So you want to live in New York City.
The stereotypical “affluent young college graduate from Ohio coming to make his way in the big city”—that easily mocked demographic that can be ignored and dismissed out of hand as spoiled, or part of the problem—is only a small sliver of New York City residents. Most of the millions of New York City residents are working class people. Their presence is what makes New York City exist and function. They need somewhere to live.
The conventional standard for “affordable housing” is housing that costs 30% or less of a person’s income. Here is the latest projection from a Streeteasy data scientist on how much it costs to live in New York City: “the typical New York household is forecast to spend 65.4 percent of its total annual income to afford median rent in 2016, up from 58.7 percent in 2015.”
This is what an affordable housing crisis looks like. The average New York City household faces housing costs that are two-thirds of their income. If you expect to pay for heat and electricity and hot water and food and clothing and transportation and child care and other costs of being a functional human in this city, it is not sustainable to pay two-thirds of your income on rent. Something has to give.
“Leave New York City if you can’t afford it!” cry the free market fundamentalists. Fine. Let’s send the entire working class away from New York City. Then let’s shut down all of the stores and restaurants and warehouses and services that are staffed by the working class. The rich can kill their own meat now.
New York City has no choice but to find a way to make housing more affordable. The Deblasio administration has a plan for this, which aims to create or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units in the next decade, in part by giving developers favorable zoning in exchange for requiring them to make a portion of their units affordable. That is a lot of units—but not nearly enough. And even so, the plan is disliked by people on all sides of the issue. Developers grumble about its restrictions. Current homeowners grumble about what it will do to their neighborhoods. Advocates for the poor grumble that it does not go far enough to create housing that poor people can afford. All of them, to some extent, have a point. Creating affordable housing in city as in-demand as New York is impossible to do without making everyone mad. And it may be that it is just impossible to do enough of it no matter what.
One solution would be to simply throw off restrictions and allow developers to build to their heart’s content, until the demand for apartments is satiated. But that would destroy the character of neighborhoods and probably not solve the affordable housing issue anyhow, since developers will naturally cater to the highest-profit sector of the market if at all possible. And even though greater density would eventually push down housing prices, it would not push them down enough to really make New York City affordable for low income people.
As long as New York City’s population keeps going up, it is hard to imagine that our affordable housing issue will ever be “solved.” But it can at least be mitigated. Higher density and greater supply will (should?) bring down housing prices. Investing (much more) in public housing should help to address the housing needs of the poorest. The middle class will keep getting pushed farther and farther out from the center of the city... but perhaps some sort of housing tax credit could make rent more affordable here so that we do not become fully economically segregated. This is a problem hard enough that we should keep our minds open to just about anything. Micro-apartments? Communes? Tent cities? Churches turned into homeless shelters? Whatever works, man. The issue is too pressing for us to be precious about.
Ultimately, affordable housing will cost a great deal of money. On that point, New York City has one thing going for it: it is full of rich people, and they will pay a premium to be here. So make them. Not even the very rich want to wake up one day and find that everyone here is like them.
They could move to SAN FRANCISCO if they wanted that BULLSHIT.