Mayor’s Golden Opportunity to Aid Affordable Housing

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Recent rent increases in New York City’s housing has translated into a dramatic decline in the supply of apartments that low-income households can afford.  This loss, amounting to more than 385,000 units, occurred even as the number of low-income households remained relatively stable at just over one million.  The losses were distributed throughout the city, including poor neighborhoods where the rising rents did not reflect a higher income population moving in but simply 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.”  Included in the report are the opinions and concerns of New Yorkers from CSS’s latest annual survey, “The Unheard Third.”

Between 2002 and 2011, West Harlem and Central Harlem both experienced the loss of affordable apartments at a much faster rate than the city as a whole.  The growing mismatch between rents and incomes in New York City has led to many problems, from rising levels of homelessness, to the increasing share of income which low and middle income New Yorkers must pay for rent each month, to an ever-increasing demand for the limited supply of public and subsidized housing.

Inequality Gap

Rent burdens now account for a staggering two-thirds of income, on average, for poor New Yorkers in unsubsidized units.  After paying the rent, poor New Yorkers have precious few dollars to pay for everything else - food, transportation, medical expenses, educational costs, and other necessities.  Any approach to 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. 

Most New Yorkers believe that the dramatic decline in the number of apartments affordable to low-income households – those with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – is linked to the policies of the Bloomberg administration.  In “The Unheard Third” survey, 63 percent of respondents believe that the Bloomberg administration benefitted the wealthy of New York, not the poor or middle class.

Rent Guidelines Board

Most rent increases in private multi-unit buildings are set each year by the city’s 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 allowable 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 changes to the tenants’ incomes.

Excessive increases allowed by the Rent Guidelines 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 be appointing Rent Guidelines Board members who will regularly consider the impact of rent increases on tenants.

Public Housing

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; nearly 90 percent are black and Latino residents.  Their deteriorating conditions stem from cuts in funding from the city, state, and federal 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 more realistic maintenance program, reducing or eliminating the authority’s backlog of hundreds of thousands of needed repairs and capital improvements.  Mayor de Blasio has already said he will move to stabilize public housing by eliminating these charges.  He can do so with the flick of a pen.  Let’s hope he follows through on this soon.

The mayor should also reestablish the policy of giving priority access for homeless families to public housing and housing vouchers.  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, which often come without affordable housing requirements, with targeted and regulated programs that would deliver affordable housing far more efficiently.  For this, the city will need the cooperation of Governor Cuomo and the state legislature, not an easy task.

The report advances several other recommendations, including halting NYCHA’s infill development process that would allow private development on public lands without input from the local community and targeting new affordable housing development to people with the lowest incomes.

Across all income levels, two-thirds of respondents in “The Unheard Third” survey were willing to pay a little more in taxes to develop more affordable housing for low-income residents.  This includes 55 percent of white respondents and 74 percent of black respondents.  The new leadership at City Hall understands the urgency of this issue, and the consequences, if we don’t take action to ensure the city’s affordable housing stock keeps pace with the growth of the city’s low-income population.

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