David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

As the state legislature considers taking action next month on a slew of bills — nine in all — that will determine the next generation of housing policy in New York, it’s a good time to look at the issue of housing affordability across the state and the implications for low-income tenants.

Let’s begin with the perception that housing affordability is an issue unique to big cities like New York. It’s not. Sure, issues such as gentrification and the proliferation of luxury housing get more attention here. That’s because of what they mean for efforts to preserve this city as place where diverse people with a mix of incomes can live and thrive.

But the truth is housing affordability is just as big a problem in cities, counties and villages around the state as it is in New York City.

Tenants in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Troy are experiencing their own housing crisis fueled by rising rent burdens and chronic shortages of affordable housing. High rents are making them vulnerable to exploitative landlords offering slum conditions and also to homelessness when rents exceed their ability to pay, or when landlords arbitrarily raise rents, or simply evict them. In fact, housing affordability is arguably more problematic an issue outside of New York City where landlords have very few, if any, restrictions on evicting tenants.

With rent regulations that affect more than a million households in New York City, and another 38,000 in Nassau, Westchester, and Rockland counties, set to expire on June 15 this is a pivotal time for the future of the rental housing market. Advocates across the state are pressing for reforms that would address the housing crisis, including closing loopholes in rent laws that exacerbate housing insecurity among low-income New Yorkers and extending reasonable protections to tenants living outside of New York City and its suburbs. But they are up against deep-pocketed real estate interests with a stake in maintaining the power imbalance that exists between landlords and tenants.

Half of All Tenants Are “Rent-Burdened”

In a new report by my organization the Community Service Society (CSS), “Rental Housing Affordability in Urban New York: A Statewide Crisis,” housing expert Tom Waters examined several dimensions of the housing crisis facing low-income tenants in the state. Based on an analysis of U.S. Census data, the report found that tenants make up 68 percent of all households in the densest parts of New York City and 59 percent of all households in the densest parts of upstate New York and Suffolk County. Overall, renters make up a significant part of New York State, concentrated in more urban areas but facing unaffordable rents in urban, suburban and some rural areas as well.

Almost half of all tenants in New York State are “rent-burdened,” meaning they pay a substantial portion of their income (over 30 percent) as rent. A rental apartment or house is considered affordable to a household if the rent is less than 30 percent of a household’s total income.

But you’d be very hard pressed to find many places in the state where the rent burden rate is less than 30 percent. Rates above 45 percent – comparable to Manhattan and Brooklyn – are widespread in urban and suburban areas of New York. In fact, rates above 60 percent — comparable to the Bronx — can be found in Rochester, cities in the Hudson Valley and the Southern Tier, and in non-municipal Greene and Suffolk counties, among other places. Clear evidence that unaffordable rents are not merely a New York City issue.

The CSS report proposes that the state address the current housing crisis with three policy solutions:

First, the state should create “home stability support,” a new rental assistance program aimed at families receiving public assistance or at risk of homelessness and with legislation designed to moderate rent increases and protect unregulated tenants from unjust evictions.

Second, amend the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA), a powerful tool that currently protects about a million renter households in New York State. By amending the ETPA to allow municipalities beyond New York City and its immediate suburban counties to opt into rent stabilization (if their rental vacancy rates are below five percent), lawmakers can leverage the law to expand this protection to up to 46,500 more households statewide. In Buffalo, for example, 8,400 apartments could be eligible for rent stabilization if the ETPA is expanded, and 4,500 could be eligible in Albany.

Third, protect tenants throughout the state from arbitrary eviction by passing a “good cause eviction” law. The law would prohibit evictions not justified by nonpayment of rent, damage to the apartment, creating a nuisance or similar reasons. CSS estimates that such legislation would provide protections to more than 1.6 million households who are currently subject to arbitrary eviction. In Rochester, 48,600 houses or apartments would be covered by good cause eviction protections, and 28,900 would be covered in Syracuse.

These measures won’t guarantee affordability. But they are sound policies that respond to the current housing crisis. Local Assembly and State Senate members should support them all.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.