There’s no denying that the challenges New York City residents face when it comes to finding and keeping affordable housing have been compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the truth is that the lack of affordable housing itself is a public health crisis, one that existed long before COVID. As the New York Times puts it, the city “has been in some form of housing crisis for a century,” and there is an inextricable bond between housing and health care. Housing instability and homelessness have catastrophic impacts on health, and vice versa. We need to break this cycle and create real solutions right now. Here are 11 steps to get us there.
- Enshrine Housing as a Human Right
Achieving meaningful change in the area of housing affordability and availability means reframing the way we look at housing as an issue. NYC is a “right to shelter” city; it has to provide shelter to anyone who needs it. This results in a system of homeless shelters run mostly by private entities, which not only creates incentives to keep people in the system rather than help them find and keep permanent housing, but also does little to address the bedrock issues that create housing instability in the first place; one of which is the lack of affordable housing in the City. A primary emphasis on shelter also impedes implementing the internationally recognized “Housing First” model of solving homelessness, the premise of which is that people or families experiencing housing instability should be connected directly with housing without being required to become or prove they are “ready.” We need to change the way we think and talk about housing in order to normalize a right to housing — not just shelter — for all NYC residents.
2. Redefine Affordability to Reflect the Actual Income and Cost of Living of Harlem’s Residents
New York City requires a percentage of newly-developed housing to be rented out at “affordable” rates. According to the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, housing in a certain area “is considered affordable if it costs about one-third of what people living in that area earn, also known as Area Median Income (AMI).” The median income for cities across the country is determined annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; the 2020 AMI for the New York City region is $102,400 for a three-person family, while the median household income for Central Harlem was $48,500, leaving Harlem residents stuck with “affordable” housing that is way outside of their price range. Deciding what’s “affordable” based on median incomes of a city that is home to some of the richest people in the world only perpetuates inequality by erasing the existence of low-income residents. Affordability needs to be defined by the city, and determined by median incomes at the district, zip code, or census-tract level, to ensure that residents are actually able to afford to live in their neighborhoods, rather than getting priced out, or being forced between paying rent and other necessities like prescriptions and medical costs.
3. Make Rezoning Efforts More Equitable and Transparent
Zoning laws determine what can be built in a particular area and what rules apply to those buildings. Neighborhood-wide rezonings can help create more housing units, but they often cause speculative investment that can be harmful to existing residents and often lead to displacement. Rezoning efforts often target and can negatively impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. We must push for more affluent and whiter neighborhoods to share the burden of new construction. We must also provide more opportunities for affected communities to weigh in on zoning proposals (apart from the one required community board public hearing) throughout the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process and invest resources in making residents aware of these opportunities to express their support or concerns about a new development.
4. Provide Education on Accessing Affordable Housing and Maintaining Housing Stability
Finding affordable Housing in NYC can be a frustrating and difficult process. There are many types of affordable housing, including buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) with federal funding and the national Section 8 program, and housing in privately-owned buildings financed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) like those in the Mitchell-Lama or NYC Housing Connect programs. It can be tricky to navigate, and it shouldn’t be. The process to get affordable housing should be streamlined, and coaching should be available for tenants who are interested in or in need of housing through one of these programs, as well as education on how to maintain housing for the future (namely, how to access rent arrear funds and anti-eviction legal services).
5. Encourage and Support Tenant Organizing
Real estate interest groups have outsized influence over state and local politicians, and real estate developers, property owners and landlords are motivated purely by profit. They will do anything to maximize their returns, including pushing out long-term or low-rent tenants if they believe they can make more money from a new or market-rate tenant. As tenants we must organize to stand up to mistreatment from landlords. The Housing Working Group of the NYC-Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has a helpful guide to get you started.
6. Institute Universal Rent Control
Even when housing is affordable, it doesn’t always stay affordable. There are a lot of loopholes that can be used by landlords to raise rent unreasonably and force out tenants at will. Laws must be passed to ensure that every New York City tenant has the right to renew their lease every year with a limited rent increase, evictions are strictly regulated to prevent tenants from being pushed out of their housing, and landlords can’t pass the cost of major capital improvements (i.e. building renovations) on to their tenants in the form of unaffordable rent increases. Resources must also be allocated to fund the enforcement of recently passed tenant protections so that landlords can’t break them with impunity. Find out more about universal rent control here.
7. Impose Eviction/Foreclosure Moratoriums and #CANCELRENT!
Millions of New Yorkers have been impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have not been able to pay rent. These tenants are currently hanging on by a thread; New York’s eviction moratorium means they can’t get evicted today, but every few weeks it needs to get renewed, and once it expires (on January 1, 2021 as of this writing) tenants will be on the hook for all of the rent they haven’t paid since March, which is an impossible ask. We have an imminent eviction crisis on our hands that can be fixed by dramatically extending the eviction moratorium, and cancelling rent for the duration of the pandemic. We must forgive all of the rent that tenants haven’t been able to pay and (because of the domino effect) mortgages for small landlords. We must recognize that large landlords and property owners are the ones who are most able to, and therefore should, bear the financial burden of the economic crisis, not renters and small landlords. Learn more about #CancelRent here.
8. Tax Billionaires to Fund Housing and end housing profiteering
New York City is home to a lot of rich people who pay a lower share of their income in State and Local taxes than the bottom 20%. We have to increase taxes on the wealthy — including on pied-a-terres and vacant homes in the City — and funnel that money into programs for the public good, including affordable housing. These taxes are important for our overall goal to house New Yorkers who need housing. Housing is too important to be simply a commodity, it must be lived-in whenever possible. Housing should be valued as a place for people to live, not for the potential profit it can create.
9. Ensure Habitable Conditions Through Housing Codes and Inspections
Two thirds of New Yorkers rent their homes, and many of them are forced to choose between habitable conditions and rent increases — an unacceptable status quo in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Deplorable housing conditions are unacceptable anywhere, especially here, and there is a direct health impact of low quality housing (mold and lead, for example) on health, especially for children. City departments tasked with apartment inspection and maintenance complaints need to be expanded and strengthened. Additionally, maintenance and repairs should be automatically reported and audited to ensure that they are completed quickly and to a high standard.
10. Implement the Green New Deal for Public Housing
The Green New Deal for Public Housing proposes to install “green retrofits” in over 1 million public housing units, with an aim to significantly reduce emissions and pollution in our neighborhoods, substantially improve the living conditions of low income residents and create thousands of green jobs. These proposals would also reduce the housing authority’s reliance on controversial means of raising money, such as partial-privatization or building market-rate housing on public housing campuses. The Green New Deal for Public Housing also prioritizes the “environmental injustice” that affects working class and minority residents who are more likely to be harmed by climate change in comparison to their more affluent counterparts. In any plans to improve the City, or upgrade its plans for challenging climate change, public housing residents are often last on the list. Not with this proposal. And thus, it is integral that we actively lobby Congress in support of this legislation.
11. Move Toward Democratic Property Ownership
If housing is a human right then it should be built democratically and in the public interest. We urgently need to invest in a long-term solution to New York City’s housing crisis that creates permanently affordable housing that is democratically controlled by residents. This includes, as proposed by Right to Counsel NYC, “allowing tenants to purchase their building when it is for sale using right-of-first-refusal laws and public funds,” “purchasing properties at a discount from landlords who owe a substantial amount of taxes,” reclaiming “physically or financially distressed property” and using it for housing, and creating affordable housing on public land that is tenant controlled.