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Mapping New York City’s affordability gap

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The connection between a single HUD calculation and New York's affordable housing crisis

535 Carlton Avenue in Prospect Heights, one of the city’s all-affordable rentals—and one where the affordability gap is particularly evident.
Max Touhey

“Sometimes it feels like affordable housing [in New York] is for people with a pretty nice job,” says Dani, a 22-year-old Brooklyn native currently living with her mother and brother in a Park Slope two-bedroom rental.

Her family has been in New York for three generations, and Dani’s mom, who makes about $40,000 per year, pays around $2,500/month in rent. She has been looking into city-subsidized rentals over the last four years, and while she found a few potential units, she has yet to win a housing lottery for any of them.

In terms of the city’s subsidized rental program, Dani says she “wouldn’t imagine it as an option for lower income friends,” as it is just “barely affordable” for her own family.

Recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the his administration’s Housing New York plan—which aims to create or preserve 200,000 affordable units by 2024—will be completed two years early. The city has now promised to up its commitment by 100,000 units, with all of these affordable apartments due to be completed by 2026.

But de Blasio’s plan has its critics; affordable housing advocates, including the Real Affordability for All coalition (RAFA), say that the plan doesn’t truly help many of low-income New Yorkers. RAFA reported that folks making less than $25,000 could only afford about one-seventh of these new units under Housing New York.

In New York, housing is deemed affordable if a household spends a third or less of its income on rent and utilities. To categorize affordable housing—and give subsidies to developers for creating it—New York specifies different income ranges that determine which rents certain affordable units can charge, and who can apply to live there.

These ranges rely on a number called Area Median Income (AMI), a single value calculated each year by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2015, HUD reported that the AMI for a three person family in New York was $77,700 a year, and it has since grown to $85,900 in 2017. (For reference, the Census reported that the median household income of Manhattan, New York’s wealthiest borough, was $72,871 in 2015, nearly $5,000 less than AMI.)

Given that AMI is a fixed number, these income ranges are the same no matter where in the city you live. Earning between 80 and 120 percent of AMI puts you in the ‘moderate income’ housing range, for instance.

To see the gap between AMI and what New Yorkers are actually making, we mapped the 2015 median household income for each neighborhood area (PUMA district) in New York City and compared that to HUD’s AMI number for 2015. In 47 of these 55 neighborhoods, the AMI was higher than the area’s actual median income, and in nearly half of the city (24 neighborhoods), 60 percent AMI was still higher than the area’s income.

Visualization by Sam Raby via Leaflet | Map tiles by Stamen Design (under CC BY 3.0). Data from HUD, ACS, NYC Open Data, OpenStreetMap (under ODbL).

According to a HUD spokesperson, the federal government doesn’t use data from only New York City when calculating AMI. Following a complex history of changing methodologies, this calculation now includes income data from three other counties outside of the city: Rockland, Putnam, and Westchester counties.

On average, folks in these three counties have considerably higher incomes than New Yorkers, bumping up New York’s AMI quite a bit. The map below shows just how stark these differences are.

Visualization by Sam Raby. Map tiles by Stamen Design (under CC BY 3.0). Data from Census, OpenStreetMap (under ODbL)

To make things even stranger, Westchester and Rockland counties have both passed legislation to prevent New York City incomes from bringing their AMI calculation down while they continue to push New York’s AMI up.

Removing these three counties from the equation would indeed lower New York City’s AMI and shrink the gap, but since AMI defines what developers are allowed to charge under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, lowering AMI would make affordable housing less financially feasible, according to HUD. Therefore, the city has an interest in keeping AMI high so that developers participate in affordable housing programs.

Some, like Dani, see this relationship as problematic. “Bill de Blasio is working with developers and has no regard for affordable housing,” she says. “Essentially it does nothing to combat displacement.”

According to a spokesperson from the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), the city does make efforts to ensure that housing is truly affordable for people on a community level. “The aim is to have income levels in each project reflect the community in which it resides,” a HPD spokesperson told Curbed.

While HPD must adhere to AMI guidelines, they “take into account what a neighborhood can support when [they] tailor AMI levels to a project,” and “affordable housing projects financed by the city almost always include some or all units affordable to a percentage lower than 100 percent AMI.”

And this is true. At the end of the 2017 fiscal year, nearly four-fifths of new units developed through the Housing New York plan were affordable to those earning below 80 percent AMI.

Nonetheless, data shows that some apartments created or preserved under this plan—even those suited for people earning well below 100 percent AMI—are still not affordable for a majority of people living in a neighborhood.

Take the Marcus Garvey Apartments in Brownsville, for example: 623 out of its 625 units are available to ‘low income’ tenants, according to city data. By the city’s metrics, these are for folks earning between 50 and 80 percent AMI, or $38,850 to $62,150 a year for a family of three in 2015. The American Community Survey estimated that median household income in this neighborhood was $27,512 that year, more than $10,000 below the lowest income one would need in order to afford renting in the Marcus Garvey Apartments.

Gaps like this are not new to housing justice activists. In September, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) released an infographic detailing the gap between the needs of rent-burdened New Yorkers and the affordable options provided by the city. Echoing RAFA’s report, their analysis showed that while nearly half of the rent-burdened population is categorized as “extremely low income” (below 30 percent AMI), they could only afford about 15 percent of new affordable units.

Part of the infographic from the ANHD stats report on Housing New York
Courtesy of ANHD

And many developments don’t have any units for ‘extremely low income’ renters. In Prospect Heights, the rental building at 535 Carlton Avenue (built as part of the larger Pacific Park megaproject) has nearly 300 apartments, all of which are deemed affordable by the city. According to city data, 15 are for “very low income” tenants, 90 are for “low income” tenants, and the remaining ones—nearly 200—are for “middle income” tenants. The median income for that area is $42,796, which means that a typical resident of the neighborhood would categorize as “low income,” only able to afford one-third of the apartments at 535 Carlton.

A recent investigation by City Limits found that a whopping 67,000 applicants to that building’s housing lottery fell into what would be categorized as “low-income.” Meanwhile, apartments earmarked for those in the highest income band were still seeking renters earlier this year.

Given data like this, housing advocates continue to question whether the city goes far enough to fix the housing crisis. “Reports from the mayor’s office are really not true to what is on the ground,” says Alex Fennell from Churches United for Fair Housing. Fennell claims that the easiest solution to getting true affordability is “to target the AMI brackets that have the greatest need,” which by ANHD’s report would mean creating more housing for folks in the ‘extremely low income’ range.

However, Fennell thinks the system needs to change, as the fact that the New York City government relies on HUD numbers at all to determine affordability “feels like a cop out,” especially given the cuts to affordable housing in the recent tax reform bill.

“When NYC so often bucks the trends that we see nationally and is currently taking such a strong stand against so many federal policies (immigration, tax policy, etc.),” she says, “why are we not taking a stance that makes sense for New York when it comes to providing real affordability?”