This summer, New York City’s rental market hit a shocking milestone: The average rent in Manhattan passed $5,000. Rents have skyrocketed since 2021, far surpassing the largely flat median costs in the years that led up to the pandemic, according to StreetEasy.
Spiking rents, alongside other trends in the city, have increased competition and the need for apartments that are deemed “affordable,” of which there are about 500,000, (including public housing units) according to estimates by the Community Service Society of New York. Rising homelessness, changes to programs meant to incentivize the construction of affordable units and a worsening economic forecast for the city are making the creation of enough new affordable apartments both more important and less of a sure thing.
The city has made some strides in recent years in supporting the construction of more affordable units, including housing for the city’s poorest families. Yet those units face the most intense competition in the lottery that determines affordable housing placements, and staffing shortages are slowing the work of city agencies that help move new affordable housing developments through the city approval process.
Experts say that the city, state and federal government all have to play a role in boosting the creation and upholding the preservation of affordable apartments. To see radical changes in the cost of housing in New York City, they say, elected officials and government agencies need to consider every available option.
“The city is scratching the surface and maybe then some,” said Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School. “But it’s nowhere near enough.”
Here’s your guide to affordable housing in New York City.
What is affordable housing?
The term “affordable” is as fraught as the perpetual struggle to find enough housing for the Big Apple’s residents. It broadly refers to units that were built with some form of government subsidy, and which are limited to households making below certain income thresholds. The city’s public housing is often considered “affordable,” since it receives federal subsidies.
Yet just because a unit is deemed “affordable” doesn’t mean that it will be so for all families.
There are a range of city, state and federal programs that support affordable housing, and each is targeted toward providing units that are affordable to a certain percentage of the so-called area median income, or AMI. Some city-funded subsidies may create apartments for households making a low percentage of the AMI, such as about $40,000 for a family of four.
Yet some of the most popular incentives for developers creating affordable units, such as a state program called 421-a, allow for units affordable for people making up to 130% of the AMI — that’s $173,000 for a family of four. (The state legislature let 421-a expire earlier this year, and did not create a replacement for the program.)
Part of the issue, housing experts say, is that the AMI, a metric determined by the federal housing department, includes two New York counties — Westchester and Rockland — where incomes are on average higher than in the five boroughs. The AMI is further inflated, according to Sam Stein, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society, to account for high construction costs in the city.
“So that sets us off at a base level where our area median income is very high compared to most New Yorkers, and especially New Yorkers that are in a housing crisis,” Stein said.
The effect, he said, is that even programs that are meant to create apartments for households making a low percentage of the AMI remain unaffordable to the city’s poorest households, driving demand for unregulated units such as basement homes.
How does affordable housing get built?
Both private developers and nonprofit groups build affordable housing, often with varying levels of financial support or tax incentives from government agencies. The city and state have also tried other methods to encourage affordable housing construction, such as a 2021 law that allows developers to turn hotels into inexpensive apartments. (Which, so far, has not yielded a single new unit, according to POLITICO.)
In New York City, City Council members traditionally have the power to make or break major developments in their districts, and members often use their influence to shape the amount of affordable housing in a new project — either up or down.
High-density areas often see their representatives push for more affordable units: In Astoria, Queens, Councilwoman Julie Won has pushed firmly behind a 2,800-unit project to make half the units affordable. In late September, the developers doubled their proposed affordable units to 40% of the total.
Elsewhere, areas with lots of single-family homes often try to prevent new affordable housing construction. Councilwoman Marjorie Velazquez, who represents part of the north Bronx, had opposed a rezoning plan that would immediately lead to construction on hundreds of affordable units — even as Mayor Eric Adams has said the area needs the added housing. Last week, Velazquez gave her support for the rezoning, allowing it to move toward approval. (A representative for Velazquez declined an interview request.)
Indeed, while the city added more than 67,000 new affordable units between 2014 and 2021, some districts saw only a few dozen constructed while others saw thousands.
Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr.’s South Bronx district has seen the most newly constructed or financed affordable units in the city, at more than 8,500 apartments since 2014, according to the New York Housing Conference.
“Some of my colleagues have to do better,” Salamanca said in an interview. “Some of this is NIMBYism — ‘not in my backyard,’ or, ‘we don’t have the infrastructure for it.’ That’s how you build the infrastructure. You bring in more density, more housing.”
What are the city’s affordable housing needs, and are we meeting them?
Earlier this year, a report from the Real Estate Board of New York estimated the city's total housing need, including market-rate, at 560,000 new units by 2030, though the city had only 14% of that number of apartments in development.The report suggested that “a substantial amount of the housing will need to be affordable to those earning less than the Area Median Income.”
In a hearing earlier this year, the city’s housing commissioner, Aldofo Carrión Jr., said that the city should be building between 20,000 and 30,000 affordable units per year; this year, he said, the total new constructed units will likely be 16,000.
Yet Adams’ housing plan, released this spring, does not include metrics for constructing or preserving affordable apartments — something he suggested was a feature, not a bug, of the plan. The city should not be “throwing out numbers,” he said in announcing the plan.
“As many people as possible,” Adams said in response to a reporter’s question about the plan’s goals for housing. “I’m not playing these numbers. Everybody needs to find housing.”
The lack of numeric goals in Adams’ plan has left some policy experts concerned about his administration’s commitment to building new affordable units.
“The rents are unaffordable, the affordable housing we have is troubled, and I would say we don't have a real vision for another way out that has the political weight behind it to work,” Stein said.
How should the city approach building more affordable housing?
There are a range of policy changes that elected officials, policy experts and housing advocates are calling for in order to speed up construction of new affordable units, make those units affordable to the poorest New Yorkers and prevent the loss of existing affordable units.
Salamanca, who is the chair of the council’s land use committee, said that he wants to see the city’s housing department move new affordable developments through its approval process more quickly. He said that he’s had empty lots change ownership multiple times awaiting city approval; buyers of those lots are not legally obligated to abide by agreements made between the city and the original developers to construct a certain number of affordable units.
In a statement, Jeremy House, a spokesperson for the city’s housing department, said that the agency’s “mission is to build the most affordable housing possible as quickly as possible.”
“We finance tens of thousands of affordable homes in New York City’s tough development environment while being accountable to a range of local and federal regulations and community stakeholders,” House said. “We appreciate the Council Member’s concern and will continue to collaborate with his office to bring more affordable housing to New Yorkers.”
Stein would like to see the state and city build more units themselves, putting pressure on private developers to lower their rents as the city increases the housing stock — instead of providing city funding or tax breaks for developments that may not stay affordable forever.
“Always relying on private actors to produce affordable housing is probably going to be an underwhelming proposition every time,” he said.
Open New York, a housing advocacy group, wants to see changes to state and city law that would eliminate parking requirements for new buildings and allow for legalization of basement units, of which the city has estimated there are 50,000 in the five boroughs.
The group is also pushing for rezonings of neighborhoods that have historically avoided influxes of new construction, such as the West Village and Park Slope. The group was a proponent for the rezoning of the Soho and NoHo neighborhoods in Manhattan, which is expected to add 3,000 new apartments to the area, a third of them deemed “affordable.”
“As an organization, we believe that we need to start in those wealthy neighborhoods, transit rich neighborhoods, to start solving this crisis in an equitable way,” said Logan Phares, the group’s political director.