Housing Vacancy Survey Shows City More Unaffordable Than Ever

The initial results of the 2014 New York City Housing Vacancy Survey were released last month, providing a grim snapshot of the situation facing city tenants. 

The survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every three years, surveys a representative sample of the city’s rental, owned, and vacant buildings, and provides valuable information about its renters and owners, including their median income and monthly rent. It estimates that of the about 2,184,000 apartments occupied by tenants or available for rent, about 47 percent are rent-stabilized, 39 percent unregulated, 13 percent in public or government-subsidized housing, and 1.2 percent rent-controlled.

The numbers show the city’s housing-affordability crisis intensifying. While the median monthly rent increased by 3.4 percent from 2011—and by about 6 percent for privately owned, unsubsidized apartments—renters’ median incomes rose by just 1.1 percent, from $41,053 to $41,500. The median income for the remaining rent-controlled tenants, who are mostly elderly, actually decreased by 3.6 percent, and that of rent-stabilized tenants dropped by 0.3 percent. And, contrary to the contention of many landlord lobbyists, these tenants are not rich people hoarding apartments they could easily pay much more for. The median income for rent-stabilized tenants was $40,600. It was $29,600 for rent-controlled tenants. 

That means that a growing number of the city’s tenants are rent-burdened. More than half spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. One-third—the families, couples, and single people who occupy about 700,000 apartments—are paying half or more of their total household income to cover rent and utilities, the survey found. In rent-stabilized apartments, tenants typically paid 33 percent of their income for rent alone. That was the highest proportion of any category of renter surveyed, including those in unregulated apartments and public-housing residents, who are generally much poorer. 

The number of apartments considered overcrowded—more than one person per room—has also inched up, to 12.2 percent of all renter households.

Perhaps the most alarming statistic from the survey, however, is the dramatic disappearance of apartments that low-income, working-class, and, increasingly, middle-class New Yorkers can afford. Between 2011 and 2014, the city lost more than 100,000 apartments that rent for $500 to $900, a drop from about 419,000 to 315,000—a quarter of the number available just three years before. (Apartments below $500 are virtually all in public or subsidized housing.) It gained about 50,000 apartments renting for $900 to $1,250, but lost 75,000 in the $1,250-$1,500 range, a drop of more than 20 percent. 

In the same period, the number of units available at rents of $2,500 or higher increased by 36.5 percent—a gain of about 60,000 apartments, almost exactly equal to the number lost in the $500-$800 range. 

The city continues to suffer a housing shortage. Not surprisingly, the vacancy rate for all rental units is only 3.45 percent, well below the 5 percent level that is the legal justification for rent controls. The vacancy rate is even lower for rent-stabilized units, at 2.3 percent, and it’s a mere 1.8% for apartments under $800. 

Equally concerning, perhaps, is that, among the about 180,000 vacant units that are not available for rent, about one-third are in the process of being renovated or awaiting renovation—a sign that their rents are likely to go up drastically when the work is done. Another 55,000 are “held for occasional, seasonal, or recreational use,” often a sign that they’re rented by affluent people who don’t use them as homes. 

“There are more than 60,000 people in our shelters each night, including over 25,000 children,” Met Council program director Ilana Maier told the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee on March 2. “It is no secret that the main cause of homelessness in New York City is the lack of affordable housing. Finding affordable housing is almost impossible.”


Jenny Akchin is an intern at Met Council. A native of Baltimore, she is pursuing a master’s degree in urban affairs at Hunter College, concentrating on housing and neighborhood development. She is also involved in the housing movement as a tenant advocate and anti-displacement activist.