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Behind New York City's affordable housing crisis

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‘Stories like these move through the city like an underground stream’

Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has seen a rapid inflation of housing prices over the last decade.

New York City is in the midst of a worsening housing crisis—this is a truth that has been apparent for some time now. And this week, the New York Review of Books tackles it head-on in a doozy of a piece (more than 8,000 words!) titled “Tenants Under Siege: Inside New York City’s Housing Crisis.”

In it, author Michael Greenberg outlines the myriad, complex issues that have led to where the city is now, while laying bare exactly how screwed New Yorkers are when it comes to finding, or keeping, affordable housing, and the despicable practices some landlords use against tenants for their own financial gain. Like Greenburg writes, “Stories like these move through the city like an underground stream.”

While the entire thing is worth a read, here, we’ve grabbed some of the most illuminating—and downright infuriating—tidbits from Greenberg’s thought-provoking feature.

1. “Rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25 percent of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.”

2. “Not long ago a rent-stabilized building would sell for ten or at most twelve times its rent roll—the amount of money, before expenses, that it generates in a year. Today, it sells for perhaps thirty or forty times that amount, or ten times what the rent roll would be after regulated tenants have been dislodged.”

3. “A woman I know—call her S—who lived on Schenectady Avenue in Crown Heights for twenty-three years and raised her eighteen-year-old daughter there told me she was recently presented with a new lease in which the rent went from $1,017 to $2,109 per month. The hike was perfectly legal. Over the years, the landlord had not passed on the annual increases granted by the Rent Guidelines Board and was thus able to add all of them to the lease at once. Realtors call this “gentrification insurance”; the Rent Guidelines Board calls it “preferential rent.”

4. “One of the tactics owners employ [to remove tenants] is to hold rent checks without cashing them and then sue tenants for nonpayment.”

5. “An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out.” (Ed. note: !!!!!!!)

6. “In 2016 [the city] managed to squeeze 6,844 new affordable units out of developers, as construction projects that had broken ground in 2014 were completed—a numerical victory, but only 35 percent of those apartments were for households making less than $40,000, the income level that is being most relentlessly pressured with eviction from older, ‘undervalued,’ rent-stabilized buildings. Citywide, de Blasio’s program provides far more affordable units for households making $63,000 to $143,000.”

7. On the disparity in who applies for affordable housing lotteries: “To give an example, at 535 Carlton Avenue in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn ... 92,743 households entered the lottery for 297 affordable apartments. But only 2,203—less than 3 percent of the applicants—applied for the 148 units that had been set aside for households earning six figures. (The monthly rent for these units ranged from $2,680 to $3,716, depending on their size.) By contrast, 65,000 households—about 70 percent of the applicants—vied for ninety units for tenants with incomes of between $21,126 and $63,060.”

8. “The median rent-to-income ratio shows that New York tenants (excluding those living in public housing projects and other financially assisted buildings) spent 65.2 percent of their total income on rent in 2016, up almost six points from the already alarmingly high figure of 59.7 percent in 2015. The median can be a misleading measurement, but in this case it provides a telling portrait of the city’s evolving predicament. By comparison, nationwide, in 2015, Americans earning the country’s median annual income of $55,589 could expect to spend no more than 30 percent on rent.”

9. On why it’s so hard to change how the city builds affordable housing: “From 2000 to 2016, New York City developers contributed $83 million to state assembly and senate campaigns, more than any other economic group. Much of that money went to upstate and Long Island candidates with no regulated housing in their districts. In exchange, these legislators, risking not a single vote among their own constituents, block pro-tenant bills from reaching the floor.”

10. And this whopper of a parting note: “We speak nowadays with contrition of redlining, the mid-twentieth-century practice by banks of starving black neighborhoods of mortgages, home improvement loans, and investment of almost any sort. We may soon look with equal shame on what might come to be known as bluelining: the transfiguration of those same neighborhoods with a deluge of investment aimed at a wealthier class.”

Update (8/3/17): The city’s communications advisor for Housing and Economic Development, Wiley Norvell, says Greenberg “misses the big picture” of how affordable housing in New York City gets created.