City Lost 400,000 Low-Rent Apartments in Last Decade

New York City lost almost 400,000 apartments affordable to low-income people from 2002 to 2012, and three-fourths of its residents have had to spend a bigger share of their income on rent, says a study released last month by the Community Service Society.

For 12 years, the Bloomberg administration pursued a strategy of enthusiastically promoting economic investment in the city, including real estate development that targets primarily people with extremely high incomes. The argument for this strategy was that investment will produce spin-off benefits for a wide range of New Yorkers,” says the study, “An Affordable Place to Live.” “But rising rents more than wiped out these gains for low-income New Yorkers, resulting in severe and worsening hardships. In fact, even middle-income renters tended to find themselves further behind.”

The study defined “low-income” as households with an income below $39,000 in current dollars, twice the federal poverty level for a family of three. In 2002, according to Housing and Vacancy Survey data, there were about 995,000 apartments that these 1 million households could afford, those that rented for less than $713 a month. By 2011, there were less than 610,000 apartments that rented for less than $878—almost 40 percent fewer. The “dramatic decline,” the report says, was caused by changes in subsidized housing, rent regulation, and the private market. 

Median rent went up by almost 60 percent in that decade, while tenants’ incomes increased by less than 30 percent. Rents rose even more sharply after the recession began in 2008, while tenants’ incomes virtually froze. Rent-regulated tenants saw slightly lower increases, but their incomes suffered much more from the recession.

The result, the study found, is that low-income tenants above the poverty line now spend an average of 45 percent of their income on rent, while those below it spend almost two-thirds of theirs. On average, for three-fourths of New Yorkers—those making less than $80,000 a year—the rent took a bigger bite than it did ten years earlier.

The report urges Mayor Bill de Blasio to build more housing for people who make less than $30,000, who were largely left out of Michael Bloomberg’s New Housing Marketplace Plan, and to fund it with revenues from Battery Park City. It also recommends making inclusionary zoning mandatory, require owners receiving 421a and J-51 property-tax breaks to deliver affordable housing, and make affordable housing the highest priority for city-owned land.

In public housing, it says that ending the city’s practice of charging the Housing Authority $100 million a year for police and other services would enable it to eliminate its repair backlog and maintain apartments properly. It opposes building luxury “infill” housing in NYCHA projects, and advocates reserving some public-housing apartments and Section 8 vouchers for homeless families—both positions de Blasio has backed.

It also urges the mayor to appoint Rent Guidelines Board members who will consider the impact of rent increases on tenants’ ability to pay, instead of setting permissible increases based solely on owners’ costs.