A Mayoral Priority: Increasing Affordable Housing

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Poor New Yorkers in unsubsidized apartments pay two-thirds of their income for rent.  After paying the rent, they have precious few dollars to pay for everything else - food, transportation, medical expenses, educational costs, and other necessities.  Closing the city’s economic inequality gap – which Mayor de Blasio made the centerpiece of his election campaign - has to include making housing more affordable to those with the greatest need. 

Recent rent increases has translated into a dramatic decline in the supply of apartments that low-income households can afford.  More than 385,000 affordable housing units have been lost recently even though the number of low-income households remained relatively stable at just over one million.  The losses reflect the ever-rising rent burdens on low-income households. 

These are some of the findings in a report just published by the Community Service Society entitled, “What New Yorkers Want from the New Mayor: An Affordable Place to Live.”

Between 2002 and 2011, the Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhoods experienced twice the loss of affordable apartments than the city as a whole.  The growing mismatch between rents and incomes has led to many problems, from rising levels of homelessness, to the increasing share of income which many New Yorkers must pay for rent, to an increasing demand for the limited supply of public and subsidized housing.

Most rent increases in private multi-unit buildings are set each year by the Rent Guidelines Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor.  In recent years, the board has failed to adequately consider the needs of tenants in determining the increases on stabilized rents.  The board has tended to protect landlords’ incomes by allowing increases sufficient to cover the full increase in projected costs each year without considering tenants’ incomes.

Excessive increases allowed by the board are one reason why the city’s supply of affordable housing in the unsubsidized market has dwindled so fast.  The de Blasio administration should appoint Rent Guidelines Board members who will consider the impact of rent increases on tenants.

The new administration should also halt the deterioration of the public housing owned and operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).  More than 500,000 New Yorkers live in NYCHA housing; about 44 percent are Latino residents.  Their deteriorating conditions stem from cuts in funding from all levels of government as well as by the city’s practice of charging NYCHA $100 million a year for policing services and payments in lieu of taxes - charges that other affordable housing providers do not pay.

That amount would be enough to cover the shortfall in NYCHA’s operating budget and leave money left over to pay for a realistic maintenance program, reducing or eliminating the backlog of hundreds of thousands of needed repairs and capital improvements.  Mayor de Blasio has already said he will move to eliminate these charges.

The mayor should reestablish the policy of giving priority access for homeless families to public housing.  The homeless situation in the city has reached record proportions, exceeding even the numbers of homeless during the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

The city should replace its current real estate tax exemptions with targeted and regulated programs that would deliver affordable housing far more efficiently.  But for this, the city will need the cooperation of Governor Cuomo and the state legislature.

Across all income levels, two-thirds of respondents in the latest Community Service Society survey said they were willing to pay a little more in taxes to develop more affordable housing for low-income residents.  This includes over 70 percent of Latino respondents.  The new administration should take heart from these numbers and move to increase affordable housing in the city.

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