George S. Locker
Five Borough Institute
The housing problem.
For a great many New Yorkers, rent levels are unbearably high. NYC started the decade with some 925,000
units of low-cost ($500/month) housing and ended it with less than half that amount. Today, one out of three New York
households pays more than 30 % of its income for rent, the current Federal measure of housing affordability. One out
of four pays more than 50%.
With rents high and wages low, vast numbers of average New Yorkers cannot afford to rent a decent
apartment or to stay in the one they have. In 1999, the City's Housing Court issued 112,000 warrants of eviction to
landlords, with the City Marshal taking actual possession of residences in over 23,000 separate cases. In 2000, the
number of warrants issued had climbed to 122,000.
The housing stock is old and deteriorating.
The physical condition of a building correlates most closely with its age, and NYC has a lot of old housing.
40% of all multiple dwelling units, or 850,000, are of tenement-era design and construction. All of these Old and
New Law tenement buildings present concerns both about their structural integrity and the condition of the individual
dwelling units. The public health consequences of so much obsolete housing have only begun to be explored.
There are over 3 million code violations of record, including tens of thousands of the most serious classification.
For all practical purposes, there is no effective enforcement by the City of habitability, health and safety codes
for existing residential buildings.
There is little construction of new housing.
Notwithstanding the City's desperate need for housing, the private sector has all but ceased to build in
New York. More housing was built in NYC in 1960-1970 (10 years) than in 1970-2000 (30 years). In 1963, the most recent
peak construction year, 60,000 new units were built. Much earlier, between 1921-1929, an average of 73,000 units/year
were built, including almost 95,000 in 1927 alone.
But throughout the 90's, with the Wall Street economy booming, an average of 7,000 new units were built
each year. (Consider that NYC needs 3,000 additional units/year just to keep up with population growth).
The annual loss rate is high.
NYC loses a considerable number of housing units each year, so much so that the loss rate itself is
a factor in the overall housing supply.
In the last three years, 21,000 new units of housing were built and 43,000 were lost. Three
years before that, 20,000 new units were built and 36,000 were lost. With so little new construction in the past
decade, overall the City lost almost twice as many units from the housing stock as were newly built.
Indeed, the data shows that for years, the size of the housing supply in NYC has been determined
not by the rate of construction of newly built housing, but by the annual number of losses offset by the conversion
of already existing structures into residences (at high rents).
There is a massive shortage.
The high cost and poor condition of NYC housing are products of a huge shortage of housing relative to the City's
needs -- a cumulative deficit of at least 562,000 units.
These un- and under-housed New Yorkers include occupants of the 264,000 rental units classified as "physically poor,"
with significant structural or maintenance defects; those living in the estimated 100,000 illegal dwellings, such as
basements, garages, or subdivided rooms; the 100,000 thought to be improperly doubled up in NYC Public Housing; the
75,000 private households defined as "severely overcrowded;" the 23,000 in homeless shelters.
Tenant advocates generally understate the magnitude of the housing shortage while public officials and candidates
alike simply ignore the issue. It is not possible to address the high cost and low quality of NYC housing without
first redressing the massive and growing shortage of actual available units.
We need to build housing.
Given the cumulative housing deficit and the annual housing loss rate, it is evident that without
housing construction organized on a large scale, it will be impossible to keep rents from rising or the housing
supply from deteriorating and shrinking.
After so much inactivity, only a substantial construction program can eliminate the housing shortage
in NYC. Taking into account the current housing needs plus annual losses, a program to eliminate the housing shortage
would require construction of about 52,000 units a year, for fifteen years, and 15,000 units/year thereafter.
Based on past performance, we are more than capable of building housing in the quantities needed.
Toward a solution.
More than a century of experience in housing reform in NYC has shown that decent and affordable housing is built
only when there is financial support from the government.
The legislative vehicle to implement a large-scale public housing construction program already exists. Affordable,
economically diverse, public housing could be built today through the NYC Housing Authority, on City land, from
progressive tax revenues, by NYCHA itself and in partnership with private developers.
This civic renewal project would need to review zoning regulations, assemble public lands and brownfield sites,
extend mass transit lines, employ advanced construction techniques with innovative architecture, and reflect humane
A Challenge for Mayor-Elect Bloomberg
The housing problem has gotten out of hand. The usual explanations and remedies are properly viewed
as deficient. The public wants a solution. The economy of the City is dependent upon it. It is clear that building
housing in the public domain for ordinary folks would rejuvenate New York, bring rent levels down and generate many
good jobs in the process.
The post 9/11 environment - the availability of billions in federal funds/insurance payouts, vacant
public lands, the chance to expand mass transit -- provides the incoming mayor with a short-lived opportunity to build
public support for a municipal construction program to eliminate the housing shortage.
An organized and coordinated effort begun now could achieve important and lasting results of historical
||New York, New York
|December 6, 2001|