For years New Yorkers have been living through an affordable housing crisis. The city has always had a high cost of living, but the rent burden faced by its residents has increasingly made life in the city untenable for many. Since the housing crash in ’08, rents have continued to rise steadily throughout the five boroughs. Renter income, however, has remained relatively unchanged since recovering from the post-recession plunge. The chart below shows the divergence of median rent and median renter household income in NYC.
As rents have continued to soar, more and more New Yorkers are struggling to cover their expenses. Nowadays, even middle-income households often struggle to find apartments that fit their budgets. The challenge of finding a home is greater for low and extremely low-income individuals as there are fewer units available at their price point. Through the Northwest Bronx Resource Center (NWBRC), UNHP has seen the effects of ever-rising rents on Bronx residents, and their continued interest in finding affordable, decent housing. While the Bronx has some of the lowest rents in the city, apartments remain unaffordable for its residents. According to 2019 American Community Survey data, 60.3% of Bronx residents are rent-burdened - paying 30% or more of their household income towards rent. The Bronx had both the highest number and concentration of very low-income households and the highest number of severely rent-burdened households in NYC. Housing insecurity and evictions leading to homelessness is a long-standing issue in the northwest Bronx; the Bronx has, by far, the highest proportion of vulnerable census tracts (low-income renters) of any county in the region, with 71% of the borough being composed of tracts at risk for displacement. (Regional Plan Association 2017)
One way that Bronxites can access affordable housing is through the New York City lottery known as Housing Connect. The Northwest Bronx Resource Center (NWBRC), UNHP’s direct service arm, provides Bronx families and individuals with a range of interconnected free housing and financial resources, including Housing Connect. As an HPD Housing Ambassador, the NWBRC offers appointments to help tenants submit applications to the lottery. 63% of NWBRC program users have household incomes below $30,000, 59% are Spanish speakers and 25% are senior citizens. Even those households who earn more have a high rent burden ( pay more than 30% of their income on rent) and little disposable income. Since 2012, the NWBRC has provided over 17,000 housing and financial capability services and/or referrals.
Housing Connect quickly became one of our most popular services, with one-third of our program users creating accounts on the online portal. While most of our program users are already in apartments, poor housing quality and overcrowding drive many to seek better opportunities with Housing Connect. Northwest Bronx households often contend with overcrowding because of their inability to pay for more rooms or more space and families tend to double up. Some residents who can only rent by the room or are staying on family member’s couches apply to the Housing Connect to move into their own units. Not only that, a lot of neighborhood buildings have chronic maintenance issues—either from the building’s age or a landlord’s mismanagement of apartments. Housing Connect buildings, with the promise of newly-constructed or renovated units and rent capped at 30% of a person’s income, are attractive housing options for Northwest Bronx residents desperate for decent and affordable housing.
While there is a large amount of interest in Housing Connect among our program users, many are left disappointed by the number of units that they qualify for. Additionally, despite helping many apply for buildings in the program, very few have “won” a unit.
We wanted to take a deeper look at the Housing Connect program and its effectiveness in providing housing that is accessible to Bronxites. This blog is the first in a 3-part series looking at the program as a whole and then narrowing in on how households in the Northwest Bronx are affected.
What is Housing Connect?
“Affordable Housing for all New Yorkers”
In recent years, the city has acknowledged the growing need to increase the number of truly affordable units available. In 2014 de Blasio announced the Housing New York: A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan with the goal of creating and preserving 200,000 affordable homes over ten years. In 2017, Housing New York 2.0 was announced, outlining how the original 200,000 homes goal would be met by 2022. It also set a new goal for the de Blasio administration - 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. Deeper affordability was also prioritized in response to continued advocacy and organizing. Many of the affordable units that have been created/preserved under these plans are rented through Housing Connect. As of June 2020, all buildings that have a regulatory agreement with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) or the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC) must rent their units through the lottery.
HPD and HDC have many different programs aimed at helping develop and preserve these units, each with its own terms. Generally, each program has its own requirements regarding the percentage of units that need to be accessible for different income brackets.
Income brackets are determined using Area Median Income (AMI). AMI is the combined median household income for the entire NYC metropolitan area, including all five boroughs, along with surrounding counties. AMI varies by household size. Income bands are determined by the percentage of the area median income a household makes. For example, in 2019 the median income for a household of 3 was $96,100 which is 100% AMI. With this income, they would fall within the Moderate income band. If this same household made $41,423 they would be at 43% AMI placing them within the Very Low-Income band. For Housing Connect lotteries, rental amounts are calculated based on what is 30% of the household’s income.
NYC’s AMI is contentious because the addition of wealthy suburbs such as Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam results in an inflated figure. Housing is considered affordable when a household spends no more than 30% of its income on rent. Yet with a median income figure that is inflated by neighboring counties, what might be considered affordable by this calculation might not translate to true affordability for NYC residents.
The figure above shows the 2020 AMI numbers for NYC compared with 2019 median income levels in the Bronx. Across all family sizes, there is a large discrepancy. Bronx households making the median income with 3 members are at 50% AMI; those with 2 members are just over 60% AMI. Median incomes in the Northwest Bronx are lower than the borough median. For example, the median income for a household of 3 people in the NWBX is only about $40,000 or 40% of AMI. The discrepancy is much larger for single-person households as Northwest Bronx individuals earned around $15,000 (20% of AMI) compared to the city median of $74,700.
How big is the program and what kind of lotteries have been available?
Housing Connect opened its online portal in 2013, and since then more than 50,000 units have been made available in the lottery. Available public data on 26,824 units between 2014 and 2019 show that 47% of those units are in the low-income AMI band, 21% in extremely low-income and 13% in very low-income. The remaining 19% are classified as moderate- and middle-income units. The Bronx has had the most number of units in the lottery followed by Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.
Since UNHP primarily provides services to the Northwest Bronx community, we took a deeper look at the past lotteries in our neighborhoods. Our available granular data encompasses Bronx rental units available on the website from 2017 to 2019. During that time frame, 103 Housing New York buildings were in the Bronx with a combined 6,632 units. In the Northwest Bronx specifically, there were 2,968 apartments made available, most of which were located in the Kingsbridge, Mt. Hope/Tremont, and Concourse/Highbridge neighborhoods.
As mentioned in the previous section, Northwest Bronx households usually fall between 20% to 40% of AMI. Because of this, it makes sense to focus on building apartments for extremely low and very low-income tenants. However, our data on Northwest Bronx lotteries show that 83% of units built in the neighborhood had AMI requirements that were too high to meet the needs of neighborhood residents. More than half of available units were at 51% - 80% of AMI, effectively pricing out a good portion of tenants that earn less.
The chart above shows the number of Bronx rental units built for every AMI band from 2017 - 2019. Clearly, most construction happens for “low-income” units that, while the name may suggest otherwise, are not as affordable to the Northwest Bronx community. What’s even more interesting is the construction of moderate- and middle-income units that are 81% to 165% of AMI - those units have average minimum income requirements that range from $44,000 to $83,000, higher than what the majority of Bronx households seeking housing earn.
The lack of truly affordable housing manifests into intense competition for units that meet AMIs in low-income neighborhoods. Last year, theCity published a piece showing that extremely low-income units receive six times more applications than middle-income units.
In short, the most affordable units are also the hardest to get, which leads to frustration for Housing Connect applicants who could be applying for years with little result. In the next installment of our Housing Connect series, we will look at the experience of Northwest Bronx residents with the lottery, given the high need, high competition, and often desperation for affordable housing in the community.
Critiques: Reliance on Private Developers and the Shortcomings of Cross-Subsidies
As shown above, many lottery units in the Northwest Bronx have higher income requirements than most neighborhood residents can afford. If on average, residents only make about 20-40% of AMI, why construct units that are priced way above neighborhood income? While some may argue that there is a benefit to trying to introduce higher-income households into low-income communities like the northwest Bronx, another answer may point to the Housing Plan’s reliance on the private sector to produce affordable units.
Reliance on the private sector is often rationalized by the idea that non-profit developers are less efficient and lack access to resources enjoyed by for-profit developers. In 2017, ANHD published a paper entitled The For-Profitization of Affordable Housing Development and the de Blasio Plan, which used Local Law 44 data to compare for-profit and non-profit developers in de Blasio’s Housing Plan. Overall, the report found that for-profit developers were favored for new construction deals with HPD while non-profits were better represented in preservation deals. What is interesting is that, while deals accorded to for-profit and nonprofit developers are different, development costs between the two are largely the same. Another factor that favors private developers is the available upfront capital to buy land and take on development costs. Mission-driven developers who got their start in the 1980s had access to City-owned land and very little competition from for-profit developers, who were not willing to take the investment risks in a declining borough, but even now with experience do not always have upfront capital. Mission-driven nonprofit developers seek to respond to community needs around affordability and will fight to develop housing that is more deeply affordable. Our Community is the Operative Word in Community Development blog post highlights some of those differences and the role of community-based development.
UNHP, as a community-based housing developer, agrees with the ANHD report that the difference between new construction deals and preservation deals is important. New construction deals are key to building capacity as they come with higher developer fees than preservation deals do. By continuing to favor for-profit developers for new construction deals, HPD closes out non-profits from key opportunities to strengthen their organizations.
Through the continued reliance on for-profit developers, HPD hurts its likelihood of helping to create truly affordable housing. While nonprofits are not on equal footing with most for-profit organizations in terms of capacity, they produce more deeply affordable housing that is longer lasting in both new development and preservation projects. If the de Blasio Housing Plan’s aim is true affordability for all New Yorkers, non-profit developers need to be given a chance to expand their construction portfolios.
The Community Service Society also published a report that looks at Housing Connect entitled Assessing De Blasio’s Housing Legacy: Why Hasn’t the “Most Ambitious Affordable Housing Program” Produced a More Affordable City? In it, the authors point to the idea that the reliance on for-profit developers leads to the development of higher rent units in the Northwest Bronx—where few can afford them. From a high-level point of view, middle and moderate-income units are included in HPD term sheets in the name of cross-subsidy. Conceptually in these developments, the rents collected from market rate, or higher AMI units, subsidize the lower rents in the affordable units. This mechanism would then allow for sustainable affordability without the need for subsidies.
Ultimately, cross-subsidy relies on developers finding tenants for their higher rent apartments. In gentrifying areas of NYC, this is no issue as young, high-income individuals flock to ‘hip’ neighborhoods. However, the Bronx has largely not experienced this type of gentrification, making it challenging to fill units that require higher income levels. There have been developments that were unable to find tenants who met the income eligibility requirements through Housing Connect. This is a sizable problem for developers as the financial underwriting depends on the amount of rent that they will be able to collect - high-rent apartments play a disproportionately large role in building income when utilizing cross-subsidy.
What then happens to these higher-income apartments that lack qualified tenants? In some instances, the developers made a deal with the city to turn these units into homeless housing. This is an attractive option to developers as many homeless individuals have FEPS vouchers which will pay close to market rate. It is unclear, however, how many homeless families are housed through these deals and whether the deals provide long-term housing benefits. All in all, UNHP’s Housing Connect data shows 754 moderate- and middle-income lottery apartments in the Northwest Bronx from 2017 to 2019. Those are 700+ units that Northwest Bronx residents could not apply to because of exclusionary income requirements.
The development of high-income units, the incongruity of cross-subsidy, and the under-utilization of nonprofit developers all lead to a dearth of truly affordable lottery units for Northwest Bronx residents. While over 160,000 apartments have been preserved or developed under Housing New York and Housing New York 2.0, those numbers are not necessarily felt in our neighborhoods. The Northwest Bronx still has a high share of the rent-burdened population and many (those who are tech-savvy enough) still apply to Housing Connect with no success. In order to create deep affordability for all New Yorkers, the city needs to move away from its market-oriented approach and invest money into creating public solutions.
Lead Writer and Researcher, Anna Margarita Canero, assisted by Caroline Kirk, UNHP Data Analyst, and Jumelia Abrahamson, UNHP Director of Programs