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.

 

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.

Abusive Non-Rent Fees for Rent Stabilized Tenants

The Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project has issued a report, The Burden of Fees: How Affordable Housing is Made Unaffordable. The introduction reads,

Tenants in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods are under attack. Despite the existence of laws such as rent stabilization to protect tenants from high rents, landlords are creating new ways to push rent stabilized tenants out of their homes. One such tactic is the use of non-rent fees, a confusing and often times unwarranted set of charges that are added to a monthly rent statement . . .. These include fees on appliances (air conditioner, washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher), legal fees, damage fees, Major Capital Improvement (MCI) rent increases and other miscellaneous fees. Often these fees appear on a tenant’s rent bill without any explanation. If a tenant fails to pay, even if they are unaware of why the fee was imposed, they are sent letters that make them feel that they are being harassed and are threatened with eviction by the landlord. Most tenants have a right to object to many of these fees, and landlords are legally prohibited from taking tenants to Housing Court solely for non-payment of additional fees. But many tenants don’t know their rights about the fees and often pay them when they shouldn’t. For low-income and working class tenants who struggle each month to pay rent, these fees add up and make their housing costs unaffordable. While some of the fees are legal, many of them are not, and the consistency and pattern of the way the fees are being charged and collected suggests that some landlords are intentionally increasing tenants’ rent burdens to push out long- term, rent stabilized tenants.

This problem is proliferating in the Bronx, where New Settlement’s Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) works to improve living conditions and maintain affordable housing. This is particularly apparent in buildings owned by Chestnut Holdings, a company that is fast becoming one of the biggest landlords of rent stabilized buildings in the Bronx.

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All survey respondents live in rent stabilized buildings owned by Chestnut Holdings. In total, the coalition collected 172 surveys from 23 buildings, representing 13% of the number of apartments in those buildings. The research sample accounts for 4% of all the apartments that Chestnut Holdings owns, and 28% of the buildings. Researchers also collected rent bills and other supplemental materials (including letters to and from landlords, housing court decisions, and more) from 196 Chestnut Holdings tenants. Coalition members chose to focus on these buildings because they are rent stabilized and located in the neighborhoods where each organization is actively working. Data in this report comes from surveys, recent rent bills collected from Chestnut Holdings’ tenants and interviews with tenants.

Overall, we found that the problem of non-rent fees is serious and widespread in the Bronx. 81% of the tenants we surveyed had been charged some sort of fee. From the rent bills we reviewed for this report, the average tenant had $671.13 in non-rent fees on their most recent rent bill. (1-2)

This document is obviously an advocacy document and not a piece of objective scholarship. Moreover, its methodology may not be rigorous enough to allow us to extrapolate much from its findings. That being said, the survey responses themselves reveal a serious problem: alleged average non-rent fees of nearly $700 for each survey respondent seems very, very high, even if we limit the findings to the respondents themselves.

In the 1970s, predatory landlords hired bruisers with bats and pit bulls to frighten tenants into leaving their homes. In the 2000s, a new generation of predatory landlords used abusive court filings to achieve the same purpose. There is a very real risk that high non-rent fees represent a new tactic for predatory landlords to drive out rent-regulated tenants with under-market rents. To the extent that non-rent fees represent a new tactic to harass tenants, government regulators should actively seek to end it and punish those who employ it.

Lawyering up for Housing Affordability

The New York City Independent Budget Office issued an estimate of the cost of providing “free legal representation to individuals with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level who are facing eviction and foreclosure proceedings in court . . ..” (1) The IBO nets the cost of this proposal against the potential savings that the City would reap by reducing admissions to homeless shelters. The IBO concludes that this proposal would have a net cost of roughly 100 million to 200 million dollars.

The IBO notes that “there are benefits to reducing evictions that extend beyond the city’s budget, such as the potential for reducing turnovers of rent-regulated apartments, which would slow rent increases for those units, as well as avoiding the long term physical and mental health consequences associated with homelessness.” (1-2)

Seems to me that this is money well spent in 21st century New York City. Market forces are such that landlords can frequently raise rents significantly whenever a tenant leaves.  Unscrupulous landlords harass their tenants in a variety of ways in order to encourage them to leave sooner.  This might be done through the abuse of legal process, with a landlord trying to evict a tenant multiple times when the tenant has not violated the terms of the lease. Or it might be done through improperly maintaining the property, for instance, cutting off the water repeatedly. In either case, though, tenants are being subject to a lot of illegal behavior in this hot real estate market.

Housing court is a mess for both tenants and landlords, but typically only landlords have lawyers to help them navigate it. This proposal would even the field a bit. Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing goals would be greatly augmented by this proposal.

Perhaps housing court reform should also be put on the table so that these cases are adjudicated equitably, but that is a topic for another day . . ..

A Resilient NYC

NYU’s Furman Center released a report, The Price of Resilience: Can Multifamily Housing Afford to Adapt? It explains that storm-proofing New York City

poses several special challenges not shared by all coastal areas. First, New York City is largely built out, with much of its building stock long predating current flood-resistant design standards. Resilience in New York, then, primarily means retrofitting older buildings, not just strengthening building codes for new construction. Second, much of the official guidance about how to retrofit residential properties to reduce risk and lower insurance premiums is geared toward 1-4 family buildings, reflecting the national housing stock. In New York City, though, only one-third of the buildings thought to be vulnerable to flooding are1-4 family, detached homes. A much larger number of housing units vulnerable to future storms are located in roughly 4,500 multifamily buildings with five or more rental units. Finding ways to cost effectively retrofit these types of buildings to protect residents and reduce insurance premiums for owners needs to be central to New York City’s storm-preparedness efforts.

Finally, the extreme shortage of affordable housing in New York may make the direct and indirect costs of retrofitting particularly hard to bear. Based on current federal policy, increased flood risk requires for many buildings either investment in physical improvements or payment of higher insurance premiums. Without external funding or other relief, there is no clear avenue to enact these resilience improvements while maintaining affordability. Eliminating all units below the predicted flood level, for example, could result in the loss of thousands of indispensable housing units. Even if units are not lost, property owners may pass on the costs of retrofitting buildings to residents through a rent increase, reducing the supply of affordable units in New York City’s coastal areas. For buildings that are constrained in their ability to raise rents and raise funds for improvements, like many of the rent stabilized and subsidized buildings in the city, the financial burden of making costly retrofits might be overwhelming, leading to the conversion of those buildings to market rate (when permitted), unsustainable operating budgets that may require a bail-out, or a large number of buildings left unprepared for future storms. The costs of not retrofitting, however, may be even more burdensome: building owners may face skyrocketing flood insurance premiums if they do not retrofit their buildings.

While I am not so sure that storm-proofing will be what pushes New York City’s housing stock into the unaffordable column (I think the relentless increases in demand might just to the job for units that are not rent regulated), the Furman Center report reminds us that we have a lot to do to protect New York from the next big storm. The Bloomberg Administration did a lot in a short time to identify what the City can do to increase the City’s resiliency. Given the quality of his housing and economic development team, there is reason to hope that the de Blasio Administration will continue to tackle the threat of climate change in a productive way.

The Furman Center report provides three concrete recommendations to ensure that NYC’s large stock of multi-family housing in flood zones is protected from future storm events:

  1. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should modify the guidelines for its National Flood Insurance Program for coverage of existing multifamily buildings;
  2. New York City should expand its Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment to cover buildings in the 500-year floodplain; and
  3. The city should revisit its existing rehabilitation programs to ensure that resilience measures can be readily funded; and it should require that buildings in the 100-year and 500-year floodplains that receive city assistance have adequate emergency and resilience plans.

These all seem like reasonable policies that should be implemented asap.

Reiss on NY RE Regulation

Law360 quoted me in What’s Up Next In NYC Real Estate Legislation (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

New York City lawmakers have introduced a slew of new bills in recent months that could impact commercial real estate owners and developers with changes like new protections for rent-regulated tenants and more public review for zoning changes. Here are explanations and some experts’ thoughts about the proposed laws.

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Fighting Alleged Double Standards for Regulated and Market-Rate Tenants

City Council members Mark Levine and Corey Johnson are drafting a bill to combat what they claim is a trend of property owners unfairly discriminating against their rent-regulated tenants, preventing them from taking advantage of amenities that market-rate tenants can enjoy.

The issue gained a lot of attention last year when news broke that Extell Development Co.’s project at 40 Riverside Drive might have two separate entrances: one for owners of its condominiums and one for those living in the affordable units.

The “poor door” arrangement, which has reportedly been used at several buildings around the city, sparked outrage from tenants, who argued that developers were abusing the 421-a subsidy program, which gives tax abatements in exchange for affordable housing.

Levine and Johnson’s new bill would alter the city’s rental bias code, which protects tenants from discrimination based on race, gender or age, to include rent-regulated as a protected status.

Under de Blasio’s plan for mandatory inclusionary zoning at all new development projects, the bill appears to be an effort to establish actual integrated communities, said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss.

“Mandatory inclusionary zoning is not just about affordable housing; to a large extent it’s about socioeconomic integration,” Reiss said. “I think this bill about double standards is really not about protecting affordable housing as much as it is about respecting socioeconomic diversity.”

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Requiring Two Years of Experience for a Crane Operation License

In April, Manhattan Councilman Benjamin Kallos introduced a bill that would require crane operators to have at least two years of experience working in New York City in order to obtain licenses.

Industry insiders note that the licensing process is effectively controlled by a local union, and many are concerned that this new bill would give the union even more power, essentially blocking the use of any crane contractors that are not affiliated with it.

“There’s a spat between developers and unions, and the bill is firmly taking the side of the unions,” Reiss said. But he added that the real question is what is actually in the public interest. “What is the level of safety that we need?”

The Bloomberg administration had a more developer-friendly approach, creating a plan to allow operators to get licenses if they had worked in a similarly dense city before. But the crane operators’ union sued over those rules, and the litigation remains pending.