America, the Unaffordable

America, the Unaffordable

There’s a housing crisis. Everywhere. Can New York City create a blueprint to solve it?


In the most recent season of Shameless, the
 long-running Showtime series about the dysfunctional, poverty-stricken Gallagher family in Chicago, a new story line develops. Unlike the drug- and crime-filled narratives of past seasons, this one hits closer to home for the average viewer: gentrification.

It starts quietly. New neighbors arrive. They seem different from the old ones, and they’re starting a community garden on the block. Soon enough, speculators are knocking on the Gallaghers’ door. Eventually, the family is forced to move when the bank forecloses and their home is sold at auction to a young family looking for an affordable neighborhood. All seven Gallaghers separate to find places to sleep—crashing on a neighbor’s couch, knocking on a boyfriend’s door, doubling up in a college dorm.

The show’s writers have joined a concert of op-eds, sitcoms, novels, songs, and gallery exhibits attempting to capture this quiet national crisis. From Matthew Desmond’s best-selling book Evicted, which chronicles the lives of multiple families losing their homes in Milwaukee, to Macklemore rapping about his “White Privilege,” housing (or the lack thereof) is on everyone’s mind. A frightening reality, on a slow boil for the past decade, is bubbling at the surface: We have an affordable-housing shortage from sea to sea.

Last summer, the Urban Institute issued a report on housing affordability across the United States. The central finding is shocking: There is no county in the United States that has enough affordable housing to meet the needs of its poor renters—­not one.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordability as housing costs that consume less than a third of a family’s total household income. The Urban Institute report suggests this standard is far out of reach for most poor renters in the country. Nationwide, only 28 affordable units are available for every 100 “extremely low-income renters,” which the report identifies as households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income, or AMI. The number of affordable homes available ranges from seven for every 100 poor households in Osceola County, Florida, to 76 for every 100 in Worcester County, Maryland. These data indicate that a notable number of low-income families nationally don’t have access to shelter.

City councils, mayors, and state governments are locked in charged debates about how to confront the crisis. Nowhere is this more pressing than in New York City, where Bill de Blasio catapulted out of a crowded field of mayoral candidates in 2013 and won election on the strength of a central promise: more affordable housing. He has vowed to build 200,000 affordable units. His plan for doing so turns on what’s called “inclusionary zoning.”

Inclusionary zoning is essentially a trade-off: The city will rezone neighborhoods to allow more density and height, among other things, but developers must include a designated number of affordable units. For months, de Blasio’s affordability mandates have been criticized as wildly insufficient. But this week it appeared the mayor and City Council had struck a deal that would toughen those standards and allow the plan to move forward—and give de Blasio his shot at creating a national blueprint for solving the affordable-housing crisis.

De Blasio has targeted 15 neighborhoods for 
rezoning, a process that will, in each case, begin with plans drawn up by a host of city agencies with input from community members. The goal is to write guidelines that encourage developers to build more apartments, but that set parameters for how many of these apartments must be reserved for low- and moderate-income households.

The first neighborhood up for rezoning is East New York, Brooklyn, a place weighted with both history and symbolism. The neighborhood sits at the easternmost edge of the borough. The common motif of the displaced New Yorker hopping from one neighborhood to the next, moving farther from Manhattan in pursuit of lower rents, necessarily ends in East New York. At least for Brooklyn, moving beyond this neighborhood lands one in Jamaica Bay.

In the 1960s, East New York saw the disinvestment and neglect that afflicted urban neighborhoods across the country when blockbusting drove white residents to sell their homes cheaply and flee to the suburbs. Between 1960 and 1980, the population in the area that de Blasio would rezone shrank from 66,000 to 40,000. Nearly half of the housing in the area was lost. East New York is still peppered with vacant lots and empty factories, cleared of laid-off workers.

But over the last few decades, a steady stream of immigrants—­Caribbean, Bangladeshi, and others—has joined the mostly African-American and Latino population that has called East New York home since white flight. And in just the last couple of years, more renters have arrived after getting priced out of other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Today, the population in the redevelopment area is up to 48,000; overall, the neighborhood now has more people than it did in 1970. And there are signs of rapid economic changes afoot. Real-estate investments in East New York jumped from $2.7 million in 2013 to $42 million in the first half of 2014 alone.

That’s a lot of money coming into the neighborhood, but it doesn’t appear to be flowing to the people who live and work there. The average income in East New York is less than half of New York’s official AMI. This is a crucial and controversial data point: The AMI, which was central to the Urban Institute’s report on the national housing crisis, is the determining factor when it comes to defining “affordable housing.”

The geographic area for calculating the AMI is set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and in New York this area includes the wealthier suburban areas. So in 2015, the AMI for the entire city was $77,700 for a family of three. East New York’s actual AMI was just $32,815, but that’s not the number that will be used for determining affordability as developers build in the neighborhood.

Many aspects of the current rezoning plan are welcomed, by and large, by the people of East New York: a new school with 1,000 seats (at least that many are already needed), more health services, revitalized commercial districts. But there is loud opposition on the question of affordable housing. De Blasio’s overall inclusionary-zoning plan has been voted down by every community board that has considered it. Public hearings have been standing-room-only, with people waiting for hours after a full day of work to plead for deeper and more equitable affordability standards.

The mayor has recently met behind closed doors with skeptical City Council members. The parties reportedly agreed—with the blessing of the Real Affordability for All coalition, which has led the campaign for tougher standards—on a new range of mandates. At the top end, rents in new developments in rezoned neighborhoods will reportedly be capped at households making 115 percent of the AMI, or about $89,00 for a family of three. At the lower end, a percentage of units will have to be set aside for households making less than 40 percent of AMI, or roughly $31,000 for a family of three.

How this plan will be applied in East New York remains in question. But the core concern is this: Will it ensure that some of the new units are within the grasp of those already living in the community? Because the neighborhood’s current rezoning plan depends on the federal government’s broad definition of AMI, up to 75 percent of the “affordable” units will be for families of four making between $38,469 and $77,670. East New Yorkers look around and wonder who those people are.

“The City Council does have other options for defining affordability,” says Paula Segal, a lawyer and founder of 596 Acres, an advocacy group that encourages New Yorkers to put vacant land to public use. According to Segal, the council hides behind HUD’s metrics: “But a city can choose to use another number and simply translate that into numbers that HUD agents understand.” Segal suggests several alternate measures, including median income by zip code or community district. In the case of East New York, either of these numbers would yield a standard of affordability that much more closely reflects the real income of those who live in the neighborhood.

This holds true for counties and cities across the country. In the end, the conversation about the national housing crisis inevitability bumps into a parallel conversation with similarly consequential stakes: stagnant wages. How much do we value the labor of people who work 30, 50, 70 hours a week at two or three jobs, all paid at or near the minimum wage? Do we think they should have access to housing? Remember, from 2013 to the first half of 2014, East New York real-estate investments shot up by nearly $40 million. If that kind of growth continues, the only way Mayor de Blasio can fulfill his signature pledge to create more affordable housing is to see a similarly sharp increase in the minimum wage, to a level that allows the average East New Yorker to pay for shelter.

On the other hand, if the rezoning plan for East New York can accomplish greater market density while still providing sufficient affordable housing—as defined by the area’s true median income—then de Blasio just might be able to deliver what he’s vowed to give his city, and perhaps the country: a blueprint for turning around a crisis.

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