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New York's 'Affordable Housing' Isn't Always Affordable

New York's 'Affordable Housing' Isn't Always Affordable
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By most measures, the New Housing Marketplace plan, an affordable housing development program put into place during the Bloomberg administration, has been a great success. Since (fiscal) 2004, the plan has created or preserved more than 140,000 affordable units throughout the city — about 85 percent of its goal of 165,000 units. The city considers the initiative "the largest municipal affordable housing effort in the nation's history" [PDF].

As a new report points out, however, the plan is far from perfect. After studying about 124,000 units developed through (fiscal) 2011, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development concluded that Bloomberg's plan falls short in several ways. Its chief failure, writes the ANHD, is that the affordable housing being developed isn't actually affordable to the people living near it [PDF]:

While the City has committed to and developed a significant number of affordable housing units under the Bloomberg administration, about two-thirds of New Housing Marketplace units are too expensive for the majority of local neighborhood residents.

ANHD charges that, under the Bloomberg plan, one affordable housing unit is as good as another. Take two units developed in Central Harlem in January 2011. Unit A is a studio that rents for $1,492 a month and serves a single resident making upwards of $100,000; Unit B is a three-bedroom apartment that rents for $531 a month that serves a family making about $37,000. Even though the second apartment addresses a "greater need" for affordability, both units count as a success.

Some numbers to the point: From (fiscal) 2009 to 2011, only about 8 percent of the units developed by the city were meant for households that earn 40 percent of the area median income, even though that income group represents a third of all New York households. Meantime, 56 percent of the city's affordable units were made for households making 51 to 80 percent of the area median, although that group represents only 17 percent of all households.

In general terms, the affordable housing plan did create low-income housing, but it was upper-low-income housing.

An image makes the point too. In 13 of the 41 neighborhoods where at least 100 units were created during these three years, 80 percent of the units (or more) were too expensive for the typical household. What's most unfortunate is that these neighborhoods include some of the poorest in the city, including Mott Haven (in the Bronx) and Brownsville (in Brooklyn):

Back to the numbers. Take the case of District 1 in the Bronx, which serves Mott Haven. The median income there is about $20,000 a year. Of the 2,428 affordable units created in the district between 2009 and 2011, only 45 were affordable to the average household — less than 2 percent. In general, writes ANHD, a "typical Bronx household would have to make 1.5 times its income in order to be able to afford the majority of the affordable housing built in the Bronx."

One city housing official told the New York Times the report "oversimplifies the issues." And ANHD is quick to give credit where it believes credit is due. For instance, when it comes to creating affordable units for the proper household size, the report commends the city on an excellent job meeting the needs of larger families — even though smaller units would be quicker and cheaper to develop, and count just as much toward the plan's ultimate goal.

The report concludes that the city "needs a new way of measuring success" that takes quality, as well as quantity, into account with affordable housing. The Bloomberg era set a high goal for affordable housing. As it comes to an end, it's time to set a higher one.

Erika Cross / Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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