New York Housing Crisis


Clinton and Sanders have yet to address the ubiquitous housing affordability crisis in New York City that is displacing longtime residents and potential voters

Braced against the wind whistling down her Brooklyn street in between chilly April showers, Tatiana Williams looked up at the concrete housing block ahead and wondered how much longer she would be able to carry on living there.

They are developing so much around here, its gotten really expensive. Some of the affordable places are trying to go private, its happened to the building next to mine, and when that occurs lower- to middle-income families leave but if we leave, where we gonna live at? she asked.

Williams, 42, is a single mother and drives an F train on the New York City subway, earning $34,000 a year.

She glanced towards the Brooklyn Bridge in one direction and the popular shopping area of downtown Brooklyn in the other, where gleaming luxury buildings have been springing up and the rent for a one-bedroom could easily swallow her entire salary.

What she hadnt realized was that she was walking past Hillary Clintons presidential campaign headquarters.

A few blocks away, Clinton and Democratic rival Bernie Sanders who was born in the borough will face each other for their next debate on Thursday in a venue at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a post-industrial boatyard thats being transformedinto an upscale business park.

The average price of an apartment in Manhattan hit a record $2m in April. And Brooklyn has been declared the most unaffordable housing market in America, based on median house prices relative to wages in the citys rapidly gentrifying borough, according to the national data analysis firm RealtyTrac. San Francisco came second, Manhattan third.

RealtyTrac calculated that the median price of a home in Brooklyn, according to public sale records they analyzed, is $615,000 and a Brooklyn resident earning the median gross income for the borough, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of $835 a week, would have to spend 98% of that to afford their home, based on mortgage, property tax and insurance payments.

But the presidential candidates now battling for a win in the delegate-rich New York state primary on 19 April havent said a word about what experts declare is a housing affordability crisis pushing average New Yorkers to the margins or out of the city altogether.

That is perhaps not surprising for Republican Ted Cruz, who decries the New York values of towny liberals and wants to abolish the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that supports public and low-income housing, or his GOP rival Donald Trump, the native New Yorker whose gilded developments from Manhattan to Las Vegas that scream ostentation.

But Clinton, the former state senator, and Sanders, who grew up in a rent-controlled Midwood apartment, have been silent on the housing issues specifically facing the city, too, despite touching on some of the central issues involved nationally.

Theyve talked about jobs, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, immigration, the minimum wage, education but, specifically, housing just has not registered. We are hoping that will change now that they are here in New York City, but it hasnt happened yet and the primary is next week already, said Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), an advocacy group and thinktank focusing on low-income community needs.

Children walk near a partially constructed condo building in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in New York City. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Between 2002 and 2011, the city lost 385,000 units of housing affordable to low-income New Yorkers, a 2014 CSS report concluded. Overall, rent across the city rose 75%, income dropped 5% and crumbling public housing stock has a capital expenditure backlog of $17bn on top of an operating shortfall of $60m, according to CSS.

There is a housing affordability crisis across the country thats especially acute in New York City and the candidates have not focused on those issues yet, said Bach.

US presidents dont write housing policy for individual cities, but tone is important, as are candidates positions on taxes and federal funding for assisted housing programs, Bach pointed out.

Tatiana Williams bought her two-bedroom apartment in 1996 in a subsidised building in the Mitchell-Lama housing program, where renters and owners are subject to an income cap. She cant remember how much she paid for it but knows she could not afford it if it was to go on sale in the current market.

I raised two kids here and this is all they know. They go to the public schools down the block. If I had to move I could maybe afford $1,600 rent a month for a two-bedroom and around here they cost $4,000 now, she said.

Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, it doesnt really matter, everywhere is too expensive, she added, listing Brooklyn neighborhoods that have gentrified rapidly in recent years.

Asked which candidate she supported, she said: Well, if Trump gets in, were all screwed he doesnt like black people. Make America great again? Yeah, for his people. Affordable housing? Ha!

She said she thought Clinton was going to win the Democratic primary like that, snapping her fingers and grinning.

A short walk back past Clintons headquarters, a brand-new 57-floor glass and steel tower of luxury rentals, is the latest in a cluster of skyscrapers that have been redefining downtown Brooklyn over the last five years.

The building is called AVA DoBro, signifying the developer AvalonBay Communities and a little-used nickname for downtown Brooklyn.

The cheapest studio starts at $2,440 a month, while a one-bedroom ranges from $2,765 to $3,865.

Across the street a bedraggled man was shaking a cup at passersby hoping for loose change. And a check-cashing store frequented by customers without bank accounts was very busy, while young people in designer apparel flitted in and out of AVA DoBro nearby.

My girlfriend found this place, said 32-year-old computer systems engineer Michael, who declined to give his last name. He had moved into a one-bedroom in AVA DoBro the week before. Its great; its easy to get to Manhattan and the park is just down the street.

What were his thoughts on the New York primary? Im leaning towards Bernie; he has great ideas about progressive changes to the economy, he said.

He looked around at a street in flux. But I suppose Im part of changing the neighborhood here, so Im a bit of a hypocrite. These types of buildings do displace other people, he said, rushing off.

Ji Sue Kim, a 24-year-old recent graduate of New York University, exited the building, walking her tiny poodle mix. She works from home designing handbags and her parents, who live in California where she grew up, help her out with the $2,859 monthly rent, she said.

Its pretty expensive, but its cheaper than Manhattan. Rent is out of control in New York. But I like this area; theres a SoulCycle around the corner and although there arent a lot of places to eat, a juice shop just opened and theres a French bakery coming, she said.

Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photograph: Alamy

She didnt mention the cheap takeout joints lining the street or the utilitarian Panera Bread on the corner, where Edgardo Diaz, 21, is paid $10.50 an hour to serve up soup and sandwiches. He was working to support his studies and pay the interest on the $12,000 of student debt he already owes.

Trying to live in Brooklyn would be a dream, he said. I most definitely cant afford to pay the prices around here. He lives in the south Bronx with his family and to leave home he would have to get several roommates, he said.

But even there they are starting to turn apartment buildings into condos and its going to come to the point where people cant afford it and have to move away, he said.

Diaz pointed out that city plans to increase affordable housing, such as in the Bronx or Brooklyn, can still threaten incumbents, even in places as gritty as East New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio is currently focusing efforts.

They talk about affordable housing but its often [only affordable] for households on about $40,000, whereas in my area and places like East New York a typical family income can be more like $20,000 to $30,000, he said.

Diaz wants a career in fashion marketing but does not know if he will be able to stay in the city to pursue it. Did he think he could ever get on the home ownership ladder in New York?

What? Oh boy, I doubt it. The 10% down payment by itself seems completely out of reach, he said.

A New York Times/Siena College poll in November found that 49% of New York residents said they were living comfortably or doing all right, but 51% said they were only just getting by or were having difficulty.

And an NYU report from 2014 found that 54% of renters in New York are rent-burdened, meaning their rent takes up more than 30% of their gross income.

That is dramatically up from 2000, when 43% of New Yorkers were rent-burdened, compared with 40% in 1980, according to the NYU report.

Politicians can make promises but its talk and the way the price of a roof over your head and the food on your table is skyrocketing in this city is crazy, said Jimmy McMillan, founder of the fringe political party The Rent Is Too Damn High.

He has tried unsuccessfully for various elected offices in New York since 2005 and dabbled with the idea of running for president in 2016 but has now set his sights on challenging De Blasio in 2017.

New York is increasingly for the wealthy and thats just scary. But its not like I havent told everyone over and over, he said.

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