By Eric C. Henry Jr.
New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has consistently drawn attention to the growing disparity of wealth between the rich and poor in New York. He likens the dramatic income inequality to the Dickensian social injustice depicted in “A Tale of Two Cities”; going so far as to threaten to impose a tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers in order to fund fundamental educational programs such as universal pre-K. Those at the top of the New York City economic strata can breathe a temporary sigh of relief, now that DeBlasio has secured funding in the State budget for his universal pre-K initiative for New York City schoolchildren.
Mayor DeBlasio’s next battle in the war against an economically divided New York City turns on the issue of affordable housing. This is an apt next step, since one of the major areas where the chasm between the rich and the poor is especially visible is access to housing. This fight pits the interests of developers and landlords against those of low-middle income tenants.
On May 5, 2014 Mayor de Blasio laid out a 10-year plan to preserve 120,000 current units, and build an additional 80,000 units of affordable apartments across the five boroughs. This move is lightyears ahead of the initial projection of 50,000 units he espoused during his election campaign, and will make a significant impact towards stabilizing communities of low-middle income New Yorkers who otherwise would have been “priced out” of New York City.
But what does it mean to live in one of the most economically-robust cities in the world, and yet not have enough money to pay a fair and livable rent? According to a report released by the New York City Comptroller’s Office, the median apartment rents in the city have increased 75% since 2000, while median incomes have dropped by nearly 5% during that same period.
We have to understand what the term “affordable housing” truly means in a way that makes clear the options available to low and middle income New Yorkers, and why there’s a need for truly affordable housing. Many times, when one hears the term “affordable housing,” the concept is equated with public housing for low-income New Yorkers under programs such as the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Public housing is but one type of affordable housing, primarily for low income New Yorkers.
Low income New Yorkers, according to NYCHA rent regulations, are described as making 200% of the federal poverty threshold. Examples of New Yorkers who would qualify as being low-income families would be a family of one making $22,980 per year, a family of two making $31,020 per year, and family of three making $39,060 per year. While there is a constant need to ensure these individuals are protected, we are seeing a shift occur in that middle income New Yorkers are also being included in the City’s “most vulnerable” – a term once reserved for low income New Yorkers.
In reaction to this shift, we must reshape our perception of “affordable housing” to “housing that people can actually afford,” to appropriately understand the housing options that are currently dwindling in our city. Housing that people can actually afford can include public housing, rent stabilized housing, and new blocks of set asides under inclusionary zoning.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a report furnished by the Community Service Society (pdf), allocated billions of dollars towards the development of affordable housing in New York City during his tenure in office. However, this increase in funding was eclipsed by the fact that the City lost hundreds of thousands of low-income housing units from 2002-2011. We have lost more units of affordable housing due to deregulation than we created new units or preserved old ones.
One major reason we have lost units of affordable housing was the spike in the renovation of existing apartments towards market rates. Landlords retain the ability to make improvements to their overall property, including the market rate and affordable unit apartments which they rent. While making improvements to residential dwellings is generally a laudable effort, after renovations landlords can then eventually convert these apartments to market rate due to their increase in value. This forces an individual who lived in formerly affordable apartments to move because they cannot afford to pay the increase in what their apartment is now supposedly worth. Many find refuge in the City’s shelter system, which is already operating at over capacity.
Another reason for the decrease in affordable housing is that inclusionary zoning is not mandatory for developers of residential complexes. Inclusionary zoning, also known as the Inclusionary Housing Program, is a City program which allows developers to increase the size and scope of their developments. This allows them to create more units of housing, with the proviso that they have to set aside at least 20% of units for low-middle income housing. All affordable residential units created through the Inclusionary Housing Program must remain permanently affordable. Despite this program being a tool for developers to potentially increase revenue by expanding their new developments, and in many cases receive a tax break and other subsidies, many choose to opt out.
If Mayor DeBlasio wishes to secure the 200,000 units of affordable housing laid out in his housing plan, he must ensure that rents do not skyrocket so high after renovations, such that rents may remain relatively stable. He must also ensure that inclusionary zoning is made mandatory for all those who wish to develop in New York City. This will invariably anger developers and landlords who argue their profits will decline in the wake of this sweeping housing reform. However, it is only when we begin to take housing reform seriously that we will begin to see more gains than losses in the stock of affordable housing, and ensure that we see more parity in an economically factionalized city.
About the Author, Eric C. Henry Jr.
Eric is a 2005 graduate of Binghamton University, where he double majored in Africana Studies and Philosophy, Politics and Law. Currently, he works for the New York City Council. He is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated and serves as Co-chair of the Community Service Committee of the New York Urban League Young Professionals.