Census Data Challenges Some Housing Claims

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Queens ranked as the borough with the harshest housing crunch.

Metro Centric

Queens ranked as the borough with the harshest housing crunch.

Every three years, the Census Bureau conducts a Housing and Vacancy Survey on New York City—a barometer of the city’s never ending (but recently intensifying) housing crunch. The first public data from the report came out in a recent letter from the de Blasio administration to the City Council that was first reported on in the New York Times earlier this week.

The deliciously detailed statistics in the HVS couldn’t come at a better time. With rent regulations and the 421a and J51 tax breaks up for discussion in Albany, homeless numbers near record highs, public housing facing severe budget and maintenance issues and the mayor’s housing plan taking shape, rarely in recent memory have more people been saying more things about housing.

The Census numbers add some nice context for that discussion, and give grounds to challenge some of the conventional wisdom:

  • From 2011 to 2014, the number of rent-stabilized units in the city actually increased by about 9,000. Hooray! But wait: The reason that number increased is because the number of rent controlled units decreased by 10,000 or so, and most units that leave rent control enter rent stabilization. So, taken together, the number of rent-regulated units (controlled and stabilized) did fall slightly. But it’s, um, complicated.
  • Queens is the borough with the lowest vacancy rate—not Brooklyn, Ground Zero for gentrification. The vacancy rates for each borough were: Staten Island 5.50, Manhattan 4.07, the Bronx 3.77, Brooklyn 3.06 and Queens 2.06.
  • It’s become a popular argument by landlord groups and their allies in the legislature that the city’s rent-regulation system is flawed because it attaches protections to apartments rather than people. The notion is that the current system rewards tenants who don’t need or deserve the help. But the median income in rent-stabilized housing in 2014 was $40,600, suggesting that most of the people in rent-stabilized apartments are exactly the low- and lower-middle-income households that any other housing program (like, say, a Section 8-style voucher approach) would aim to serve.
  • The de Blasio housing plan, like the Bloomberg one, seeks to provide affordable housing for different income groups, including households with incomes comfortably in the six digits. The two mayors’ plans are different, of course, and there are a lot of reasons to craft a plan to serve income groups broadly—one being it buys broader political support for the plan. Whatever the mayor’s arguments for creating housing for households making up to $138,000 for a family of four, however, vacancy rates can’t be one of them. Affordable housing for a family making $138,000 would rent at $3,450 a month. The Census data shows that the vacancy rate in that territory (apartments renting at above $2,500 a month) was 7.32 percent in 2014, up from 5.02 percent in 2011. Apartments renting for $800 or less—affordable for households with incomes of $32,000 or lower—had a vacancy rate of 1.80 percent in ’14.
  • In other words, housing in New York isn’t cheap for anybody, but the crisis is concentrated on the low end of the rent scale. So why are we still talking about subsidizing housing to serve those for whom the real-estate market seems far less daunting?

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    • Alan

      Because having to pay many thousands of dollars a month for somewhere to live is scary in a world of at-will employment, even when that employment can be very well-compensated.

    • native new yorker

      The SI rental market is the smallest and most of those apartments are in 2-family homes or the rare 3-family home. A 2-bedroom goes for about $1300.