Housing in the Bronx (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)
When the New York City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings hosts its first preliminary budget hearing on Monday morning, it will be held against the backdrop of severe economic uncertainty for many New Yorkers. Inflation rose nearly 8% last month, driven by soaring food and energy costs, putting immense pressure on low- and middle-income families even as the job market remains robust for workers. Rents are also on the rise, in some cases increasing as much as 33% between January 2021 and 2022.
In New York, this uncertainty is also driven by a familiar cause: a rapidly worsening affordable housing crisis that has left households strapped for cash for decades. The statistics are familiar, but that does not make them any less harrowing or in need of attention.
About half of New York renters spend a third of their income on rent, leaving them especially vulnerable to inflation and economic shock. Rent-burdened very-low-income households have just $560 in residual monthly income remaining after rent, on average. These are the families most acutely feeling the squeeze at the supermarket. Many still have unpaid rent arrears accumulated due to lost work or wages during the pandemic, placing them in a financial chokehold: New York’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program needs $1.6 billion to aid renters. It is a brewing eviction crisis beneath the economic crisis.
Put simply, we have no hope of a real recovery that works for everyone without first addressing the city’s housing emergency. The City Council will have a big role to play – and it should lead by example as we await the details of Mayor Adams’ first comprehensive, long-term housing plan. Fortunately, there is a clear plan of action.
First, City Council members should apply pressure on Mayor Adams to live up to his campaign promises. On the campaign trail, Mayor Adams told the United for Housing coalition that he would double city spending on housing to $4 billion. He knew it was a smart, fiscally responsible way to improve lives and create jobs. In his preliminary budget, however, he did not add capital to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) at all – it was unchanged from Mayor de Blasio’s final budget.
This is disappointing, but it is not the final word. Pressure from the Council would go a long way toward making this vision a reality and providing relief to constituents who badly need more housing opportunities, better living conditions, and rental assistance to make ends meet. It would also help improve conditions at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). That pressure campaign should begin tomorrow.
Second, the Council should ensure that the agencies in charge of housing policy are staffed and resourced in such a way that will allow them to be efficient and maximally productive. Recent New York Housing Conference analysis shows that the city is badly missing the mark in this area, and it is every day New Yorkers who are paying the price due to the inefficiencies this causes.
Consider that the Human Resource Administration (HRA) is more than 1,600 workers short of its budget appropriation, HPD is more than 300 short, and the Department of Homeless Services is more than 100 short. Making matters worse: many of those vacancies are in critical areas. Staffing shortages are delaying much-needed services from reaching New Yorkers and preventing much-needed affordable housing projects from coming online. If staff vacancies continue to go unfilled, we will see a decrease in affordable housing production at a time when it is needed more than ever.
The Council should push the administration for a plan to quickly staff up the agencies, which may mean offering flexibility for provisional hires; increasing the autonomy of agencies to get staff on board without redundant reviews from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and being more competitive with private-sector salaries by allowing managers to offer salaries within a pay scale not just the bottom rung of it. In this tight labor market, the government cannot compete without changing hiring rules.
The shortages make it harder to be efficient, too. The Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), for example, found that it takes on average 430 days from when residents begin applying to an affordable housing lottery for all the units to be filled. The Supportive Housing Network of New York (SHNNY) estimates there are 2,500 supportive apartments vacant while 8,000 eligible applicants in need are waiting. Addressing these shortages – as well as other bureaucratic inefficiencies – will help get New Yorkers in homes faster.
This is only a small sampling of what is needed to address the housing emergency. More must be done to combat homelessness and to fix the embarrassing conditions at NYCHA. But by fighting for these two common-sense solutions, the City Council can step up and support New York’s renters and lay the groundwork for a better, more equitable city overall.
Rachel Fee is Executive Director of the New York Housing Conference. On Twitter @RachelFee4NY & @TheNYHC.