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.

2-4 Unit Properties: Housing’s Middle Child

photo by Kgbo

The Urban Institute’s Laurie Goodman and Jun Zhu have posted Do Two- to Four-Unit Properties Have Higher Credit Risk? An Analysis of Default and Loss Experience to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Two- to four-family properties make up 19% of all rental housing but receive almost no attention. Using a unique dataset from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, we show that, for any given set of loan characteristics and compared with one-unit properties, two- to four-unit properties are more likely to default, its owner-occupied (investment) properties are less (more) likely to liquidate, and all two- to four-unit properties are more likely to have a higher loss severity upon liquidation. Historically, these patterns have led to higher losses on two- to four-unit loans. Current tighten credit results in loss rates much closer to those on one-unit owner-occupied properties, indicating that policymakers can relax the credit requirements of two-to-four properties to better serve affordable rental housing.

It is great that the authors are looking at the neglected, middle child of the rental housing market. Providing 19% of the rental housing stock is nothing to sneeze at, even if other segments of the housing stock provide more.

It is particularly interesting to me that owner-occupied 2-4s do better than investor-owned 2-4s in terms of liquidation, even while overall 2-4s are roughly on par with 1-unit owner occupied properties in that regard. There are a lot of other interesting tidbits about this housing stock in the paper, such as the fact that these properties are more likely to be owned by lower-income households and that 2-units have the highest default rates of 1-4 unit properties.

The authors make the case that

though predicted losses on two- to four-unit production are now on par with one-unit owner-occupied properties, the low volume suggests that many borrowers (who are disproportionately likely to be low and moderate income and minority) are getting squeezed out. In the interest of expanding credit to these underserved populations and expanding, or at least preserving, the supply of affordable rental housing, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) could relax the current loan-to-value requirements. If this relaxing were coupled with counseling for landlords, we believe it would make financing more available for this critical part of the market, with little additional risk to the GSEs. (3)

This all sounds good, although I am somewhat skeptical of the claim that reduced financing costs for owners will be passed onto tenants in the form of lower rents or rent increases. There are a lot of factors that go into rent levels, and costs are just one of them. The local demand for housing as well as the competing supply cannot be ignored. Owners may be able to keep all of those reduced financing costs as additional profits, depending on those local conditions.

The main question I am left with after reading the paper is — why haven’t Fannie and Freddie, whose data the paper is based upon, already reached the same conclusion about loosening credit for this type of housing? Do they know something about it that the author’s don’t?

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.

Airbnb and Profiteering

A NYC Housing Court judge issued a Decision/Order in 42nd and 10th Associates LLC v. Ikezi (No. 85736/2014 Feb. 17, 2015) that resulted in the eviction of a rent stabilized tenant who had rented his apartment through Airbnb at a rate much in excess of the rent approved by the NYC’s Rent Guidelines Board.

The Decision makes for a pretty good read in large part because of the incredible testimony of the tenant:

When questioned on Petitioner’s case whether Respondent charged anyone money to stay in the subject premises, Respondent first testified that he could not recall if he ever charged anyone money to stay in the subject premises for a tenancy, and then testified that he does not know if he ever charged anyone money to stay in the subject premises. Given that Respondent was being sued for eviction, that Respondent testified as such on January 21, 2015, and that Respondent’s tenancy commenced on October 10, 2014, three months and eleven days before his tenancy, Respondent’s inability to remember or know if he had charged anyone to sleep in the subject premises defies common sense. Such incredible testimony was of a piece with other testimony Respondent offered, such as his response to a question about how many nights he has slept in the subject premises with the answer that he does not keep a log of where he sleeps, Respondent’s inability to determine whether a photograph of a comforter on a bed in the ad was a comforter that he owned, Respondent’s lack of knowledge as to other addresses that might be his wife’s address, and Respondent’s testimony that he does not have an email address at the company that he is the president of. If Respondent was actually profiteering by renting out the subject premises as a hotel room, wanted to avoid testifying as such, and was trying to be clever about technically avoiding committing perjury, it is hard to imagine how Respondent would testify differently. (9-10)

The defendant’s testimony demonstrates what happens when the profit motive hits smack up against rent regulation’s policy goal of protecting tenants from large rent increases. Without defining it precisely, the Court refers to this as profiteering which it finds to be inconsistent with the goals of rent regulation and incurable to boot. Thus, the Court issued a warrant of eviction.

This seems like the right result on the law and as a matter of policy. Otherwise, more and more apartments would be informally removed from the regulated housing stock. Moreover, landlords and neighbors would be stuck with the costs of short-term stays while tenant scofflaws would get all the benefit.

Reiss on Legal Snares for Entrepreneurs

Inc.com quoted me in 6 Legal Snares All Entrepreneurs Should Be Ready to Dodge. It reads,

The last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur is pour through long dull documents written by lawyers for lawyers. But there’s a reason it’s called work and not fun. Miss taking care of this aspect of your business and you might find yourself being investigated by the federal government, on the hook for thousands in otherwise unnecessary costs, in a never- ending fight with others involved in the company, or stuck at the exact time you need to be moving.

I was speaking with David Reiss, a professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School and research director of its Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE). Entrepreneurs often lack the broad business experience that would help them avoid a number of traps on the way to growing a business, he said. Here are some of the most common.

Real estate contract snags

“You have a great idea but know nothing about the basics of being a small business person, so you sign the first lease [you’re offered],” he said. But a commercial property lease is a complex document that makes an apartment lease look like nothing in comparison. It typically is something to be negotiated, and getting help to understand the ramifications of various clauses is crucial. “Often there are pretty complicated rent increase provisions that entrepreneurs don’t get,” he said. The document as written might assign you a portion of the building’s increased operating expenses in addition to rent increases. Overly strong restrictions on the ability or reassign or sublease the lease’s obligations could mean an inability to move to a larger space when the business grows. “What are the use restrictions?” Reiss asked “What if the business morphs into something else? Does that violate the use limitations on the space? “

Pick the right corporate structure

You’ll likely have many choices of how to legally and financially structure the company. Some are an LLC, sole proprietorship, partnership, S-corp. , or C-corp. “They have different tax implications, different implications as you increase in size and revenues,” Reiss said. If you have the wrong structure in place, you might find yourself having to unwind it as the business expands. Not only might that be unnecessarily expensive, but you’ve potentially opened yourself to renegotiating some basic arrangements that could be troublesome.

Get a fitting partner agreement

If you need a reminder of how badly partnerships can go, look at Snapchat or Square. One day everything is fine. The next, former best friends are at each other’s throat. You have to consider how to allocate both profits and losses (some investors might like more of the latter).

“Some people are putting in time, some are putting in intellectual property, and some are putting in cash,” Reiss said. “People have different expectations for each of those contributions.” A thorough and well-constructed partner agreement provides a framework for addressing the important issues before everyone is at an impasse.

Have appropriate protection for intellectual property

All businesses have intellectual property. Getting protection on every aspect can burn through cash. For example, patents are great, but if you can’t lock down broad enough protection, competitors might be able to easily work around the walls you built, in which case you may have wasted money. Perhaps trade secrets might be more appropriate. Do you really need to trademark every single name and phrase? Maybe yes, maybe no. Talk to a professional to devise a useful strategy, keeping an eye on what you can afford and how much effort you might need to divert from getting business done.

Check insurance

You’ll need commercial general liability insurance and might also need property insurance. Might directors and officers liability insurance, also known as D&O, be advisable to protect principals in the company? Does your lease or contracts with clients demand particular levels of coverage?

Regulatory compliance

On one hand, anyone who says that regulations make it impossible to open a business is someone to be questioned. On the other, you can get badly tripped up in some common areas like taxes, handling inventory, or labor laws. “A little bit of planning can save you lots of headaches, money, and bandwidth,” Reiss said. “If you’re working 16 hours a day, you don’t want to be thinking about an investigation by the Department of Labor. You need someone to run through a checklist with you of the regulatory overlays on small businesses.”

Bringing lawyers, accountants, insurance brokers, and others in for reviews and discussions isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot less expensive than trying to solve problems after they’ve snared and tripped you.