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.

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.

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.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Rent Regulation and Housing Affordability

NYU’s Furman Center issued a fact brief, Profile of Rent-Stabilized Units and Tenants in New York City, that provides context for the deliberations of the Rent Guidelines Board as it considers a rent freeze for NYC apartments subject to rent stabilization.

Rent regulated (rent stabilized and rent controlled) apartments clearly serve households that have lower incomes than households in market rate apartments. Median household income (fifty percent are below and fifty percent are above this number) is $37,600 for rent regulated and $52,260 for market rate households.Thus, market rate households have median incomes that are nearly 40% higher than rent regulated ones.

The median rent is $1,155 for rent regulated and $1,510 for market rate households.Thus, median rents are about 30% higher for market rate tenants.

Despite these differences, the number of households that are rent burdened (where rent is greater than 30% of income) is similar for the two groups: 58% for rent regulated and about 56% for market rate households. (4, Table D)

The Furman Center brief provides a useful context in which to consider NYC’s rental housing stock as well as the households that live in it. Given the nature of NYC households, however, I would have wished for a more finely detailed presentation of household incomes and rents.

NYC’s distribution of income is skewed toward the extremes — more low-income and high-income households and therefore fewer middle-income ones than the rest of the nation. Given this, it would have been helpful to have seen the range and distribution of incomes and rents, perhaps by deciles. The Furman Center brief indicates that updated data will be available next year, so that may provide an opportunity to give a more granular sense of dynamics of the NYC rental market.

Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan outlines his commitment to preserving affordable housing. One element of that commitment is to preserve rent regulated housing. Understanding that market sector and the households it serves is essential to meeting that commitment.