Cityview: Building a Future

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There has always been a shortage of housing in New York City, but not until the 1930s was a serious public effort to deal with it mounted. We have now been at it for more than half a century. How are we doing?

Not well. The just-released results of the Census Bureau’s 1999 Housing and Vacancy Survey show that the number of families facing serious housing problems is in the hundreds of thousands. Recent years of prosperity have brought little improvement.

Besides providing a detailed picture every three years of housing conditions and availability, the HVS determines whether rent regulation can continue under state law. If the vacancy rate falls under 5 percent, the city officially faces a housing emergency.

By that measure, housing is still in crisis. According to the new survey, the vacancy rate is 3.19 percent–the lowest this decade, resulting from the sharpest decline in vacancies since 1968. And it is worst for low-rent units: the number renting for less than $700 went down by over 27 percent in the last three years, while those renting under $400 declined by over 65 percent.

The consequences are striking. Over 900,000 households have rents that are more than 30 percent of their incomes, more than what most people agree they can pay without interfering with other needs. Almost all of them have incomes under $40,000. For 500,000 households, rent is over half of their incomes.

We’re also seeing an increase in overcrowding. Over 215,000 households were living with more than one person per room. More than 75,000 households were severely overcrowded, at more than 1.5 people per room, a number that has been going up steadily this decade. The physical condition of housing also needs serious attention: Over 19,000 units are dilapidated, while almost 270,000 have numerous maintenance deficiencies.

The need for housing at reasonable rents is only going to increase. The benefits of the current economic boom are unequally divided, with the gap between the rich and the poor growing. In this tight market, rents will continue to increase faster than poor people’s incomes.

The city’s Consolidated Plan–a document required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development–is as close to a blueprint for housing as we have. But the “ConPlan” does not suggest any way to solve the problems these figures describe. We badly need a “ProPlan” that would address them, and determine how much it would cost.

In a project at Columbia University, we have tried to put dollar figures on some pieces of the problem. The following would be annual average spending for each of five years:

  • To bring the vacancy rate up to 5 percent: 20,500 units, $188 million a year
  • To eliminate overcrowding: 75,000 units, $708 million a year
  • To house the homeless: 26,000 units, $245 million a year
  • To rehab dilapidated units: 19,500 units, $179 million a year
  • To eliminate maintenance deficiencies: $200 million
  • To bring rents down to affordable levels for households below median income: 760,000 households, $2.5 billion a year.
  • Total: about $4 billion a year

This assumes $118,000 each unit, $5,000 per maintenance deficiency, and 7 percent amortization over 30 years. The actual costs may be lower, since these estimates don’t take into account market effects that could result from making more housing available. But they may also be higher: Population growth and immigration will bring further demands, as will the need to upgrade neighborhood conditions.

What New York has now comes nowhere close to what’s needed. The ConPlan lists expected expenditures over five years, from city, state, and federal funds, of $1.3 billion. It states that $1.62 billion will be used by city agencies and not-for-profits to meet housing needs. The city’s housing budget in 1999 was $161 million, down from $222 million in 1993. Total spending on housing by and through the city last year was $387 million.

The resources already being devoted to the housing problem are already sizeable, but they constitute probably less than one-third of what is needed. Meanwhile, there is no scheme to rationalize, coordinate or plan for what is already being spent, never mind the resources that ought to be devoted to housing.

The greater shame is that the public sector is sitting on money that could get the job done. The city’s budget surplus this year is estimated to be $2.9 billion. New York State has $1.7 billion in unspent federal welfare dollars it can tap into. The Federal government is also experiencing record surpluses.

Virtually every housing advocacy group in the city is assessing what that money could do. At the very least, ending the housing crisis will call for:

  • Strengthening the best of what we have, from rent regulation to community-based organizations;
  • Expanding rent subsidies, such as Section 8, and making them matters of right;
  • Returning to the original goal of owning, building and managing public housing for people, not profit;
  • Investment in rehabilitation, with tenants playing a major role in managing the process;
  • Bringing the housing allowance in welfare programs up to where it meets real housing costs, and expanding eligibility;
  • Providing enough building inspectors;
  • Coordinating an attack on homelessness, centered around permanent housing and supportive services.

A serious, goal-oriented plan, developed by the city in collaboration with tenants, could get the city on the way to do these things efficiently and quickly. A ProPlan.

Peter Marcuse is Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. This article was co-authored with Rebecca Hersch, Ryan Southard, Devan Reiff, Yoshiyuki Shiraishi, and Jankun Kim. Additional research by Danielle Harris, Rebecca Montero and Tara Sullivan.