As rents rise and incomes remain stagnant, many New Yorkers are facing the painful realization that they may soon have to leave the city to find housing they can afford. In response to this crisis, which threatens to damage the city’s economic and cultural diversity, Mayor de Blasio’s administration has made affordable housing one of its principal issues, laudably pledging to develop or preserve 200,000 affordable units over ten years. While the New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program (NIHOP) will produce homeownership developments on vacant lots, the mayor’s plan is primarily concerned with rental housing, missing a vital opportunity to promote social mobility and long-term economic stability for families and neighborhoods through homeownership.
Although many associate homeownership in New York City with Manhattan’s luxury condos or the spending sprees of foreign investors, most owner-occupied homes in the city are located in the outer-boroughs where, for decades, they have provided immigrants and hard -working families of modest means an opportunity to build assets and security in an always changing city.
Today, rising home prices are pushing homeownership out of reach for middle class families. According to the Case-Schiller Index, home prices have increased by 81 percent since January 2000 while the median income for New York City households actually decreased over the same period, if adjusted for inflation. That means families have less money to pay for increasingly expensive homes. In gentrifying neighborhoods the situation is even grimmer, with home prices spiking over the course of just a few years. That has not only been the case in the desirable brownstone neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but also in areas slated for new development, like East New York and Cypress Hills, where speculators are driving up prices by flipping homes.
People of color are particularly hard hit. Long excluded from homeownership by discriminatory lending policies, African-American and Hispanic New Yorkers have been deprived of the primary tool by which Americans build wealth. In New York City, only 26 percent of African-American and 15 percent of Hispanic households own their homes, compared with 42 percent of white households, a disparity much more extreme than national figures. Access to affordable homeownership is pivotal to racial and economic justice.
One of the most important measures government can take in leveling the playing field is making it easier for working families to afford a home by assisting with their down payment, the primary hurdle to buying a home for many.
The City’s office of Housing Preservation & Development currently offers a down payment assistance program, HomeFirst, which gives prospective buyers the lesser of a $15,000 grant, or six percent of the home’s purchase price. Yet the program is only eligible to families making less than 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) or about $62,000 for a family of three. Housing counselors observe that clients earning between 80 percent and 120 percent of AMI are often outbid by homebuyers with enough cash on hand to pay 20 percent, 30 percent, even 100 percent of the price upfront. Last year the median down payment in Gravesend, Brooklyn was 34.3 percent for a median down payment value of over $250,000. Without assistance through HomeFirst, middle-income families—despite being well positioned to afford monthly mortgage payments—are being priced out of the housing market.
New York might take a lesson from San Francisco, home of the country’s highest average down-payment assistance amount: $53,713. Homebuyers in the Golden-Gate city with an income up to 120 percent of AMI are eligible for a zero percent, deferred-interest down-payment assistance loan of up to $200,000. Increasing NYC’s HomeFirst down payment assistance grant to at least $25,000 would be a step towards giving middle-income New Yorkers the opportunity they deserve to compete in a housing market skewed by wealthy investors.
Our system has historically incentivized development in NYC through billions of dollars in direct subsidies and tax breaks to well-heeled developers. Increasing down payment assistance will help hard-working families build equity and long-term stability.
This is not a proposal for a hand out, but rather a hand up. This is not a plan for millionaires, but rather would help those who are the very lifeblood of our city: our nurses, teachers, and transit workers, police and firemen. These people work in our communities, keeping us safe and teaching our children. They should not simply be able to afford to live in our neighborhoods; they should be able to own a piece of them.
Expanding and enhancing down-payment assistance is not a silver bullet, but would go a long way toward addressing the displacement of our city’s working class and gentrification that excludes longtime residents from sharing in the economic growth of their neighborhoods. With help in buying a home, those families can stake a claim to that growth and pass on the benefits to their children.
We say we are a city of opportunity; people who work here should be able to live here. People who live here should also be able to own here.
Mark Treyger, a Democrat, is the councilmember for the 47th district covering Coney Island, Bensonhurst and Gravesend and is chair of the Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency. Karen Haycox is CEO Habitat for Humanity New York City. Christie Peale is the executive director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. Habitat for Humanity New York City and the Center for NYC Neighborhoods are members of the Coalition for Affordable Homes, 26 organizations fighting for the preservation and expansion of affordable homeownership opportunities in New York City.