The Difference Between Affordable Housing Programs and Affordable Housing

by Reihan Salam

Though New York city’s government devoted substantial sums to build 45,000 new income-targeted apartments through its New Housing Marketplace Plan and to preserve another 100,000 existing units affordable to low-income households, Laura Kusisto of the Wall Street Journal, drawing on a new report from the Community Service Society, finds that rising rents proved a far more powerful force:

The study defined a “low-income” New Yorker as at or below 200% of the federal poverty threshold, a demographic that makes up about 40% of the city, according to Mr. Waters. A family of three would make about $37,000 at that income level and would be able to afford a monthly rent of slightly more than $900.

For New Yorkers at those income levels, the city lost more than 385,000 units of housing from 2002 through 2011; about half of the units were rent-regulated, based on the group’s analysis of data from the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey.

Affordable-housing advocates point to a couple of factors: One is the ability of landlords to raise rents after renovating rent-regulated apartments, eventually allowing them to convert those apartments to market-rate. Another is rapidly increasing rents in gentrifying areas, such as Harlem and the Corona neighborhood of Queens.

The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, is committed to redoubling efforts to build new income-targeted apartments. But the only reliable way to make housing in New York city more affordable is to ease the land-use regulations that limit new construction, including high-end construction in established neighborhoods, as high-end construction will tend to absorb high-earners who might otherwise gentrify marginal neighborhoods, thus driving rent increases, as Stephen Smith of The Next City has explained.

Elsewhere, Smith identifies a number of buildings built in Houston, which has perhaps the most lightly-regulated real estate development market in the country. One consequence of Houston’s (relatively) laissez-faire approach to development is that housing is more affordable than in most other cities of comparable size.

Leon Neyfakh of The Boston Globe recently observed that a growing number of left-of-center analysts are embracing the idea that allowing for more real estate development and more density in high-productivity cities might be one of the most effective ways to promote economic opportunity, and one hopes that the trend will continue — and that conservatives will also recognize how exclusionary zoning makes it harder for poor people to find remunerative employment.