De Blasio's housing plan should pivot towards low-income New Yorkers
With his Democratic primary victory, Mayor Bill de Blasio now has a clear path toward a second term and another four years to cement his legacy. A centerpiece of his administration has been Housing New York, an ambitious effort to build or preserve 200,000 affordable units over the next decade. City Hall regularly touts the plan’s progress in terms of total units with claims like “the most affordable housing produced in any three years in New York City’s history” and “the largest number of affordable apartments ever preserved in a single City-led transaction.”
Some critics have quibbled with the numbers, saying some were in the pipeline before the mayor took office. But even accepting the mayor’s numbers at face value, keeping score by focusing on total units ignores the obstacles many low-income New Yorkers face to find and keep an affordable home.
Residents and housing advocates have posed the “affordable for whom” question in response to the city’s housing plan. Less than a third of the units produced or preserved under the plan serve low-income New Yorkers, which the Community Service Society (CSS) defines as households with incomes twice the federal poverty level (or about $48,000 for a family of four). And only 15 percent reach those at or slightly above the Federal Poverty Index. Part of the problem is that the city has largely relied on a small group of profit-motivated landlords and the same affordable housing tools used by previous administrations, including re-zonings of low-income neighborhoods of color where residents and businesses are vulnerable to displacement. These strategies have proven insufficient to achieve deep and lasting affordability.
New Yorkers experiencing the most housing instability may be locked out of housing created under the plan. These families are at the greatest risk for eviction and homelessness because the vast majority is rent burdened. Further, while the city has updated its policies to ensure that affordable housing applicants are not disqualified based solely on their credit or housing court history, applicants may still be rejected if they have a history of evictions.
Research conducted by sociologist Matthew Desmond illustrates how evictions perpetuate poverty. His research and CSS’s recent analysis have documented that evictions are more prevalent in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. However, private landlords receiving public subsidies can reject applicants with evictions in their histories, contributing to cascading housing instability.
Moreover, while the mayor and other elected officials have publicly positioned New York City as a Sanctuary City, undocumented immigrants may have trouble accessing the units built under the plan. While the city explicitly prohibits landlords of city-financed properties from inquiring about an applicant’s immigration status, federally financed housing bars undocumented immigrants. Properties built or preserved under Housing New York, like most income-targeted housing today, use multiple sources of government funding. In particular, federal subsidies like Section 8 vouchers often help reach deeper levels of affordability. Undocumented immigrants remain without sanctuary, forced into precarious housing situations and facing aggressive policing.
In addition, incarceration disproportionately affects low-income black and Latino people, propelled by aggressive policing tactics in neighborhoods of color. The city mandates that private landlords receiving city subsidies must run background checks on all applicants and disclose to the city what types of convictions will lead to applicant disqualification. However, private landlords receiving public subsidies retain the right to disqualify applicants based on their criminal history. For tenants, the risk extends beyond applying to housing – arrests can lead to eviction and homelessness.
Finally, about 80 percent of all new units built for the lowest income households as part of the plan were studios or one-bedrooms. These apartments are not accessible to many needy families because of their small size– the average homeless family is a single mother with two children. Smaller apartments are cheaper to build and count equally under Housing New York’s key metric: total number of units.
Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for making unprecedented investments in affordable housing. But as he enters a second term, his housing plan should pivot from the total unit focus to tracking and publicizing neighborhood and population-based impacts of the plan. The city should also experiment with new housing tools that are tenant oriented, like a universal rental assistance program, and target its resources toward projects that secure permanent affordability and community control, like community land trusts.
Oksana Mironova is a housing analyst at the Community Service Society; Sylvia Morse is an urban planner.