Tackling New York City’s Housing Crisis is a ‘Shared Responsibility’

February 13th 2024 | Ben Hitchcock, Shannon Flores, Elizabeth (Nikki) Miller

Top New York City officials urged state leaders in Albany to provide the necessary funding and legislative support to build additional housing as the city contends with its worst housing crunch in over 50 years

"We are facing a dire housing shortage,” said Adrienne Adams, City Council Speaker at the NYU Furman Center’s Policy Breakfast event Feb. 7.  “We need our state partners to be involved. We need their buy-in—literally, their buy-in—to what we’re doing.” 

The plea from decision-makers comes as New York City’s vacancy rate has dropped to 1.4 percent—the lowest mark since 1986, according to the latest NYC Housing and Vacancy Survey released last Thursday. The rate fell from 4.54 percent over a two-year period, yet another sign that supply has failed to keep up with the demands of the city’s housing needs.

For now, lawmakers like Adams are hopeful that two new packages of laws—the City Council’s Fair Housing Framework and Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed City of Yes for Housing Opportunity plan—will work in tandem to fairly and equitably produce new housing across the city and ensure every single neighborhood contributes to solving the city’s acute housing crisis.

The Framework aims to enshire fair housing into law to ensure that every New Yorker has equal and fair housing. It also creates a plan for growth guided by equity to ensure all communities fairly contribute to the city’s housing needs and housing that built is accessible to all.

"The way these two requirements will play out is that they work very well hand in hand,” Leila Bozorg, Mayor Adams’ newly appointed Executive Director for Housing, said at the event. “Fair housing requires a big tent.” 

"The federal government has put a stake in the ground by continuing to call for these fair housing plans across the country,” she added. “The City Council has put a stake in the ground that is now codified locally and is requiring setting actual targets to meet various types of housing needs across the city. And frankly, we’re going to continue to make calls for Albany to play their part in this effort.” 

A Plan for More Housing 

Historically, housing production has not been evenly distributed across the city’s neighborhoods. The city’s lowest-density community districts take up 44.7 percent of the total land across the five boroughs but contain just 28.4 percent of the city’s population, the Furman Center found in its 2022 State of City report. In some of these low-density neighborhoods, no new affordable housing has been permitted since 2015. 

The Framework, which was signed by the mayor in December, will require the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Department of City Planning to publish a “Fair Housing Plan” every five years, starting in 2025. 

Within a year of submitting the plan, the city agencies must publish three additional reports: a long-term housing needs assessment, housing production goals, and a strategic equity framework that includes strategies to prevent displacement and increase neighborhood equity investments in underserved areas.

Separately, the mayor’s proposal includes rezoning to allow more apartments near transit hubs, facilitating office-to-housing conversions, and removing parking mandates for new construction. 

Housing Units Completed or Permitted (2015-2023) 

This map represents the housing units completed or permitted since 2015 (for affordable units, those <=80% AMI), normalized by the total housing units in the Community District in 2015. Sources: NYC Department of City Planning's Housing Database (version 23Q2), NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development's Affordable Housing Production by Building and Project (2023), NYC Department of Finance's Real Property Assessments Data (2015), NYU Furman Center.

Barriers to Development 

Both the Fair Housing Framework and the City of Yes will rely on private developers to finance and construct the new housing. 

Panelist Bryan Kelly, president of the real estate development firm Gotham Organization, said the new legislation will help developers make the case to neighborhoods that new housing is necessary. 

"It establishes a non-biased objective framework, so when Gotham or any other peer of ours goes into a community and says, ‘We would like to develop in your district,’ there’s talking points,” Kelly said. “‘You have not produced affordable housing, you need affordable housing, we’re proposing something that addresses fair housing, we’re targeting extremely low-income units because you’ve created moderate-income units.’ It takes away discussion and drama, and it focuses and narrows.”

Panelist Vishaan Chakrabarti, Founder and Creative Director of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, agreed, adding it is vital to reform the permitting process as well so that units can be constructed more rapidly.  

Chakrabarti pointed to a widely supported affordable project in East New York that took six years to get off the ground due to regulatory burdens. Kelly also said insurance for construction projects in New York City is four times as expensive as it is in comparable cities like Philadelphia, another factor that makes development difficult.

"We should all be impatient if there’s a dire housing shortage,” said Chakrabarti. “It’s just too slow. We gotta fix this.” 

Watch a Recording of Our Feb. 7 Policy Breakfast 

‘A Shared Responsibility’ 

Housing advocates hope that the new plans’ strategy of spreading out the housing across the city can mitigate some of the resistance to new construction often expressed by certain neighborhoods.

"We have to normalize a shared responsibility of addressing the housing crisis across all neighborhoods and establish clear expectations and targets that are localized and transparent to all of us,” said Speaker Adams during the panel. “We’re all in this together.”

She echoed other panelists by stressing the importance of engaging community members, including her own constituents in Southeast Queens,  many of whom live in low-density neighborhoods and want to maintain their rose gardens, yards, and trees.

"As a council member, I have made myself the example,” said Adams. “I am putting affordable housing in my own neighborhood to start with, on a low scale, and from there we get people accustomed to seeing it.  It is not the wizard behind the curtain. It's something very tangible. It's pretty, it looks nice, and it fits in with the motif of the neighborhood.”

Chakrabarti said that New York City has the capacity to add significant amounts of new housing without transforming the way the city feels. In an interactive project he did with the New York Times, he showed how 500,000 new homes could be built across vacant lots, single-story retail buildings, parking lots, and office buildings across the city. 

"We actually got a tremendously positive response from a lot of people, even people who I think normally wouldn’t respond to having more housing in their neighborhoods,” Chakrabarti said. “This question of design and scale really matters to people.”

While New Yorkers have often resisted new housing in their neighborhoods fearing change, Bozorg said the city’s proposals are not intended to reshape beloved neighborhoods. 

"The proposals for low-density areas are not designed to dramatically change the city or stress infrastructure,” Bozorg emphasized, “but to allow us to build more homes for more people. They will not have the types of impacts people are fearing in terms of changing their neighborhood character.”

‘A Critical First Step’

Moving forward, enforcing the Fair Housing Framework and the City of Yes will be a key challenge. 

"It’s really important to put a stake in the ground, and say these targets are necessary, and to start measuring against that. That's a critical first step. We've never done that as a city,” Bozorg said. “And then we have to provide the tools and resources to make that possible. We have to provide incentives to make it possible.” 

Speaker Adams also emphasized the importance of improving the city’s community engagement practices to ensure these policies are effective. 

"The same rhetoric has been repeated over and over to our communities,” she said. “So we're going to have to change our conversation and meet our communities where they are, instead of bringing this one-size-fits-all picture to every single neighborhood.”

Without New York City residents on board, she added, these legislative packages will not have their intended effect.

"The City of Yes is going to take us to some places that we've never been before, but we have to be up to meeting that challenge,” she said. “Our legislation in the Fair Housing Framework pretty much sets the ground rules for that to happen. The challenge is going to be opening everybody's minds up, to be receptive to that new reality.”

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