Cities With the Worst Rent

photo by Alex Lozupone

Realtor.com quoted me in Cities With the Worst Rent: Is This How Much You’re Coughing Up? It opens,

Sure, rents are too dang high just about everywhere, but people living in Los Angeles really have a right to complain: New analysis by Forbes has found that this city tops its list of the Worst Cities for Renters in 2018.

To arrive at these depressing results, researchers delved into rental data and found that people in L.A. pay an average of $2,172 per month.

Granted, other cities have higher rents—like second and third on this list, San Francisco (at $3,288) and New York ($3,493)—but Los Angeles was still deemed the worst when you consider how this number fits into the bigger picture.

For one, Los Angeles households generally earn less compared with these other cities, pulling in a median $63,600 per year. So residents here end up funneling a full 41% of their income toward rent (versus San Franciscans’ 35%).

Manhattanites, meanwhile, fork over 52% of their income toward rent, but the saving grace here is that rents haven’t risen much—just 0.4% since last year. In Los Angeles, in that same time period, rent has shot up 5.7%.

So is this just a case of landlords greedily squeezing tenants just because they can? On the contrary, most experts say that these cities just aren’t building enough new housing to keep up with population growth.

“It is fundamentally a problem of supply and demand,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Certain urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are magnets for people and businesses. At the same time, restrictive local land use regulations keep new housing construction at very low levels. Unless those constraints are loosened, hot cities will face housing shortages and high rents no matter what affordable housing programs and rent regulation regimes are implemented to help ameliorate the situation.”

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.

Rental Potholes

photo by Eric Haddox

Realtor.com quoted me in Rental Potholes—and How to Avoid Falling Into Them. It opens,

Until you have the money to buy your own home, renting is eventually a part of just about every person’s life. And typically this transaction tends to work out just fine. Until it doesn’t. Because there is indeed plenty that can go wrong, leaving renters learning some difficult lessons through trial and error. To make sure you aren’t one of them, check out these rental roadblocks—and what you can do to keep from getting stuck.

Somebody’s watching you

“My work took our family to Florida and in our haste to find somewhere to live with our two kids, we found a gorgeous townhouse seaside rental. The ocean views were incredible, just what we’d dreamed of. So incredible, in fact, that we didn’t realize the unit lacked window coverings of any kind! And as much as I loved looking at the ocean, there were times when some level of privacy was desired; people could see into the whole house if they were walking along the beach. When we shared this ‘oversight’ with the landlord, his offer was to split the costs of full-house window coverings! We decided not to help the property owner increase the value of his home. We continued to enjoy ocean views on a 24/7 basis but moved out after a year.” – Rhonda Moret, Del Mar, CA

Lesson learned: Don’t let your enthusiasm keep you from doing your due diligence before thoroughly vetting a place and signing on the dotted line.

“This responsibility falls squarely on the tenant; you can’t expect someone else to look out for your interests. That’s your job,” says David Reiss, academic program director for Brooklyn Law School’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. But by the same turn, don’t fall for a landlord’s request to “split the cost”—any renovations should be his responsibility all the way.

Bye-bye, security deposit

“When I handed our landlord a $1,000 security deposit, I assumed I’d get it back whenever we left, and didn’t bother to do a walk-through of the apartment to make sure it was in decent shape. Big mistake! Once we moved out, the landlord sent us a letter stating he was keeping the security deposit because we had broken a window in the garage. Only we hadn’t—that must have been done by a previous tenant. We got charged for someone else’s damage.” – Mindy Jensen, Wheaton, IL

Lesson learned: “Doing a walk-through inspection is important if you want your security deposit back,” says Reiss. “It’s important to add details like time stamps to everything and get documentation that your landlord received the report.”

Also consider recording a video with your smartphone while you walk through the place. The more backup material you have, the better the odds that you’ll get back what you deserve.

Your pet or your pad

“A few years ago, my family and I rented a townhouse. There was a pet shop on the corner selling the cutest puppies, and we fell in love with a French bulldog and bought him. That’s when things started to get ugly. We hadn’t checked the rental agreement to see if we could own a pet. When our landlord found out, she became hysterical and asked us to leave—or get rid of the dog. We ended up homeless, but with a very cute puppy. Fortunately, we stayed at a friend’s place until we found a dog-friendly home.” – Derek McLane, Sydney, Australia

Lesson learned: “Read the fine print before you sign. This is pretty fundamental, even if it is not fun to do,” says Reiss.

At the very least, ask your landlord what the rules are and to specify where the pertinent parts can be found in the lease. Be aware that many leases don’t allow pets, or will make pet owners pay an extra fee known as pet rent.

You’ve got mail … a mile away

“I was living in an amazing apartment when the mailboxes in the foyer were vandalized to the point where the USPS deemed them ‘unsafe for delivery of mail.’ We were ‘temporarily’ redirected to pick up mail six blocks up and four very long avenue blocks over until the landlords had an opportunity to repair our mailboxes. A year and a half later, they still hadn’t been fixed—and to make matters worse, a stairwell skylight had collapsed. I was forced to take on the practically full-time job of challenging my landlord to make repairs. I finally was able to make something happen by researching the building and finding out that my landlord had illegally jacked up the rent more than was legally allowed by rent-stabilization laws. Eventually, my efforts resulted in a rent reduction, reinstated mail delivery, and a very bad tenant/landlord relationship.” – Tim Tucker, Las Vegas, NV

Lesson learned: “Know your rights. Tenants have a lot of them, particularly in rent-regulated apartments,” says Reiss.

Buying Into The Sexiest Real Estate

Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York - Construction at Hudson Yards

Newsmax quoted me in How to Buy and Sell in the Sexiest of Real Estate Markets. It opens,

With the opening of the 7 subway station at 34th Street last year, more than 100 shops and 5,000 residences, the Hudson Yards neighborhood in Manhattan is creating new demand for housing.

“We’ll likely witness a progression of rising prices as the entire development grows both residentially and commercially,” said Brad Malow, licensed real estate broker with Charles Rutenberg, a real estate firm in Manhattan.

Stretching from West 30th to 34th Streets and 10th to 12th Avenues, Hudson Yards is just one example of how supply of inventory impacts pricing in the world of real estate.

“The problem right now in the sales market is that supply is not catching up fast enough to pent up demand,” Malow told Newsmax Finance. “If supply increases and demand stays the same, what usually results is lower pricing.”

The New York housing market is very different from most others in the U.S. The vacancy rate in New York has hovered at 2% on average, according to a Douglas Elliman/Miller Samuel data and new development inventory is up 101% with supply and demand fluctuating from season to season.

That makes proper pricing important to the marketing of all types of property given the extraordinarily low vacancy rate.

“The supply of new housing is very low given the size of the market and the rental market is heavily regulated, depressing the rents for many units,” said David Reiss, professor of law with the Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn.

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.

Reiss at TechSalon on Tenant Rights

I will be the lead discussant at a Technology Salon Brooklyn event on Thursday morning: How Are ICTs and Social Media Supporting Tenant Rights? The invitation reads,

Gentrification is top of mind of many Brooklynites, as they are pushed out of their communities by large-scale economic development and wealthier groups moving in. One effect of the gentrification process is often the shuttering of local businesses and skyrocketing rents for residents as landlords make way for those who can pay more.

The New York City Office of the Comptroller reported in April 2014 that median rents in the city had risen by 75% since 2001, compared to 44% in the rest of the US, while at the same time, real incomes declined overall for New Yorkers. At the same time, the numbers of rent-regulated properties has decreased. The harshest consequences of rising rents and lowering incomes are felt by the poor and working classes (those earning less than $40,000 a year).

This situation is contributing to an increase in homelessness, with the city’s shelters receiving an all time high number of people seeking support and services. The negative impacts of gentrification also tend to differentially impact on communities of color. Tenants do have rights — however, enforcing those rights can take years when landlords have deep pockets. In 2003, a tenant advocacy group found that in cases initiated by tenants, only 2% resulted in fines for landlords.

Residents of gentrifying areas have not been silent about the impact of gentrification. Numerous community groups have formed and are fighting to keep communities intact, cohesive and affordable for residents. Social media and better data and data visualization can help to track and create evidence bases that can support residents, or to connect them to support services and legal aid.

Please RSVP now to join us at the Brooklyn Community Foundation for a lively roundtable conversation on tenant rights and ICTs. We’ll hear from community organizations, technology developers, legal advocates and others with an interest in technology and social activism around tenant rights, including such questions as:

  • How are community organizations successfully using ICTs and social media to support tenant rights?
  • What is working well, and what are some of the lessons learned about using ICTs and social media for outreach?
  • What are some new ways that organizations could use ICTs to support their work?
  • What support do community organizations need to do this work?

Please RSVP now to join Technology Salon Brooklyn for a lively discussion! Be sure to arrive early to get a good seat, hot coffee, and morning snacks before we start.

ICTs, Social Media and Tenant Rights
Thursday, April 16, 2015, 9-11am
Brooklyn Community Foundation
1000 Dean Street, Suite 307
Brooklyn, NY 11238
RSVP is Required to Attend

The Foundation is a short walk from the A, C, S 2, 3, 4 or 5 trains (Franklin Av stop) (map).

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.