By Pete Harrison (@PeteHarrisonNYC)
On Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer published a startling report on the affordable housing crisis in New York City that shows a significant gap between the housing needs of extremely low-income New Yorkers and the targets of Mayor de Blasio’s Housing New York 2.0 Plan. The report also proposes a couple of intriguing progressive ways to address it.
In total, 585,000 New York City households with very-low to extremely-low incomes face severe housing pressure, representing nearly 20% of the city’s population. Looking into the numbers a bit closer, an estimated 515,000 New York City households face severe rent burdens and overcrowding. Two-thirds of these households make less than $28,000 per year and are paying a staggering 74% of their monthly income towards rent.
Chart 1: Income Distribution and Rent-to-Income Ratios of NYC Rental Households 2005 - 2016
More disturbingly, a record 60,000 New Yorkers are living in homeless shelters, despite a third of them having jobs. There are 5,000 families with children that have been living in shelters for over a year and another 2,000 that have been there for two years. In just 4 years, the city’s spending on homeless services has doubled to nearly $3 billion. (Chart 2)
Chart 2: Growth in Spending on Homelessness and Average Shelter Population
That’s a daunting amount of need, but the mayor’s housing plan has barely attempted to target it. The plan, which Stringer acknowledged was the most ambitious since the Koch Administration, calls for the preservation or construction of 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026 at a cost of $83 billion (up from 200,000 and $43 billion when the plan was introduced in 2014). To date, 75,285 units have been preserved and 34,482 new units have been constructed, which puts the plan at just over one-third of the way completed.
Chart 3: The Need vs. Housing New York Plan 2.0 Targets
However, as you can see from Chart 3, only 25% of the 300,000 units have been allotted for very-low to extremely-low income households, despite those households representing 88% of the most severely distressed in the city. To put it in context, even if the plan is successful, it will have built 75,000 units to service a population of 515,000 households.
Groups like Real Affordability for All have criticized the mayor’s housing plan for ignoring low-income households before, but Comptroller Stringer’s report is less a criticism and more of a suggested pivot. It includes three proposals for the city to realign the existing housing plan towards these low-income households.
First, it suggests committing the remaining target of 85,000 new construction units to extremely-low income households. Second, it suggests raising the percentage of units set aside for homeless families from 5% to 15%. Third, and most radically, it proposes a new operating subsidy for landlords for preserved units that go to extremely low-income households to help landlords.
Those won’t be cheap. According to the report, targeting extremely-low income households for the remaining 85,000 new construction units would require an additional $370 million per year, while the operating subsidy would be $125 million per year. Both numbers deserve more scrutiny, particularly the operating subsidy, which has been suggested on a larger scale by some notable presidential hopefuls but has come under harsh criticism.
For progressives, the most interesting aspect of the report is how it proposes creating new sources of revenue to cover the costs. Comptroller Stringer first turns to his long-held support for creating a Land Bank to give city-owned vacant lots to non-profit developers and community land trusts, vastly reducing the cost of new construction. His office estimates that the 1,000 plus current inventory of vacant lots could produce close to 40,000 units. These units would have the benefit of being permanently affordable and locally-owned.
More significantly, he proposes a progressive change in how to tax home purchases. Currently, a potential buyer who pays in cash pays less tax than a buyer financing through a mortgage. This quirk exists because the city and state tax the purchase price through the Real Property Transfer Tax (RPTT) and the mortgage through the Mortgage Recording Tax (MRT), which effectively double-taxes people who can’t afford to pay in cash.
This is backwards for two reasons. Obviously it makes it even more expensive for middle class and working class families to buy homes in the city. It also grossly under taxes high-dollar cash transactions made almost exclusively by anonymous high-wealth individuals, foreign investors, and private equity firms. The report highlights the fact that in 2016, 80% of Manhattan condo purchases over $5 million were all cash.
Chart 4: Current and Proposed NYC Transaction Tax Rates on NYC Property
The report suggests eliminating the MRT altogether and installing a new, progressive rate schedule for the RPTT, as seen in Chart 4. Although still relatively low compared to other global cities like London or Singapore, the tax could potentially create $400 million in new revenue (while reducing the tax burden on a middle-class buyer). Even if a higher tax lowers the volume of sales, scaring off the speculative frenzy enveloping the city would be welcome on its own.
Comptroller Stringer suggests that this tax would more than cover the cost of the report’s proposals. He also suggests that if enacted, the proposal would likely reduce spending in other areas, particularly around homeless services.
That may be the case, but the political path forward remains murky. Like a lot of progressives in the city, Comptroller Stringer is banking on the new Democrat majority in Albany being open to his proposals, but that line is long and loud. The City Council has been sitting on a land bank bill for several years and might not be eager to support a potential rival for 2021 (He notably doged any discussion about running for mayor). Most importantly, Mayor de Blasio is never eager for outside input into his administration, let alone on his signature policy.
Regardless of the politics, this report outlines a city in dire need for bolder action to address the affordable housing crisis while there is still time. The city’s government has become over reliant on skyrocketing real estate prices fueled by faceless investors and foreign entities while ignoring the lived experience of everyday struggling New Yorkers. That might be easier to ignore when the economy is growing overall, but it will be impossible to forgive when it inevitably goes in the other direction.