The Five Borough Report


Build Housing, by George Locker

The housing problem. Rental housing in New York City has never been more expensive or less available. Considering its impact on so many aspects of life, the lack of decent and affordable housing may be the most serious problem facing New York.

Housing is too expensive. For a great many New Yorkers, rent levels are unbearably high. NYC started the decade with some 925,000 units of low-cost ($500/month) housing and ended it with less than half that amount. Today, one out of three New York households pays more than30 % of its income for rent, the current Federal measure of housing affordability. One out of four pays more than 50%. 

With rents high and wages low, vast numbers of average New Yorkers cannot afford to rent a decent apartment or to stay in the one they have. In 1999, the City’s Housing Court issued 112,000 warrants of eviction to landlords, with the City Marshal taking actual possession of residences in over 23,000 separate cases. In 2000, the number of warrants issued had climbed to 122,000. 

The housing stock is old and deteriorating. The physical condition of a building correlates most closely with its age, and NYC has a lot of old housing. 40% of all multiple dwelling units, or 850,000, are of tenement-era design and construction. All of these Old and New Law tenement buildings present concerns both about their structural integrity and the condition of the individual dwelling units. The public health consequences of so much obsolete housing have only begun to be explored.

There are over 3 million code violations of record, including tens of thousands of the most serious classification. For all practical purposes, there is no effective enforcement by the City of habitability, health and safety codes for existing residential buildings.

There is little construction of new housing. Notwithstanding the City’s desperate need for housing, the private sector has all but ceased to build in New York. More housing was built in NYC in 1960-1970 (10 years) than in 1970-2000 (30 years). In 1963, the most recent peak construction year, 60,000new units were built. Much earlier, between 1921-1929, an average of 73,000 units/year were built, including almost 95,000 in1927 alone.

But throughout the 90’s, with the Wall Street economy booming, an average of 7,000 new units were built each year. (Consider that NYC needs 3,000 additional units/year just to keep up with population growth). 

The annual loss rate is high. NYC loses a considerable number of housing units each year, so much so that the loss rate itself is a factor in the overall housing supply.

In the last three years, 21,000 new units of housing were built and 43,000 were lost. Three years before that, 20,000 new units were built and 36,000 were lost. With so little new construction in the past decade, overall the City lost almost twice as many units from the housing stock as were newly built. 

Indeed, the data shows that for years, the size of the housing supply in NYC has been determined not by the rate of construction of newly built housing, but by the annual number of losses offset by the conversion of already existing structures into residences (at high rents). 

There is a massive shortage. The high cost and poor condition of NYC housing are products of a huge shortage of housing relative to the City’s needs – a cumulative deficit of at least 562,000 units.

These un- and under-housed New Yorkers include occupants of the 264,000 rental units classified as "physically poor," with significant structural or maintenance defects; those living in the estimated 100,000 illegal dwellings, such as basements, garages, or subdivided rooms; the 100,000 thought to be improperly doubled up in NYC Public Housing; the 75,000 private households defined as "severely overcrowded;" the 23,000 in homeless shelters. 

Tenant advocates generally understate the magnitude of the housing shortage while public officials and candidates alike simply ignore the issue. It is not possible to address the high cost and low quality of NYC housing without first redressing the massive and growing shortage of actual available units 

We need to build housing. Given the cumulative housing deficit and the annual housing loss rate, it is evident that without housing construction organized on a large scale, it will be impossible to keep rents from rising or the housing supply from deteriorating and shrinking.

After so much inactivity, only a substantial construction program can eliminate the housing shortage in NYC. Taking into account the current housing needs plus annual losses, a program to eliminate the housing shortage would require construction of about52,000 units a year, for fifteen years, and 15,000 units/year thereafter. 

Based on past performance, we are more than capable of building housing in the quantities needed. 

There is a growing concern. Political leaders, tenant advocates and the press have begun to address the housing crisis in New York with greater directness and a sense of urgency -- not only out of traditional concerns for the poor and the working poor [1], but for the middle class [2] and for the City’s overall economic growth and well-being [3].

In September, Jimmy Carter convened a public meeting in a Harlem church to publicly solicit the views of the mayoral hopefuls on the housing problem. 

The Daily News featured the remarks of the candidates in its "Visions for Housing" series [4]. Thereafter, it printed a letter that showed the most ambitious of the proposals to be woefully inadequate [5]. Two weeks later, the News featured an Op-Ed article by the same author that called for the construction of public housing [6]. 

Editorial support for construction of public housing may now be a possibility. 

Toward a solution. More than a century of experience in housing reform in NYC has shown that decent and affordable housing is built only when there is financial support from the government.

The legislative vehicle to implement a large-scale public housing construction program already exists. Affordable, economically diverse, public housing could be built today through the NYC Housing Authority, on City land, from progressive tax revenues, by NYCHA itself and in partnership with private developers. 

This civic renewal project would need to review zoning regulations, assemble public lands and brownfield sites, extend mass transit lines, employ advanced construction techniques with innovative architecture, and reflect humane planning.

 A well-researched and compelling proposal that called for public housing construction would attract the interest of many andvaried constituent groups and of candidates for elected office. 

Organizing for change. The housing problem has gotten out of hand. The usual explanations and remedies are properly viewed as deficient. The public wants a solution. It is clear that building housing in the public domain for ordinary folks would rejuvenate New York, bring rent levels down and generate many good jobs in the process.

The upcoming state and local elections provide a short-lived opportunity to build a union/tenant/legislator movement to create and fund a municipal construction program to eliminate the housing shortage. 

An organized and coordinated effort begun now could achieve important and lasting results.

1.  “Housing a Growing City - New York’s Bust in Boom Times”, Coalition for the Homeless, July2000.
2.  “A Time to Build”, C. Virginia Fields, January 2000.
3.  “No Room for Growth”, H. Carl McCall, October 1999.
4.  “Wanted: Affordable Homes”, NY Daily News, September 19, 2000, page 41.
5.  “From the Ground Up”, George Locker, NY Daily News, October 2, 2000, page 16.
6.  “City Must Build on Past Successes”, George Locker, NY Daily News,  October 18, 2000,page 45.

Send us your responses. We may print them in an upcoming forum.




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