Homes for All #13: New York with David van der Leer

Homes for All is a video series commissioned by Stadsleven in which correspondents from all over the world report on the state of the housing market in their city. In episode 13, David van der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, shows us the consequences of lack of affordable housing in New York.

Living with roommates: a daily reality for many adults

“If I can make it here. I can make it anywhere”: Frank Sinatra sang it already in his famous song ‘New York, New York’. New York is the ultimate city of the American dream for many people. But fewer and fewer people can afford to live that dream. In practice, living the dream in New York looks less like the luxurious life of the ladies from ‘Sex and the City’, and more like situation in ‘Friends’ where living with friends is a necessity because with your salary you can’t even afford a place big enough to put your shoe collection.

In New York, living with roommates is a reality for many people, often deep into adulthood. According to research of U.S. Census data by The Real Deal, in 2015 26 percent of those between 18 and 35 were living with roommates or an unmarried partner, compared to 20 percent in 2005. Among 36- to 55-year-olds, 14 percent were living with roommates, up from 11.3 percent.

Many people have a roommate for financial reasons. Income growth has not kept pace with the rise in housing prices, sale or rent. The Real Deal reports that ‘the average New Yorker would have to spend 34.3 percent of their income to pay for a one-bedroom apartment. That’s above the 30 percent benchmark, which according to federal guidelines would put those individuals in the “rent-burdened” category.’ The median cost for a one-bedroom apartment in New York is $3.000 per month.

Budget may be the primary reason for choosing to co-live, but as The Real Deal notes, the fact that young people choose to stay single longer and get married later in life is also a factor in the preference of roommates. ‘The family unit is evolving. […] If you’re not in a relationship or starting a family unit, those roommates become your new family.’ Also, in a big city like New York, safety might be an issue. Data from real estate firm Trulia showed that women between the ages of 28 and 32 saw a 16 percent increase in living with roommates from 2009 to 2015, while men saw a 1.3 percent increase.

An affordable housing crisis

So finding an affordable home is the biggest component of the housing crisis in New York. This was also a mayor focal point for Bill de Blasio in 2013, when he was running for mayor. He promised to build 100.000 units of subsidized housing and preserve affordable rents for 90.000 existing homes. After taking office, De Blasio has enlarged the target, revising the construction goal down to 80,000, but boosting the preservation side to 120.000. From 2014 through June 30, 2017, the city built 25.342 apartments and preserved 52.309, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. The goal is to build or renovate 200.000 affordable apartments by 2024.

Next to building houses, De Blasio has taken several measures to create affordable housing. As The New Nation reports, De Blasio “engineered a record-low 1 percent increase in the rents on the city’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in 2014, followed by two years in which rents weren’t increased at all. He launched a plan to bolster the cash-strapped public housing authority (NYCHA) and save New York’s 176.000 public-housing apartments. The mayor also spent record sums to fund legal services for tenants facing eviction and then agreed to create a right to counsel for low-income people facing eviction in housing court. He created a suite of new voucher programs targeted toward people in homeless shelters, moving 60.000 into permanent housing. And, for the first time in city history, he imposed a “mandatory inclusionary housing” requirement, forcing developers who take advantage of zoning changes to devote a portion of their buildings for specific income groups.”

Nevertheless, on the 9th of October, more than 1.000 demonstrators gathered outside city hall in the rain to demand more affordable housing. The activists came with a plan that included building 15.000 units of affordable senior housing on vacant land controlled by the New York City Housing Authority, repairing existing public housing, and ensuring more affordable housing for those making $35.000 or less.

But the biggest criticism of many housing activists is not about the quantity of affordable housing, but rather who is benefiting from it. De Blasio’s plan aims to serve a broad range of income groups, from the desperately poor to the comfortably middle class. Housing activists, however, feel that the city’s efforts should focus on the poorest families. De Blasio has defended his approach by insisting that families up and down the income ladder are feeling the housing crunch and that low-income families can also qualify for public-housing. Critics also say that the vast majority of households in the neighborhoods where the mayor plans to focus a lot of building have a lower income than the households for which De Blasio builds, which creates a risk of gentrification and displacement. As David van der Leer in his ‘Homes for All’ video also notes, housing is not just about quantity but also about the question what kind of city you’re creating and who can afford to live there. 

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