In advancing his signature proposal to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, New York mayor Bill de Blasio has offered a specific, little noticed, justification: too many New Yorkers, says the mayor’s Housing New York plan, pay too high a percentage of their income in rent. New York, the plan asserts, faces a “crisis of affordability” that takes a specific form. It asserts that drastic action is required because more than 600,000 households—approximately 32 percent of the city’s renter households—pay over 50 percent of their income in rent and should be considered “severely rent-burdened.”
This paper finds good reasons to question Housing New York’s measurement of the city’s affordable housing problem, as well as the policy proposals that it offers to fix it. By roughly a factor of two, Housing New York overestimates the extent of those facing severe rent burdens. Meanwhile, its key proposal—based on using zoning requirements to increase the number of permanently affordable housing units—is unlikely to reduce the overall number of severely rent-burdened households.
Stated differently: there are likely only half as many severely burdened New York renters as the figure cited by Housing New York; that number, moreover, is likely to stay that high even if Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan is implemented. At the same time, although the number of severely rent-burdened households may remain at a static level, many individual households are likely to see their rent burden mitigated, even if the Housing New York plan is not fully implemented—and more could be better assisted through other means.