhoods like Greenwich Village would both seek to keep out new, large developments (which landmarking would achieve) and see higher and higher rents over time (which would lead to a reduction in rent-regulated units through a variety of mechanisms). It is not obvious how landmarking itself would lead to a reduction in rent stabilized units.

It is a shame that the REBNY study is so flawed. It raises important questions, but just leaves us more confused than before. There are serious arguments that historic preservation reduces affordable housing overall. If REBNY wants to take a meaningful position in this debate, it should produce a serious study.

Rapid Growth for Property Managers

hot air balloons

Buildium.com quoted me in Can Rapid Growth Endanger Your Business? It reads, in part,

For property managers, the prospect of rapid growth can be thrilling. You lease the units in your first building, fill vacancies quickly, add services that let you charge higher rent, the building owner compliments your work, and before you know it, you’re thinking: “Why not more?” After all, why waste a great opportunity to make more money by simply repeating what you’ve done so well at your first property? All the stars seem aligned…

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7 Steps to Find Out If You’re Ready to Expand Your Property Management Portfolio

Here are seven steps to take before fast-tracking you company’s expansion:

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#6: Know the local rules & the laws

If the buildings you manage are different entities — one rent-controlled and the other a cooperative in an historic neighborhood, for example — you must understand their different requirements. The same can hold true for buildings in different communities where regulations covering trash pick-up and snow removal may vary.

And differences can be even greater for buildings in different states. In New York City, multifamily buildings with more than four units [may be] rent-regulated and involve a complex set of regulations between landlord and tenant, says attorney David Reiss, a professor of law and the Research Director at Brooklyn Law School’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. “If you don’t know what they are, it can be a recipe for disaster,” he says.

Also important to know, he says, is that some buildings are located in historic districts, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission can authorize, and that affects how owners and managers can renovate, rehab, and maintain exteriors, Reiss says. “You might have to place an air conditioning unit a certain way.”

#7: Consult with other property managers

Besides doing your homework, talk to owners and managers of similar properties who’ve expanded beyond a single listing. Reiss says many communities have property management organizations that share information, or your city or town may have an association of like-minded businesses. If not, maybe, you can become a local hero by starting one.

 

The Challenge of Rising Rents

Nyu_law_vanderbilt

NYU’s Furman Center has issued a research brief, The Challenge of Rising Rents: Exploring Whether a New Tax Benefit Could Help Keep Unsubsidized Rental Units Affordable. The brief considers whether the creation of “a new property tax subsidy program aimed at maintaining affordability in buildings that currently provide affordable rents could be attractive to owners.” (1)

The brief concludes that

The bulk of New York City’s housing stock that is affordable to low-income households is in buildings that currently receive no government subsidy to maintain low rents. In a city where the real estate market is booming and the supply of housing is constrained, the upward pressure on these rents is likely to continue. However, our analysis here suggests that there are some markets in the city where an owner of an unsubsidized building would agree to restrict future rent increases in exchange for a tax benefit.

If owners think their building is in a neighborhood likely to experience rapid rent increases, they are not likely to participate in a program like the one we have outlined. But, owners who are less optimistic about rent growth in their neighborhood may be willing to sign up in exchange for the certainty of a 30-year tax break. Owners might be more likely to participate in this program than our modeling suggests if it were bundled with another benefit or if the regulatory requirements were less onerous. (11)

This is obviously a good exercise to undertake, but I wonder if most landlords believe that their buildings are like Lake Wobegon children — above average, one and all. So, if the success of this proposal rests on reaching pessimistic landlords, it may be relying on a very small pool of landlords indeed.

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.

Housing and Vacancies in NYC

New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has released its initial findings of its 2014 Housing and Vacancy Survey. There are some interesting findings about the housing stock, particularly for those of us who follow the NYC housing markets closely:

  • There were 1,030,000 rent-stabilized units, which amounted to 47 percent of the housing stock.
  • There were 27,000 rent controlled units, which amounted to 1.2 percent of the housing stock.
  • The city-wide homeownership rate was 32.5 percent, although the rate varied significantly among the boroughs.
  • The rental vacancy rate was 3.45 percent.
  • There were 55,000 vacant units that were unavailable because of occasional, seasonal or recreational use.
  • The median annual income for all households (renters and owners) was $48,040. The median annual income for renter households was $38,500 and for homeowner households was $75,000.
  • The median contract rent-income ratio was 31.2 percent.

There were also some interesting findings about housing and neighborhood conditions:

  • “In 2014, housing and neighborhood conditions in the CIty were good.” (8)
  • “The proportion of renter-occupied units with five or more of the seven maintenance deficiencies measured by the 2014 HVS remain extremely low; only 4.3 percent” (8)
  • “The proportion of renter households that rated the quality of neighborhood residential structures as “good” or “excellent” was very high: 71.7 percent” (8)

Crowding remains a problem in the City, a finding that is unsurprising to all who are familiar with this housing market. The proportion of renter households that were crowded was 12.2 percent.

These numbers should inform numerous debates about housing in NYC, including those relating to rent regulation, foreign ownership of apartments and affordable housing goals, to name a few. It is important that these debates be data driven if we are to arrive at policy choices that are good for New Yorkers and good for the long term health of NYC itself. The whole document is worth a read for those who care about the City’s housing market and its impact on the overall health of the City.