You do not have to go far to find the words “housing crisis” and “New York” written or spoken in conjunction with one another. Much has been made of the dire straits New York’s housing market is in, and not because there is no one who wants to live in the city. Quite the opposite is true, as thousands of people try to find places to live in New York but fail to see affordable options. Perhaps an even more troubling phenomenon is that of the thousands of current New York residents who are steadily being priced out of their own neighborhoods. What was once a decrepit city burning on national television has become a worldwide symbol of gentrification. But while we all want enough good housing at affordable prices for everybody, getting into the weeds of the issue involves lots of formidable policy terminology and concepts. So instead of putting off the topic any longer, let us jump right in and find out why, in the immortal words of Jimmy McMillan, the rent is too damn high. But it is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, so this article will present several strategies, both proposed and active, that aim to make New York more affordable so you can advocate for your community.
First, some basic terminology. We can often misconstrue the various words surrounding housing and urban development, so, for the purposes of this article, we will adhere to the definitions provided by New York’s own Rent Guidelines Board, because these terms carry legal, political, and economic weight in the city. Almost 40% of New York’s apartment-type rental units are considered “private market.” This means that the rents charged by these apartments’ landlords are unregulated by any government, and also carries the knowledge that tenants are not necessarily safe from rent hikes or evictions. About half of the apartments in New York are rent-regulated, which means the tenants’ rent is set by the government and that they have greater legal protections. A small segment of rent-regulated housing is further classified as rent-controlled, which means that the government has placed a limit on the rent a landlord can charge a resident. However, rent-control is quickly disappearing, as it only applies to continuous residents since 1971 and is removed once those residents vacate their apartments. The government has also subsidized housing for lower- to middle-income households in three ways. Section 8 is a voucher program in which a low-income household pays only a certain percentage of their apartment’s rent; the rest of the tab is picked up by the federal government. Mitchell-Lama is a state initiative to promote affordable housing by sponsoring such developments and leasing them based on income. Finally, public housing is a federal program, administered in New York by NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority), in which the government purposefully builds and runs housing projects for low-income households.
With myriad regulations on the housing market, from rent-stabilization to Section 8 to even NYCHA itself, how is it possible for New York to have become so expensive? First, we need to acknowledge that public housing itself, while not up to federal codes and certainly not fixing the problems of low-income households, is not experiencing massive rent hikes. The terms in the zeitgeist- gentrification, displacement, income inequality- all can be traced to the financialization of rental housing in New York. This phenomenon affects private housing, meaning over 1.5 million rental units. It is a dense topic, full of economists and their theories, but it boils down to one simple point. Housing normally occupied by the middle- and lower-middle class became prime stock for investors to convert into high-priced and very profitable units. Until about 20 years ago, New York’s privately-owned apartments were held by local landlords who were experts in how city policy was enforced and how markets and tenants behaved. These owners were able to turn a profit off of rent-regulated units. However, risk-oriented and high reward-seeking groups of investors called private equity firms saw greater opportunity in regulated housing. Urban planning expert Benjamin Teresa attributes this to four causes. The economic boom of the pre-Great Recession 2000s provided borrowing money for investors to buy up regulated housing. In addition, there was initial stability associated with regulated housing because renters are automatically allowed to re-sign on their lease. After the stable investment was made, private equity used the deregulation of the housing market to increase rents after tenants moved or repairs were made. On a macro-scale, the market became inflated due the expectation that the city’s openness to gentrification would yield higher rents. For tenants who were not part of this brazen new world of global financial capital, having their building bought by private equity in many ways spelled the beginning of the end. According to business plans filed by private equity firms with the SEC, the way to achieve the profits they wanted was to stimulate the turnover of 20-30% of residents in rent-regulated housing. These investors incurred large debt to acquire the properties because they planned to attract higher-paying tenants. But the current tenants, who were overwhelmingly of lesser income and more likely to be Black or Hispanic, faced insecurity and the reality that their landlords no longer wanted them to stay.
For tenants who were not part of this brazen new world of global financial capital, having their building bought by private equity in many ways spelled the beginning of the end.
So- New York is expensive and full of landlords who neglect their tenants- now what? Is all hope lost? Is it time to take a page out of Gerald Ford’s book and tell New York to drop dead? Not at all. It is essential to remember that a major reason New York’s housing market was financialized in the first place was due to the policy action of the state legislature in deregulating rent-stabilization. This means that government has a key role to play in whom the city houses, and how it houses them. But the government is not always quick to enforce regulations. When landlords remove their buildings from federal subsidies in order to open up units to higher-income tenants, they are required by law to give the current residents Section 8 vouchers to help them find other affordable housing. However, it has been shown that Housing and Urban Development will not enforce this without significant, collective political action from the affected tenants, often involving their representative to Congress. With that in mind, I have collected some current and proposed initiatives to make New York more affordable.
Mayor Bill de Blasio set a target for creating or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2022. But when his administration hit that target in 2017, and after facing criticism that the initiative did not do enough, he upped the target. Now, he hopes to add 100,000 units by 2026, with emphasis on seniors and working with nonprofits on keeping New Yorkers in the city. What can you do? Well, de Blasio has made much ado about a so-called “mansion tax” on residential transactions over $2 million, but it did not fly with state lawmakers. Your representative should support this if you support it, so call them.
The mayor also pledged to preserve 15,000 units of Mitchell-Lama housing after massive landlord opt-outs. With government subsidy rates lower than the market rates, private owners are deciding to forgo their agreements to provide affordable housing. Secure state funding for Mitchell-Lama in New York can reverse the tide by convincing landlords that it is financially sound to offer affordable units.
The enforcement of existing policies and implementation of new ones are contingent upon constituent involvement: if you do not speak up, the money and economic development brought in by investors will speak in your place.
This plan was formed in the early 2000s and was proposed in 2013 by NYCHA. Though rejected due to many negative perceptions of its elitist tendencies, it is worth reconsidering because it acknowledges the financialization of New York’s housing market and seeks to make the best of a situation in which the government is ultimately dependent on private capital to improve living conditions. It went as follows: empty and unused areas of current project housing would be converted into privately-owned high-rise apartments with most rents set at market rate and some units reserved for subsidized housing. This plan preserved all current public housing, while adding both market-rate and affordable housing in the same area. The money from the property leases to the developers would be used to fund renovations in NYCHA properties all over the city. Aside from the specific failings of the 2013 plan aside, it is important to note that the Section 8 voucher program is less useful for helping lower-income people to afford housing than the projects have been, historically. Thus, even though they are much-maligned, an investment in integrating the projects into society by placing them next to market-rate apartment buildings represents a shift in the paradigm of how the government treats its lower-income citizens. Is it a plan that eliminates class distinctions? No. But it could potentially give NYCHA much needed revenue and stem the tide of affordable housing abandonment.
There are billions of dollars being spent on affordable housing; by all accounts it is a monumental task to provide such a service to people. So why is all this money being spent on businesses that need to turn a profit? Would it not be better to spend the money on the tenants themselves, whose needs are not growth-based, but on a fairly consistent baseline quality of life? Community-based housing is the answer to this question. It involves transferring ownership of affordable housing units to “preservation purchasers,” meaning tenant associations or non-profits. These organizations do not desire to kick out the current residents or flip the properties to gentrifiers, their goal is to make life better for the tenants because, in most cases, they are the tenants. This has already started in a very limited capacity in New York, as a nonprofit donated over $1.5 million to create the Interboro Community Land Trust, that would help transfer ownership of affordable housing to community groups. The stability provided by funneling money back to the community instead of the landlord class cannot be understated.
It is not too late; New York can be reformed to stop the tide of rising rents and loss of tenant rights. However, significant and sustained activism remains the only approach to securing policy-based reform in this regard. The free market will not automatically gear itself toward lower prices when the possibility of greater reward lies elsewhere. Ideas and current policy for helping everyday New Yorkers abound, all that is needed is the willpower and the peoplepower to get it done.