Rising Rents the Real Story Behind Citywide Poverty Rate

David R. Jones

Some folks may look at the latest citywide poverty statistics, which remained virtually unchanged from last year, and conclude that at least things don’t appear to be getting any worse. With more than 1.7 million people in the city still living below the official poverty line, which is defined as $23,836 for a family of four, I would argue that the situation is already pretty bad.

But while the poverty rate was static, rents have continued to rise in low-income neighborhoods putting an even tighter squeeze on household budgets for poor families. The monthly rent is the biggest expense for low-income households, leaving very little disposable income to pay for food, clothes, a Metrocard, change for the laundry and other essentials. As expected, the poverty rate rose after the Great Recession in 2007 but has not gone back down to its pre-recession level (18.5 percent) despite the fact we are well into the supposed recovery. Median incomes for all New York City households rose slightly last year, but are still short of 2008 levels.

In short, low-income New Yorkers have not recovered from the Recession, but rents rose anyway.

We live in a city where few viable housing options exist for low-income families. Much of that has to do with the fact that the supply of affordable housing for low-income residents has been shrinking for years due to rising rents. From 2001 to 2011, the city lost about 385,000 apartments affordable to low-income households with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. According to our latest data from the 2014 Unheard Third survey, 29 percent of poor households in the city reported falling behind in the rent during the past year. And 27 percent of low-income (below 200% of the poverty threshold) New Yorkers did so.

One of the best ways to help people escape poverty is to make housing affordable and accessible. To his credit, the mayor has made the expansion of affordable housing a priority of his administration. But what these latest poverty rates really underscore is the critical importance of retaining the affordable housing we already have. That means strengthening rent regulation, which comes up for renewal in Albany next year and investing and upgrading the city’s public housing infrastructure. Nearly half a million families reside in New York City Housing Authority developments, and another 2.5 million live in rent-regulated housing, including almost a million poor and near-poor individuals with incomes below twice the poverty line. Strengthening these vital housing resources is the key to addressing the city’s income inequality and preserving decent housing options for future generations.

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