Tenants Services Article

Build Housing

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 planning.

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 dimensions.

Dated:  New York, New York
December 6, 2001

Common Problems Home
Articles for Tenants
•  Judge Wants Details of M.T.A.'s Tenant Relocation Plan
•  Delays in $4 Billion Brooklyn Development Are Challenged in Tenants' Lawsuit
•  Tenants Sue Agency Over Brooklyn Project
•  A Nod for Atlantic Yards, and Then a Lawsuit
•  Developer of Atlantic Yards Is Cited for Failing to Stop Demolition Work
•  Brooklyn: Atlantic Yards Suit Filed In Wrong Court
•  Clearing of Atlantic Yards' Site Proceeds as Legal Thicket Grows Denser
•  The Housing Data Deficit: Why We Need a NYC Housing Census
•  Defending the Commerical Tenant
•  NYC's Noise Laws
•  City Must Build on Past Successes
•  Build Housing
•  Selected Cases