Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
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New York Times - April 12, 2013

When ‘Affordable’ Is Just a Word
Richard Perry

The spring has the real-estate press enthusiastically reporting on the construction of 432 Park Avenue, an apartment tower that its developers claim will be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere. Apartments in the tower, designed by Rafael Viñoly and to be completed in 2015, are offered in the $20 million to $80 million range, which in the context of Ludicrously Priced Housing for Oligarchs Who Spend Most of the Year in Tax Exile on Mediterranean Yachts isn’t as numbing as it might otherwise be. Such is the historical moment that a few blocks west, in another glass tower, called One 57, apartments have sold in the past year for more than $90 million.

Given these perversions, it is hard to understand what affordable housing means in New York, in one sense because the market doesn’t really abide it, and in another because the phrase itself in policy terms has become so amorphous.

Just as shocking, arguably, as the $44 million four-bedroom duplex in TriBeCa that turns up in the real estate listings of The New York Times is the $1,400-a-month, two-bedroom rental apartment in the Belmont section of the Bronx. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which calculates what it calls the housing wage - the earnings necessary to pay no more than 30 percent of your income on rent, the threshold usually used to define affordable housing - you would need to make $26.92 an hour, or $56,000 a year, to afford the apartment. If you held a minimum-wage job, a likely circumstance in a neighborhood where the poverty rate is 43 percent, twice the city’s on the whole, and median household income is just over $22,000, you would have to work 149 hours a week to meet the cost. Alternatively, you could clone yourself 2.7 times.

As it happens, affordable housing was the subject of a mayoral forum last week at New York University. Democratic candidates all expressed the view that despite the Bloomberg administration’s ambitious and lauded affordable housing program - which has financed the preservation and construction of 165,000 units of low-, moderate- and middle-income housing - the city, at a time of record homelessness, soaring rents and stagnating wages, needs to do more and needs to generate affordable housing that is actually affordable.

Two months ago, a report issued by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a consortium of neighborhood housing groups, indicated that out of the 38,670 units developed by the Bloomberg housing plan from 2009 to 2011, only one-third of them were economically within reach of households making the median income or less for the typical household in their neighborhood. Of the units the city developed over the same period, only about 8 percent were intended for households making less than 40 percent of the metropolitan area’s median income, though they make up nearly one-third of all New York City households.

Another dimension to all this is what Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban planning at the New School, likens to a bathtub with a running faucet and an open drain. As the city builds new units of affordable housing, old units age out of the system. Much of the affordable housing isn’t meant to be affordable forever simply because it isn’t financially feasible, so rents go up, tax breaks expire and units nudge toward market rate. Last week, the housing development association issued new data indicating where existing affordable housing had disappeared or was threatened. In the University Heights section of the Bronx, 5,000 units of housing from 2008 to 2011 became unaffordable, with rents requiring incomes of more than 80 percent of the area’s median income.

The New York City Housing Authority, where the average monthly rent as of this year is $436, offers permanent affordability, of course, but there are currently more than 167,000 families on its waiting list (and more than 123,000 families on a waiting list, now closed, for Section 8 federal housing vouchers, which have had their financing reduced by sequestration). One partial solution to clearing the backlog would be to relocate older residents living alone in large apartments in public housing to smaller ones and give over two- and three-bedroom apartments to the families who need them. “It isn’t all that complicated," Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker and a Democrat, said at the candidates’ forum, “even though it isn’t happening."

Creating actual affordable housing, buildings that can pay for themselves in the absence of growing subsidies, will be a formidable challenge for the next mayor. John C. Liu, a Democratic candidate, proposes to do it with what he calls the People’s Budget, which he unveiled last week and which includes $27 million in housing vouchers for the homeless and $3.7 billion in capital funds to help create 100,000 units of affordable housing over a four-year period. He would finance these and other ambitions through tax increases on those making more than $1 million a year, charging rents to charter schools using city facilities and taxing private equity firms’ carried interest, to cite a few examples.

Advocates and analysts in the affordable housing world have talked about addressing some of this difficulty by cross-subsidizing buildings, a process that would have a mixed-income building in the Bronx, for instance, helping to offset the costs of a primarily low-income building in Brooklyn. I would propose another form of cross-subsidization called the You Don’t Need to Live in a $50 Million Penthouse Tax, which would require anyone buying a property for more than $10 million (of which there are currently about 280 listed in The Times) to pay a percentage of that cost to an affordable-housing fund. And then commit, in writing, to never complain about it.