Let’s say you’re a single mother of one child with an annual income of $45,000 looking for a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Off to a seemingly good start, you found a wonderful “affordable housing” unit, but the monthly rent is $2,700 with an annual salary requirement of $95,000. This is definitely out of reach, so you try to find a studio apartment and hope for the best. You find an “affordable” studio apartment, this time in Queens -- but you need at least a $75,000 salary for a monthly rent of $2,200. This isn’t affordable either. What gives?
One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s main priorities, since taking office in 2014, is to build more affordable housing at a rate never seen before in New York City. Last year, the mayor announced his plan to boost production of affordable housing to 25,000 apartments annually by 2021, and set a new goal of 300,000 apartments by 2026. These terms and numbers, along with the language the mayor uses in celebrating his affordable housing achievements, give the perception that people will be able to stay in the neighborhoods they grew up in and halt displacement. But how “affordable” are these homes?
A simple look at New York City Housing Connect, the online portal to access applications for affordable housing, proves these homes are not as affordable and attainable as one may think.
Who’s to blame? Congress, in part.
Why are many of these apartments considered “affordable” if you need to make almost six figures to even apply? An especially vexing question given that the median income in New York City is roughly $33,000.
The short answer is “area median income,” also known as AMI, a statistic officially calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). AMIs for New York City are calculated too high to begin with, and then the city sets “affordable rates” for many apartments well above AMI.
Some of New York City’s affordable housing in new constructions is targeted at income levels as high as 165% of the AMI, making it unattainable for low- or middle-income households. And AMI for the city is high on its own because it actually includes incomes from other counties outside of the city, those from individuals in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties, all of which are home to higher average incomes. Thus, New York City’s AMI for 2018 is $93,900 for a family of three.
Why are these suburban counties included in an AMI for the region, rather than the five boroughs alone? HUD uses Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), which are based on commuting patterns determined by the federal government and often include counties far beyond an area’s urban core. Further, HUD has no formal mechanism for cities to challenge their AMI. New York’s AMI is 20 percent higher than actual median incomes in the city. This is flat out wrong and leads to New Yorkers being priced out of their homes and neighborhoods.
The very same apartments intended for low-income New Yorkers are being handed over to upper middle-class individuals and families. The city allocates millions of dollars for affordable housing projects, yet these projects are directed at the wrong people!
Some of this is by the mayor’s choice; de Blasio has decided to target more units at a broad range of affordability requirements than fewer units at lower rents.
But still, AMI is an essential component. Why can’t New York just change its AMI laws? Because AMI is determined through federal law and would require an act of Congress. Rep. Jose Serrano of the Bronx wrote a letter back in 2015 to then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro, expressing his support for a change in AMI calculation for New York City. However, Congress has not taken any action to actually mandate the reassessment of the city’s AMI.
Some have argued that changing AMI will make affordable housing development less financially viable and thus less appealing for developers to construct. The financing of affordable housing often depends on government subsidies to developers, though, so the equations are not simple ones. And, there are always questions about number of units versus depth of affordability. If AMIs were lowered to more accurately reflect need in New York City and make “affordable” apartments truly affordable to more tenants, some instances may call for a combination of developers accepting less profit and/or government offering more incentives.
There might be some hope for action in New York. Adjusting AMI may require congressional action, but that hasn’t stopped state elected officials from introducing legislation to address this issue. State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Brian Barnwell, both Queens Democrats, have a bill pending in the state Legislature that would mandate developers calculate AMI based on ZIP code. It might not do much to reduce skyrocketing rents citywide, but this policy would definitely pave the way to a more affordable and transparent affordable housing system. The bill is still in committee, but considering the very real likelihood of a Democratic-controlled State Senate in January via the November elections, there might be a real chance for an overhaul of the current system and an outcome of meaningful change.
David Aronov is a graduate student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and Director of Community Relations for New York City Council Member Karen Koslowitz (the views expressed here are the author’s alone).