Adams’ Affordable Housing Fumble

Originally published in the New York Daily News.

New Yorkers are shocked by the sting of hefty rent increases and the shortage of apartments affordable to most residents. Everyone needs decent housing we can afford, and in an expensive metropolis with a growing population, the need can only be met through substantial investments initiated by City Hall.

For too long, indeed since Ed Koch left office, mayors have failed to produce enough affordable housing — especially housing to accommodate the lowest-income New Yorkers, including homeless individuals and families. As homelessness remains at near-record levels, rents continue to rise, and affordable housing production and preservation has dropped a frightening 45% in the last fiscal year, it is becoming clear that Mayor Adams has now dropped the ball too.

A recent analysis of the mayor’s housing budget by the New York Housing Conference shows he plans to add virtually no new funds to build new affordable housing during his term of office, with much of his investment instead being used to convert NYCHA units in need of repair to private ownership with project-based rent subsidies.

Despite his campaign promise to invest $4 billion per year to create affordable housing, Adams’ current housing budget of $2.5 billion falls far short of what is needed. The mayor recently touted a $5 billion increase over 10 years, but these funds do not support new affordable housing in his four-year term, aside from a paltry $200 million.

The $3.4 billion in added Department of Housing Preservation and Development affordable housing investments he calls for are not scheduled to be made until the 2027-2031 fiscal years, when they will do nothing to address the present crisis, and when rents and development costs are likely to be even higher.

Failing to tackle the problem now and solve an affordability crisis in which the city is already losing ground will have grave consequences. Following the Great Recession, New York City added a half-million people but by 2018 had gained only 100,000 units of housing. Today, rents are skyrocketing, evictions have resumed and are rising every month, and inflation is consuming precious housing development resources at a rapid rate.

This crisis is hitting the lowest-income New Yorkers hardest. Consider:

  • More than 50,000 New Yorkers bed down each night in city shelters — 15% greater than a decade ago — including more than 16,000 children. Thousands more sleep on the streets or in shelters regulated by other city agencies.
  • The ever-rising lengths of stay in DHS shelters in 2022 averaged 509 days for single adults, 534 days for families with children, and 855 days for adult families, which often include a disabled family member.
  • We calculate that more than a half-million NYC households with extremely low incomes (below $28,650 for a household of two) pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent, and about a quarter-million have rent burdens exceeding 50% of their incomes. More than a third of single adults and a third of those over age 62 are severely rent-burdened, as are 71% of those with incomes below $15,000 per year, leaving them literally on the brink of homelessness.
  • The vacancy rate for the lowest-cost apartments in New York City is below 1%.

The City of New York has spent billions on tax breaks and direct subsidies to finance the development and preservation of “affordable” housing, but those investments have yielded little for those most in need. Using data published recently by the city’s Independent Budget Office, we calculate that since 2017, only about 1,300 apartments for extremely low-income households were financed each year, or about one apartment for every 414 rent-burdened, extremely low-income households. By contrast, the city financed 1,594 units per year during that period, or one apartment for every 55 rent-burdened households with moderate, middle or upper incomes (above $76,400 for a household of two).

To say that the odds of securing decent affordable housing are stacked against those with the lowest incomes is a monumental understatement. Between 2014 and 2019, there were just nine apartments in the NYC Housing Connect lottery affordable to a household of three living on $18,000 in disability benefits, and a staggering 10,000 applications for these nine units.

The city’s budget reflects the choices we make about what’s important to our community, and the choices made to date demonstrate that the housing crisis for low-income New Yorkers has simply not been a priority. But it does not need to be this way. The mayor has the opportunity to correct course in future budgets.

Adams should start by setting aside an additional 6,000 affordable apartments per year for homeless individuals and families, and each year building an additional 6,000 apartments affordable to extremely low-income households. Failing that, homelessness will continue to grow on his watch, and more New Yorkers will needlessly suffer the sometimes irreversible toll it will take on their health, education and well-being.

Nortz is deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless.