Tenants Services Article

The Housing Data Deficit: Why We Need a NYC Housing Census

By George Locker and Leonard Rodberg


Rental housing in New York City has never been more expensive or less available. Considering its enormous impact on so many aspects of life, the lack of decent and affordable housing may be the most serious problem facing the City.

Despite its severity, the housing crisis generates little outcry outside of advocacy/activist circles and essentially no political debate. The housing problem is NYC’s terrible family secret that is never discussed. Elected officials and candidates for office studiously avoid commenting on the nature, extent, and response to the housing problem.

With so little discussion of housing policy, it should be no surprise that public agencies gather insufficient data. Lacking basic data, sound housing analysis and policy become impossible to formulate.

To address this enormous housing data deficit, the Five Borough Institute is seeking support to create a NYC Housing Census Initiative (“HCI”). The HCI will be the first effort in 75 years to gather and disseminate a basic but non-statistical real property inventory of all of NYC’s 800,000 lots and the structures on them, including the entire housing supply of the City. This data is unavailable from any other source, public or private.

NYC's housing crisis is rooted in shortage. Simply by counting what we have and comparing it to what we know we need, a housing census will generate new understanding on what is required to end the housing shortage.

The HCI would provide a sound factual basis for a new housing policy, democratize data collection, and invest participating community groups with a meaningful connection to the buildings that make up their neighborhoods.

What is the state of housing in NYC today?

High Cost of Renting

For a great many New Yorkers, residential rent levels are unbearably high. NYC started the 90's with some 925,000 units of low-cost ($500 or less per month) housing; it ended the decade with less than half that number. 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%.

Large Cumulative Shortage

Rents are high because NYC has a sizable shortage of available units. The acute shortage creates an ongoing, unmet demand, which pushes rents skyward. The City has a cumulative deficit of over 560,000 dwelling units, either of newly built or substantially rehabilitated apartments. The shortage includes needed replacements for

  • 264,000 rental units now classified as “physically poor,” with significant structural or maintenance defects.
  • 100,000 estimated illegal dwellings, such as basements, garages, or subdivided rooms.
  • 100,000 units believed to be improperly doubled up in Public Housing.
  • 75,000 private households defined as “severely overcrowded.”
  • 23,000+ persons in homeless shelters.
  • 3,000 new units/year for population growth.

Little New Construction

The cumulative housing shortage is large and continues to grow because there has been little construction of new housing in the last thirty years. Notwithstanding the City’s desperate need for housing, the private sector has all but ceased to build in New York, and the public sector has not taken its place.

More housing was built in NYC in the ten years from 1960 to1970 than in the succeeding thirty years. In 1963, the most recent peak construction year, 60,000 new units were built. But throughout the 90’s, even with the Wall Street economy booming, an average of only 7,000 new units were built each year.

High Loss Rates

Not only is there little construction of new housing from the ground up, the annual loss of existing housing is very high. For years the total housing supply has not been determined by the rate of construction of new housing, as one might imagine. Rather, with the rate of new construction so low, the total housing available in any given year depends on the number of units “lost” to the inventory and the number of "returning losses".

In the last three years, 21,000 new units of housing were built, while 43,000 were lost due to merging of apartments, conversion from residential to non-residential use, demolition, condemnation, and boarding-up/burn out. Three years before that, 20,000 new units were built and 36,000 were lost. With so little new construction in the past decade and such high loss rates, the City lost almost twice as many units from the housing stock as were newly built.

Moreover, since the mid-70's, returning losses — previously “lost” units that have been returned to the active housing inventory — have replaced new housing construction as the single largest source of additions to the housing stock in NYC. From 1996-99, returning losses accounted for 34,000 units. Where do all of these "lost" units come from?

Lost Units: A Crucial but Unknown Source

Each year, the City depends on the number of returning losses to offset the gross loss of housing units. Though the City has become dependent upon returning losses, little is directly known about this category of building. Though housing is by definition real property, which we can see and touch and is all around us, we lack the most basic quantitative data about these structures, including the actual number of buildings in the City and their description.

Planners have no idea of the actual number of buildings within the five boroughs that are the source or "universe" of returning losses. Neither the Census Bureau, nor any City agency, knows how many units are "lost" and could be added to the housing stock, either through natural real estate market operations or by public policy intervention (e.g. a program to house all of the homeless).

We do not know how many "lost" units are potentially available because we lack the most basic quantitative information about the housing stock, including an actual count of all existing structures in the five boroughs.

1934 Real Property Inventory

The last time an actual census was performed of the housing stock of New York City was in 1934. Fifty-four hundred unemployed workers were hired by the NYC Housing Authority to conduct a complete inventory of the City's buildings. Within six months they produced the Real Property Inventory, giving detailed characteristics by census tract, of the type, occupancy, and rental costs of the City’s physical structures. All types of buildings were included — stores, lofts, and industrial buildings as well as housing.

This pre-computer, manual tally, taken during the Depression, produced more complete housing data for New York City than it has today. Nothing comparable has been done since then.

Data Estimates

Today, the City relies on a variety of indirect means to characterize the building stock within any community of this City. The Census, a primary source of data, is inaccurate and incomplete. Historically, it substantially undercounts people. Moreover, it does not focus on structures independent of inhabitants.

Following the 1990 Census, many people realized there had been a significant undercount of the City's population, amounting to perhaps five percent or more. A significant cause was the failure to include all of the City's housing stock in the address list to which the Census Bureau sent census forms and census takers.

In the succeeding years, the City Planning Department undertook to identify neighborhoods where it believed its master address list had significant deficiencies. It conducted a visual examination of some neighborhoods, using address lists provided by the phone company and utilities. Not surprisingly, the 2000 Census, drawing on an updated address list, showed 680,000 more people living in the City than were indicated in the 1990 Census. Many of these had simply been overlooked by the previous Census.

No one knows how many more persons and their places of residence would have been counted if a door-to-door, non-statistical survey of all neighborhoods had been undertaken.

To make informational matters worse, all of the Housing and Vacancy Surveys undertaken by the Census Bureau since 1975, which provide data about the City's housing stock for its housing policy analysts, were conducted entirely on the basis of a statistical survey of some 18,000 housing units.

For obvious reasons, teachers do not take class attendance using a sampling technique; it is not possible to make sound housing policy without counting all of the City’s buildings in 68 years. Given the impact of the real estate market on the life of the City, it behooves planners to know just what is out there.

Today, the largest and most detailed real property database maintained by the City is the Real Property Assessment Database ("RPAD"). This data file, housed in the Department of Finance and based upon private legal filings, serves the primary purpose of recording building type and property assessments for taxation purposes.

Tens of thousands of units of "lost" housing, which are by definition not in the active housing inventory, do not appear in RPAD and go uncounted.

Moreover, RPAD cannot provide information about why units are lost, why and how they return, their previous occupancy status, or why the locational patterns and previous status of "lost" units constantly change. Because the data is so poor, much of this information is not known or is inferred or guessed at.

Taking an Actual Building Census

The Five Borough Institute proposes to design and conduct, with expert help, a NYC Housing Census. Such a complete census, to be performed by community organizations across this City, would mobilize hundreds of ordinary citizens to examine, in the course of one or more weekends, every building in their neighborhood.

Together with representatives from community groups, labor unions, churches, and academia, 5BI is taking steps to plan the Housing Census. All of these groups have a stake in an accurate housing census and 5BI believes that they will be eager to help develop a plan for gathering, training, and coordinating census-takers from all of their organizations.

The HCI will provide the structural foundation for the actual census and the basis for a continued collaboration among the participating groups to develop and advocate a viable housing plan for this City.

November 2002

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