New York City’s housing crisis is a bizarre paradox. Currently, hundreds of thousands of residents grapple with cost barriers while trying to find affordable apartments through the New York City Housing Authority. With Mayor de Blasio cutting deals to privatize around one-third of existing public housing by handing over control to private operators with abhorrent track records of providing apartments to people who make less than $30,000 a year, NYCHA is no longer a guarantor of truly affordable housing units. While this happens, nearly 250,000 rental units lie vacant, which is more than 11% of the city’s rental apartment stock. Combined, these two issues make up a majority of New York’s housing crisis. It is within NYCHA’s power to neutralize both problems with an elegant solution: acquiring vacant apartments and converting them into affordable housing.
To be clear, these apartments are vacant for a reason: price. Anybody who has tried to find housing in New York is acutely aware of this problem. From 2010 to 2019, the average cost of Brooklyn real estate nearly doubled, with rates in the other boroughs comparably rising. With this in mind, it should come at no surprise that the majority of vacant rental apartments are priced at a median rate of above $1,800 dollars. These prices are prohibitively expensive for many.
This problem is not exclusive to New York City. In fact, most major cities are dealing with home prices rising faster than inflation. For example, the Miami area has 428,000 empty homes, bringing their vacancy rate to 17%. New York has an opportunity to lead the nation in combating this nation-wide issue.
If these apartments are not being used, then why not purchase them? Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is piloting a buy-down program to meet the needs of his city residents, where the municipal government negotiated a below-market rate with property owners. For the pilot phase, the program allowed residents to pay subsidized rent for up to two years. Additionally, residents who were struggling to find affordable housing units now have decent places to live. NYCHA could mimic this policy, or alternatively, directly purchase vacated housing units from their owners.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers families who pay 30% or more of their income on rent as “cost-burdened,” meaning they struggle to pay for basic necessities because of unaffordable housing. As of 2017, more than 462,000 city residents were severely cost-burdened. There is no perfect solution for the housing crisis, but utilizing the city’s vacant residences will greatly benefit many New Yorkers. The benefits of the policy extend to all residents, as introducing more competition into housing markets is generally shown to correlate with decreases in average rent.
With so many residents struggling to find a place to live, NYCHA should prioritize developing affordable units instead of raffling off public housing to the highest bidder. Housing, in New York City and around the United States, must remain accessible to lower and middle-class citizens.
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