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.

NYC’s Housing Supply

The New York City Rent Guidelines Board (of which I am a member) released its 2017 Housing Supply Report. It has a lot of interesting data for housing nerds as well as those of us obsessed with NYC. Here is a taste:

  • There are a total of 3,217,521 units of housing.
  • 2,184,295 are rental units.
    • 848,721 are non-regulated rentals.
    • 1,335,574 are regulated rentals in one form or another (rent stabilized, rent controlled etc.)
  • 1,033,226 are owner units.
    • 116,134 are condos
    • 330,679 are coops
    • 586,413 are conventional homes.

Some other highlights include,

  • Permits for 16,269 new dwelling units were issued in NYC in 2016, a 71.2% decrease over the prior year and the first decrease since 2009.
  • There was a 31.3% decrease in the number of co-op or condo units accepted in 2016, to 282 plans containing 8,671 units.
  • The number of housing units newly receiving 421-a exemptions decreased 17.8% in 2016, to 4,493.
  • The number of housing units newly receiving J-51 abatements and exemptions decreased 22.5% in 2016, to 34,311.
  • The number of new housing units completed in 2016 increased 61.9% over the prior year, to 23,247.
  • Demolitions were down in 2016, decreasing by 2.0%, to 1,849 buildings.
  • City-sponsored residential construction spurred 23,408 new housing starts in FY 2016, 74% of which were rehabilitations.
  • The City-owned in rem housing stock declined 70.2% during FY 2016, to 125 units. (4)

For those who do not know the byzantine world of NYC housing policy, 421-a exemptions relate to new construction and J-51 abatements relate to renovation of existing construction. It is interesting to see how policy changes impact housing construction.

Any one year’s figures provide just a snapshot, so if you really want to get a sense of the big picture, you should check out the earlier reports too. For instance, last year’s report stated that there were permits for 56,528 new dwelling units in 2015, an increase of 176% from 2014.  This is way more than the long term trend. Permits for new dwelling units never got much higher than the low thirty thousand range but fell to a low as six thousand during the depths of the Great Recession.

When you realize that the 421-a tax abatement was set to expire at the end of 2015, this big jump in permits makes sense as developers filed a ton of permits to take advantage of the program while they could. It will be interesting to see how the new 421-a regime will impact permits for new construction going forward.

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.