Build Housing, by
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Based on past
performance, we are more than capable of building housing in the quantities
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 , but for the
middle class  and for the City’s overall economic growth and well-being
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
. Thereafter, it printed a letter that showed the most ambitious of the
proposals to be woefully inadequate . Two weeks later, the News featured
an Op-Ed article by the same author that called for the construction of
public housing .
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.
and compelling proposal that called for public housing construction would
attract the interest of many andvaried constituent groups and of candidates
for elected office.
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 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,
2. “A Time to Build”,
C. Virginia Fields, January 2000.
3. “No Room for
Growth”, H. Carl McCall, October 1999.
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
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