Life After Sandy: Will NYC Finally Invest in Affordable Housing?

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sandy victims will be given priority for about 2,500 vacant apartments owned by private landlords across New York City. Participating companies vary from Two Trees Management (arguably a predatory developer associated with the controversial Domino Sugar project) to L+M Development Partners (a respected affordable housing developer that recently purchased the Ocean Village project in Far Rockaway.)

According to FEMA, nearly 96,000 households in the region are eligible for housing aid.  This still-developing agreement between the city and private landlords may only provide 2,500 units but is a significant first step in a long battle to ease this housing burden. The public-private coalition has overcome some significant barriers, including length of lease: federal and state law typically requires at least a 12 month terms for rent to be offered below market, but this housing situation may be temporary for some tenants. The plan raises some significant questions about recent trends in the New York City housing market and how we can move forward to ensure it meets the needs of ALL New York City residents.

As any New Yorker can tell you, the rent in this city is “too damn high.” The city has a historically low vacancy rate, hovering around 3%. Rent regulation laws are extended by law makers every year depending on the vacancy rate — typically contingent on whether or not there is a housing “shortage,” generally defined as a vacancy rate lower than 5%. New York City hasn’t had a vacancy rate lower than 5% since the rent regulation laws were first enacted nearly five decades ago. In one fell swoop, Sandy diminished the supply of affordable housing in New York, while increasing an already outsized demand. The market is tight, and the need is urgent. Giving priority to Sandy victims (who certainly do need it) will likely exacerbate this existing housing shortage, as there is a huge demand for overpriced apartments in this city even in the best of times.

Not only has Sandy made the housing situation in New York City much, much worse, it has thrown into the spotlight the fact that affordable and low income housing has not been a legislative priority for some time. In the post-Sandy housing crisis, we are calling on our New York elected officials to prioritize rehabilitation of existing housing stock over new developments. While we continue to invest in new developments and affordable housing that espouses gentrification over long-term affordability, tenants in NYCHA and low income rent regulated buildings suffer. While the city has invested millions into projects like the Barclays Center (still waiting for affordable housing to break ground here), Section 8 is frozen, and NYCHA’s waiting list is 16,000 families long. Sandy made this long-relevant problem more visible than ever.

Today, the New York Times editorial board published an opinion piece, “The Affordable Housing Crisis,” which calls on elected officials from President Obama on down to take new proposals to make rental housing affordable seriously.

[Low-income] families skimp on food and medical care to make the rent and tend to move often, making it difficult for their children to be successful at school. They are also more prone to homelessness, which is traumatic for them and extremely costly for the municipalities that run shelters.

Yet even as the need for affordable housing has grown, such units have disappeared. Over the last two decades, for example, private landlords have removed more than 200,000 apartments from subsidy programs so that they could raise rents. And, faced with weak federal support and no money for repairs, the local housing authorities that manage federally supported developments have boarded up or torn down more than 150,000 units.

This piece is distressing in the context of the national low income housing crisis. In New York City, with a choked market and a demand that increases daily, the situation is much more dire. It’s time for a change, for a real investment in affordable housing. If you didn’t already know so, Sandy just told us.

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