Why NYC’s housing market is so crazy — and affordable housing is so hard to find
It’s easy to conclude from the craziness of New York City’s rental market — including that long line for a tiny, rent-regulated East Village apartment that made The Post’s cover — that what the city needs is more “affordable housing.”
But it’s not true. Not only do New York City and the state overall have more subsidized housing than anywhere else in the nation — we make inefficient use of such housing. And rent regulation is actually helping drive the scarcity and sky-high rents of other units.
To be sure, the sight of wannabe renters waiting more than an hour in hopes of snagging a 371-square-foot, one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up for $2,337 a month would be inconceivable in most of America. Consider that the median mortgage payment in Phoenix is just $1,500 a month — for 2,500 square feet. It’s no wonder the city is losing population to the Sunbelt.
But to conclude that Gotham’s rental market needs more “affordable” — that is, income-restricted — units ignores reality.
New York state has 490,000 subsidized-housing units, the most in the country, per the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, with some 359,000 units in the city. With 5% of the nation’s population, New York has 10% of directly subsidized housing units — including public housing; housing choice vouchers for individual households renting private units; and rental units in buildings whose construction costs have been subsidized by the federal Low Income Housing Tax credit, which requires a percentage of units be set aside for rental by low- and moderate-income households as defined by median area income.
That staggering number doesn’t even include the more than 1 million rent-stabilized units, whose owners must keep rents low no matter tenant income.
Both directly subsidized and rent-regulated apartments provide good deals for lucky tenants — but wildly distort the overall housing market. A New York University study of New York City rent-regulated units found that 23% of tenants had moved in more than 20 years ago, three times as long a period as in market-rate units. In core Manhattan, fully 30% of rent-regulated tenants had lived in their apartments 20 years or more.
Low turnover means that renters of units that might go on the market in other cities — as older tenants no longer need the space and want to limit their costs — have an incentive to stay put. So newcomers to the city — including those who might have been waiting in the long East Village line — are out of luck.
This isn’t a housing market — it’s a game of apartment musical chairs.
Lucky winners hit what amounts to the housing lottery — a low-rent apartment without time limit. The same is true for those who score a designated new construction “affordable unit,” for which rent regulation kicks in. A change in income doesn’t affect the rent in these units. Tenants could literally hit the state lottery number and see limited rent increases at best from the Rent Guidelines Board, which votes yearly on increases to rent-stabilized units. To say this is an inefficient use of scarce public resources is an understatement.
The public-housing system is no better. HUD reports that 30% of New York City Housing Authority tenants are “overhoused” — meaning they have more bedrooms than they need — even as long waiting lists are the norm. Again there’s no incentive to move so long as one has an artificially cheap apartment.
There are some commonsense solutions. NYCHA could offer buyouts to tenants with extra bedrooms — to make way for homeless families. High-income tenants could be disqualified from rent-stabilized units. Or better still, the whole crazy quilt of rent regulation could be swept away — making New York more like other cities, where housing is not a perennial crisis.
Instead, Gov. Kathy Hochul is pushing for an additional $25 billion in subsidized housing. Incredibly, the cost of building tax-subsidized affordable units in New York state tops $400,000 — per apartment. That’s thanks to union-dictated prevailing wage laws and the high cost for developers, who must negotiate zoning regulations and political demands.
If housing subsidies were the path to prosperity and widespread affordability, New York state would long ago have achieved both. Instead, it has demonstrated that even the most extensive housing-subsidy program in the nation guarantees neither.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.